Think Twice Before You Wear Your “Free Mumia” T-shirt

I was sitting in the student union at the University of Chicago last week when a student came by putting “Free Mumia” leaflets on the tables.

I have never paid much attention to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. On the one hand, I know enough about police, the criminal justice system, and racism to believe that an innocent black man could be framed. On the other hand, it makes me nervous when people like Mike Farrell, Oliver Stone, Sting, and Jacques Derrida suddenly become legal experts and publicly proclaim the innocence of someone on death row.

Whatever else you might think of Abu-Jamal, one has to congratulate him on an incredibly effective media campaign over the last 15 years.

It started in 1991 when Yale Law Journal published an article by Abu-Jamal entitled “Teetering on the Brink Between Life and Death” and was fueled by his book Live From Death Row. (I’m pretty sure I own that book; I’m more sure that I never read very far into it.) Somehow, Abu-Jamal and his supporters have managed to keep Hollywood celebrities and cohort after cohort of college students convinced of his innocence and willing to work on his behalf.

He has been somewhat less successful in the court room.

His death sentence has been turned over on a technicality, but I believe he still faces life in prison without parole. Even while on death row he was pretty safe: there are more than 200 people currently sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, and there have been three executions in that state in the last forty years. As in most states, death row in Pennsylvania is a lot safer than the streets if you are a criminal.

To anyone interested in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, I highly recommend a book entitled, Murdered by Mumia written by Maureen Faulkner and Michael Smerconish. Maureen Faulkner is the widow of Danny Faulkner, the police officer who Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. Michael Smerconish is an outspoken (but extremely intelligent) writer and radio host in Philadelphia.

Having just finished the book in a single sitting, I can’t say I feel too sympathetic to Abu-Jamal. It’s easy to be swayed when you only hear one side of the story, but I have to say that the facts (at least as presented here) don’t look so good for him.

If you are a college student, or a Hollywood celebrity, thinking about publicly proclaiming Abu-Jamal’s innocence, I strongly recommend that you read this book first. One of my favorite passages from the book will give you a little extra incentive. In this (slightly condensed) excerpt, Maureen Faulkner describes a chance encounter with a college student 15 years and 3,000 miles away from where her husband died:

As I pumped gas, a young man, a white kid who looked college age, pulled up behind me. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” and it immediately caught my eye.

I walked up and asked him where he got the T-shirt. He said he was a student at U.C.L.A. and they had recently held a rally for Abu-Jamal. I asked him if he knew anything about the case in which Abu-Jamal was involved.

He said, “Well, I know that this guy was a Black Panther who was railroaded. Someone else shot a police officer and he was framed for it.” I cringed when he went on with the usual recitation of misinformation being spun by the Abu-Jamal defenders: a peaceful black activist, a social dissident, hostile white police force, F.B.I. surveillance, conned eyewitness accounts, phony ballistics, etc.

I heard him out and offered to provide him with the actual facts of the case. He politely declined my offer. Before I left, I suggested that when he wore a political statement on his chest he would be well served if he knew his facts, because you never know when you might run into the widow of the officer. I left him in stunned silence.


Will

Caleb, Ben, et al

I have talked to dozens of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many have offered detailed accounts of the horrors they suffered and of the family members who died, often right in front of their eyes.

Would you disregard their testimony because they were "too emotionally involved" in the incidents?

I suppose you are also skeptical of Jewish and Gypsy claims that millions were murdered in WWII, after all the Nazis said they had no idea what was going on -- and why would find upstanding people like Hitler, Saloth Sar and Abu-Jamal lie?

Caleb

I'm not familiar with the case one way or the other but you say how easy it is to be swayed by only knowing one side of an issue but admit to only having read one side of the same issue. Seems like this article is more about contrarianism than balance.

Wilding

"I, ARNOLD R. BEVERLY, state that the following facts are true and correct:

I was present when police officer Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981 near the corner of Locust and 13th Streets. I have personal knowledge that Mumia Abu-Jamal did not shoot police officer Faulkner.

I was hired, along with another guy, and paid to shoot and kill Faulkner. I had heard that Faulkner was a problem for the mob and corrupt policemen because he interfered with the graft and payoffs made to allow illegal activity including prostitution, gambling, drugs without prosecution in the center city area.

