In December of 1981, Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was murdered in the course of a 4am traffic stop. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a cab driver who had worked for the Black Panther Party and as a journalist, was subsequently convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In the decades since, Abu-Jamal has become, perhaps, the most famous death row inmate in the world, publishing books, giving commentaries on radio programs, and even speaking at a college graduation. His case has become a flashpoint in the debate over the death penalty, pitting those who say he was framed by a racist system against those who say the only injustice in this case is that someone as clearly guilty as he hasn't been executed yet.
Thomas K. Lowenstein
It's a very difficult case to talk about: If you say you think Mumia's guilty, one side is likely to call you a racist sell-out; if you say he shouldn't be executed, the other side is likely to say you support cop-killing. It is a debate in which, too often, all nuance is lost. A new movie examining the case, The Barrel of a Gun, is due out in Septemberand will very likely re-ignite the debate over the case.
In order to attempt some level of nuance on the case, I reached out Mike Farrell, a well-known actor who has been a supporter of a new trial for Abu-Jamal, to get his thoughts.
THOMAS K. LOWENSTEIN: How did you get involved in Mumia's case?
Mike Farrell: Len Weinglass, who was Mumia’s attorney for some time, asked me to help. As a result, I co-chaired, with Ossie Davis, the Committee To Save Mumia Abu-Jamal for a number of years.
THOMAS K. LOWENSTEIN: If you were the judge deciding his case right now, what would your solution be?
Mike Farrell: It’s always been my view—as I made clear to Len at the time he asked me to get involved—that it’s impossible for me to know if Mumia shot Officer Faulkner, or, if he did, what the circumstances were. That being so, I did not join with those claiming his innocence, nor did I call for him to simply be freed. What is quite clear, though, is that he did not get a fair trial. So if I were in a position to make a determination in the matter today, I’d go a step farther than did Judge Yohn, who threw out the penalty phase (almost ten years ago now), and order an entirely new trial.
THOMAS K. LOWENSTEIN: As President of the Board of DPF (Death Penalty Focus), what is your sense of the politics of working with law enforcement to abolish the death penalty?
Mike Farrell: I think it’s essential that we in the abolition movement be willing to reach out to and work with law enforcement. While there will always be opposition to our efforts from aspects of that quarter, assuming opposition or setting up an adversarial relationship with law enforcement is counterproductive.
The National Black Police Association, for one, has always been open to dialogue and supportive of an honest attempt to seek justice. Chief James Abbott of the West Orange, New Jersey Police Department, was a strong supporter of the death penalty when he took a position on the New Jersey panel examining the use of the death penalty in that state. As a result of what he learned in the process, Chief Abbott has become a courageous and outspoken abolitionist.
At Death Penalty Focus, one of our primary efforts in the last few years has been a law enforcement outreach campaign that is led by a former prosecutor and now counts among its members police officers, prosecutors, a former Attorney General and many in other aspects of law enforcement.
That does not mean, however, that we roll over in the face of opposition from the District Attorneys Association or any other source. For example, I debated the head of the Fraternal Order of Police about Mumia’s case on a national television show.
THOMAS K. LOWENSTEIN: I think one of the tragedies of the Mumia case is the vilification of Officer Faulkner's family by some of Mumia's supporters. What do you make of that?
Mike Farrell: I agree, but in fairness I have to say the vilification goes both ways. It would be good to find a way to tone down the rhetoric, but it appears that there are those on both sides of the issue who insist on raging against the other side as “the enemy.”
While I have been singled out and attacked by Mrs. Faulkner and those around her, I subsequently had the opportunity to meet her on Bill O’Reilly’s show and found her to be, if impassioned on the subject, rather sweet and willing to listen respectfully—if not to agree.
We have to keep in mind that this is a woman who lost her husband to violence, whatever the facts of the case ultimately turn out to be. At a minimum, she deserves our sympathy for that fact alone. Having said that, I will add that I don’t think she’s always been well served by those who, it appears, push her forward and use her for their own ends.
THOMAS K. LOWENSTEIN: It seems like, for Mumia's supporters, the racism of the system overwhelms in importance the horror of the details of the crime; likewise, for those who want to execute him, the horrors of the crime overwhelm the terrible problems with the system that convicted him. Is there a middle ground in there somewhere, a way to get past the name-calling to a place where we honor the horror of the crime while still pushing for changes to our system?
Mike Farrell: That has to be the ultimate goal of a justice system. In this case, as in so many others, our system has failed. Victims of violent crime, and the loved ones and family members of victims, being only human, are often consumed with pain, frustration, rage, and, too frequently, a desire for vengeance that sometimes overwhelms their ability to deal with the search for true justice. Just as often, as I believe to be so in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, those ostensibly on the side of law and order become so personally engaged that they lose sight of the purpose of the system they’re sworn to serve and cross the line into advocacy and behaviors that subvert and taint the entire process.
This particular case is fraught with issues that make it incendiary: racial bias, political adversity, issues of subjugation on the one hand and control and oppression on the other, to name only a few.
Thomas K. Lowenstein is a writer, journalist, editor, and policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime and in campaigning against the death penalty, he has worked tirelessly to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Born in New York, educated in Boston, Mr. Lowenstein now lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel, THE GHOST DETECTIVE.
All opinions expressed by Thomas K. Lowenstein are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.