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Mumia Abu-Jamal is a 66-year-old former journalist incarcerated in a Pennsylvania state prison for the shooting death of Officer Daniel Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981.
When Abu-Jamal worked as a radio reporter in the 1970s and early 1980s, he covered MOVE and the organization’s dramatic clashes with police, plus other issues of race and racism, systemic oppression, and social and political topics for outlets including WHYY and WDAS.
By the time he was charged with Faulkner’s murder, he was considered a MOVE sympathizer. Reports from the time took special note of his loc’d hairstyle, which at the time wasn’t yet widely accepted.
To the mothers of the 1985 MOVE bombing victims, whose rediscovered remains prompted multiple investigations, there’s only one way Philadelphia can make amends: grant Abu-Jamal freedom.
“If they want to do anything to show people that they are sincere about resolving this situation with MOVE and the city, let Mumia out,” said Janine Africa during an April 2021 press conference. “He’s still alive.”
In the years before Faulkner’s death, Abu-Jamal believed police were mistreating him because of his reporting.
Since the officer’s death and Abu-Jamal’s conviction, he and his supporters have echoed and amplified the sentiment that Abu-Jamal was unfairly targeted by law enforcement. They’ve been raising the decibels to shout that police bias, and not guilt, is why Abu-Jamal is behind bars for Faulkner’s murder, a murder he and his supporters maintain he did not commit.
Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial, subsequent conviction and long-term imprisonment has galvanized decades of international advocacy in his favor.
For as long as he’s been locked up, Abu-Jamal and his legal team have filed appeals and reviews on the grounds of racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct and more. With hundreds of pages of legal documents, a litany of commentaries and unrelenting campaign for his freedom, the ecosystem around Mumia Abu-Jamal is complex.
These days, the entry points of that ecosystem are easy to miss. Here are the basics.
The night of the shooting
Even 40 years later, few details regarding the night of December 9, 1981 have been universally agreed upon. What is known includes:
- Officer Faulkner, 25, pulled over Abu-Jamal’s younger brother William Cook, also 25, that night around 3:50 a.m.
- The incident occurred in Center City around the 1200 block of Locust Street
- Faulkner was shot and killed
- Abu-Jamal, then 27, was also shot one time in the chest
At the time, police first said they didn’t know why Cook was pulled over. They later said it was because he was driving down the wrong side of the road.
Within an hour of the shooting, police identified Abu-Jamal as the prime suspect based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, according to Inquirer reports from the time. However, The Philadelphia Tribune, for which Abu-Jamal freelanced, reported eyewitness testimonies were conflicting and contradictory.
Police said Cook assaulted Faulkner and a struggle ensued before the shooting. In contrast, Cook attorney Daniel Paul Alva said Faulkner assaulted Cook, hitting his client in the back of the head and causing traces of blood to congeal behind his ears.
Abu-Jamal, his supporters, and at least one eyewitness said arresting officers also “intensely” assaulted him. One unidentified eyewitness told Tribune reporters police “rammed [Abu-Jamal’s] head into a pole and shoved him into the wagon.” Police at the time said they accidentally hit Abu-Jamal’s head on a pole.
Abu-Jamal was reportedly bruised and looked beaten when he was seen receiving treatment for the gunshot wound at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital later that morning.
Who was Officer Daniel Faulkner?
Daniel Faulkner was a five-year member of the Philadelphia police force. He was buried just days after his murder at St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church in Southwest Philadelphia.
Faulkner’s loved ones described the young policeman as a “model officer,” the Tribune reported, who was praised for his professional performance. The 25-year-old was enrolled in college with dreams of going to law school to become a prosecutor.
The officer had been transferred two years earlier to the 6th Police District in Center City from the former 23rd District, which was headquartered at 17th and Montgomery in North Philadelphia.
Some media from 1981 reported that Faulkner was transferred after being disciplined for aggressiveness. A police spokesperson at the time could not confirm why Faulkner was transferred, and said records of that nature were not kept during the Rizzo era, when the transfer occurred.
Who is Mumia Abu-Jamal?
Prior to his arrest, Abu-Jamal, who is still alive and is 66 years old today, was rising to prominence as a journalist. He was the outgoing president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, and had been voted by Philadelphia Magazine as one of the city’s top “personalities to watch.”
He started working for WHYY in 1979, but was asked to resign less than two years later, over what the station said was “a dispute over the objective reporting of the news,” purportedly caused by what some saw as biased coverage of the MOVE organization.
Colleagues told the Inquirer that job loss affected Abu-Jamal financially. He went on the freelance for WDAS, but was not hired full time. He also worked as a cab driver.
Years prior to his arrest, Abu-Jamal reportedly expressed feeling targeted by police during the 1979-1980 trial over the shooting death of Officer James Ramp. The trial resulted in the imprisonment of the “MOVE 9” — some of whom later lost their children in the 1985 bombing.
A heated trial stained by assertions of bias
Abu-Jamal opted to represent himself during his 1982 trial on charges that he murdered Officer Faulkner. On the third day of jury selection, Judge Albert F. Sabo revoked that opportunity.
Over the subsequent decades, many supporters and observers have said prosecutors and Judge Sabo exercised racial bias throughout the trial.
Those who cite bias include Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington — a former investigative reporter who closely covered the case — and MOVE mother Pam Africa, who has been vocal about what she sees as rampant injustice during Abu-Jamal’s trial.
One prominent example they point to: prosecutors used 11 of 15 allowable peremptory challenges (challenges that don’t require explanation) to remove Black jurors from the case. Then the three Black members of the jury were reduced to two when Sabo removed one of his own. This left Abu-Jamal with a jury composed of mostly white people, in a city that’s half Black.
After a month of legal arguments, Abu-Jamal was convicted in July, 1982 of Faulkner’s murder and sentenced to death in May 1983.
Once on death row, later granted life
Former Pa. Governor Tom Ridge signed the first death warrant for Abu-Jamal. It was on hold while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed, and later denied, a post-conviction review brought by the defendant.
In 1999, Ridge signed another death warrant that was once again stayed as Abu-Jamal pursued his legal review and appeal options.
In 2001, Judge William H. Yohn Jr. voided Abu-Jamal’s death sentence because of faulty jury instructions. And in 2011, then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams dropped the request for the death penalty entirely.
Abu-Jamal is currently living at SCI-Mahanoy in Schuylkill County, where he has suffered a litany of health problems that supporters say comes from intentional institutional neglect.
What happened when Krasner became DA?
Shortly after Larry Krasner was elected district attorney of Philadelphia, in December 2018, he and his staff found six boxes of documents related to the Abu-Jamal case that had not previously been turned over to the defendant’s legal team.
Weeks before, a Philadelphia judge had decided to reinstate Abu-Jamal’s right to appeal.
The box found by Krasner’s team was only the most recent of several discoveries over the years. In 2007, for example, a German linguist named Michael Schiffmann found previously unreleased crime scene photos that disputed the earliest witness accounts of what happened in the 1981 shooting.
Some advocates say Krasner’s decision to continue pursuing the case threatens the DA’s reputation as a progressive reformer.