Faulkner was shot in the back and then in the face before Jamal came on the scene. Jamal had nothing to do with the shooting.

Before the shooting, I was shown a picture of Faulkner and told that Faulkner was supposed to check something at Johnny D's (at 13th and Locust) sometime in the early morning hours of December 9.

Two of us were hired for the shooting so that either of us could take the opportunity to make the hit, get the job done, and leave. The other guy gave me a .38 caliber policeman's special and I was also carrying my own .22 caliber revolver.

I waited at the speedline entrance at the north east of corner of Locust and 13th at the parking lot, I was wearing a green (camouflage) army jacket. The other guy waited on the south side of Locust Street east of 13th Street towards Camac Street.

While I was waiting at the speedline entrance for Faulkner to arrive at the location, I saw police officers in the area. Two undercover policemen were standing on the west side of 13th north of Locust. Also a uniformed police officer was sitting in a car in the corner of the parking lot. They were there while the shooting of Faulkner took place. I was not worried about the police being there since I believed that since I was hired by the mob to shoot and kill Faulkner, any police Officers on the scene would be there to help me.

After a while I saw Faulkner get out of a small police car parked behind a VW parked on Locust Street, east of 13th St. Faulkner was alone. He got out of the police car end went up to the VW.

I heard a shot ring out coming from east on Locust Street, Faulkner fell on his knee on the sidewalk next to the VW. I heard another shot and it must have grazed my left shoulder. I felt something hard on my left shoulder. I grabbed at my shoulder and got blood on my hand.

I ran across Locust Street and stood over Faulkner, who had fallen backwards on the sidewalk, I shot Faulkner in the face at close range. Jamal was shot shortly after that by a uniformed police officer who arrived on the scene.

Cop cars came from all directions. Foot patrol also arrived. I saw a white shirt getting out of a car in the middle of the 13th & Locust intersection just as I was going down to the speedline steps.

I left the area underground through the speedline system and by pre-arrangement met a police officer who assisted me when I exited the speedline underground about three blocks away. A car was waiting for me and I left the center city area." - Arnold Beverly

Don't tell us that we don't know the facts. Free Mumia

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Nathaniel

Wait, you warn us not to make conclusions from one side of a story, then you read one side of a story and decide it is correct? I don't know anything about the case but the general overview, but I consider it highly unlikely that a victim's widow in ANY case is going to write a book in which she examines contradictory evidence or questions the motivations or actions of prosecutors or the police (especially when her husband was a police officer).

I have confidence in our jury system when it has access to good information, but I'm also aware that prosecutors and police can get carried away when they are "sure" someone is guilty, particularly in the murder of a police officer. It was certainly much simpler to put a thumb on the scales of justice when minimal forensic evidence was used and generally witness testimony was relied on (despite decades of studies showing that witnesses, even trained police officers, are unreliable).

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Matt

Jim Lennon's right. Philly named US-1 the Officer Daniel Faulkner Memorial Highway, and open shows of support for him and his family are quite common. For instance, the famous Geno's Cheesesteaks has a very large picture of Faulkner posted right next to their "order in English" sign.

Sometimes it's nice when people remember who the actual victim is.

DJH

I'm not sure why Mumia deserves all the attention he's gotten. Almost EVERY criminal in EVERY prison claims he was "framed" by "the Man." Like Levitt, I realize that sometimes people ARE framed, but this does NOT logically mean that EVERYONE who claims to have been framed, actually was. The percentage of "framing-claimants" who actually were framed, is probably very small.

Which means that, odds are, no matter how fervently he makes the claim of having been framed -- and no matter how many famous people defend him -- it's VERY likely that Mumia is guilty as charged and belongs right where he is.

Taking something that "might possibly be" and assuming that it "actually must be," is a very common perceptive error. We need to be doing less of it, not more.

For all the money and effort that Hollywood types have expended on Mumia's appeals, just think how effectively it might have been used, had it been applied to other, less-well-known prisoners, who ARE, in fact, not guilty of what they're accused of.

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JB

Ditto Jim.

If you walk around Philadelphia you will find the vast majority of people are waiting with baited breath for the execution of that cop killer, Mumia Abu Jamal.

Unfortunately, others outside of this area are so craving for a political cause that they jump onto some innuendo and heresay and take up a cause that they know nothing about.

I would love for Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, et al. to sit down in a room and tell Maureen Faulkner to her face that they think that the animal who killed her husband deserves anything better than a lethal injection.

Get the facts:
http://www.danielfaulkner.com/

On December 9, 1981, at approximately 3:55 a.m., Officer Danny Faulkner, a five year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, made a traffic stop at Locust Street near Twelfth Street. The car stopped by Officer Faulkner was being driven by William Cook. After making the stop, Danny called for assistance on his police radio and requested a police wagon to transport a prisoner. Unbeknownst to him, William Cook's brother, Wesley (aka Mumia Abu-Jamal) was across the street. As Danny attempted to handcuff William Cook, Mumia Abu-Jamal ran from across the street and shot the officer in the back. Danny turned and was able to fire one shot that struck Abu-Jamal in the chest; the wounded officer then fell to the pavement. Mumia Abu-Jamal stood over the downed officer and shot him four more times at close range, once directly in the face. Mumia Abu-Jamal was found still at the scene of the shooting by officers who arrived there within seconds.

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teneriff

Smarmy stuff here Levitt - (I'm pretty sure I own that book ...) That's the way David Brooks writes.

Reading the widow's book and not his is skeevy.

Start with the fact that Philadelphia is astonishingly corrupt (Locals had to raise $400,000 walking around money for Obama because he would not pay it).

Mumia needs a new trial - speedy and impartial.

Willis Corto

So we should think twice about supporting this guy because you read a different book? A book by the widow of the cop he is alleged to have murdered?

I don't support Mumia. I just wonder what the legal system would look like if it was based on the books written by widows, radio show hosts, and even the people imprisoned themselves.

Chance

"Very simply, I propose that if DNA, confession, video evidience, or other such overwhelming evidence proves a person is guilty, then they have ONE YEAR (for the sake of their family and final affairs), and they are then executed."

The problem is that too many people have been convicted, sentenced to death, and then proven innocent in the end. Rarely is the evidence as overwhelming as it seems. Confessions can be coerced, DNA only tells you someone was there, not what they did, video is rare and often not clear when it is availible, and study after study has proven that eyewitnesses are highly unreliable in remembering details (I mean big details). And all that's before you even get into issues of race, class, police corruption, crime lab screw ups, biased prosecution, and inadequete defense.

I am not against the death penalty philosophically, but I just think that there are waaaay too many known problems with the justice system to railroad people to the chair or needle.

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Sam

I hope Aarons is never unfairly accused of murder. If he is, I hope that the police aren' sure of it. It would be too bad if they were sure for a year and then became unsure as new evidence came to light. I'm sure that has never happened though...

Ben

I don't necessarily think he's innocent, but I do think that you should take the widow of the officer's opinion with a grain of salt. Families of murder victims always want someone to be responsible. Again, I'm not saying that Mumia is innocent but I'd say this woman is much too emotionally involved in this to really offer a fair and balanced look at what happened.

ryan

as sympathetic as i am to maureen faulkner, i think that, of all the people in the world to get your journalism from, the widow of the slain officer is the second-to-last person i'd go to. the last would be mumia himself. the family of a murder victim needs closure, and prosecuting mumia, who is very likely guilty, gives her that closure.

still, i don't think any person on earth has the right to take someone else's life from them, regardless of the crimes that person perpetrated.

that all being said, i've never been a fan of the "free mumia" movement. i'm from philadelphia and am as familiar with the "facts of the case" as anyone who wasn't there can be. the fact of the matter is, we have to be agnostic about who pulled the trigger to kill officer faulkner. is there a chance it was mumia? of course: he was in a car several feet away. but it's also entirely possible he didn't.

the problem with the free mumia/fry mumia debate is that all the things that get the free mumia crowd excited - he was a black panther, leftist activist, and police had it out for him, etc. - are the very same things that grind the fry mumia crowd's gears (not to mention his muslim-sounding name). if people want serious change to the way we prosecute capital crimes, this is the wrong case to focus on. neither side of this debate is going to change anyone's minds.

that the widow of a gunned-down policeman wants his alleged killer to pay the price is about as surprising that a bunch of kids and s#$t-stirrers want to wear t-shirts to piss off their elders.

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Keith M

We've seen a strikingly similar bandwagon with the Che Guevara t-shirts. I would say about 1 people in 10 who wear them actually know who he is. You would get the same shocked silence when you informed these people that they were wearing the emblem of a mass murderer.

Mike

I would just like to state that I have stayed in Philly for many years and have family there. I have dined with, and chatted with a couple of Philly's finest. I know how much they care about each other and the law-abiding citizens they protect. If "The Man", as many aptly name authority figures in American society, had come across one of their brothers murdered in cold blood then why didn't they just kill Mumia? If he still had the gun or even didn't, what did they have to lose? If everyone believes Mumia was framed, wouldn't it have been easier to just shoot him on the scene and plant a weapon? I guess I'm taking crazy pills, but I think that one black taxi driver wasn't the target of a vast conspiracy by "The Man" to create a media circus and subsequent patronage by an ignorant liberal, mainly white audience. It only saddens me when people curry their facts from one biased source instead of reviewing the facts. After all, not all of us trust the police all of the time, but a conspiracy involving hundreds would lead to eventual exposure by at least ONE individual. I digress..........:P

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Frank

As I read this series of posts, i am appauled! I am probably one of the few people to read the actual case transcripts. Mumia made a mockery of the trial and forced himself to be ejected several times from the courtroom for being outrageous. Eventhough it is his right to not offer a personal defense during trial, his BROTHER was there. He was the one Officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over. So when Faulkner was shot, Mumia and his brother did one of three things.
1) Mumia shot the cop and his brother won't testify against him.
2)The brother shot the cop and Mumia is protecting him.
3)Neither shot the cop, but then why not say so.

Neither testified in open court to say another guy did it. So that leaves us with option 1 or 2. And Mumia was shot at the scene with Officer Faulkner's revolver. And now with his life on the line, why won't he or his brother speak up!!!

In regards to the pictures that were shown recently, what is the context? I see a picture of a cop carrying a gun. Is it his gun? Faulkner's gun? Mumia's gun? Hard to determine from the photo circa 1981. Also, the picture with the hat on the car, whose hat is it? When was the picture taken? It is just data without context.

There has also been comments about Honorable Judge Sabo. This guy had the hardest job in the world. Under constant fanatical protests he came to work daily and presided over a circus court. Mumia constantly focused on disrupting the court and trying to create this fantasy of an unfair trial.

I urge you all to read the transcripts! Get the true facts of the case.

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zhongwen xuesheng

After browsing through many of these lengthy diatribes, I can make little headway in determining the validity of any claim relating to the case. I acn say with unabashed certainty however, that if Aaron S. (4) ever finds himself in the crosshairs of an unsavory legal sitaution, I hope he is represented by Alex (24), who clearly retains such little insight into the judicial process that his client could actually become the first in history to be penalized using the draconian measures Aaron unveils above.

Jeff

Jim's post (#1) is so true. When you've lived in Philly and know the case well, it's an open-and-shut case.

The mistake most people outside of Philly make is that they learn about the case in reverse chronology: Here's a guy on death row, then they hear people have been fighting against his conviction, and only a few RARELY even bother going further to actually research the murder and first trial over 25 years ago. Most don't even know of Wesley "Mumia" Cook's antics during his trials.

People should learn to reserve judgment until they've taken time to research the facts methodically in chronological order, rather than rely on hearsay.

Eileen

To all those that think Mumia isn't guilty and has been "railroaded," stop spouting off about things you don't know and read the trial transcript. When you've finished that homework assignment come back and tell us what you think.

peter

Steve Levitt, this is a real lowpoint of freakonomics. Maybe it would help to blog less often, so that you could actually do some research on all sides of the story.
Today a NYT article states that the US makes up 5% of the world population, but has roughly 25% of the world prison population, a large proportion of which is black or Hispanic. These numbers alone are overwhelming evidence that wrongful convictions due to racism and frame-ups are not rare at all...