Sunday, January 12, 2014

Free Debo

In the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, Daniel Faulkner, a white five-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, conducted a routine traffic stop of a VW Beetle belonging to one William Cook, a young black street vendor who lived in the neighborhood.  Cook's older brother, a journalist and part-time taxi driver, happened to be parked across the street from where Cook was stopped.

What precisely happened next depends on whose account you believe, but what is not in dispute is that at nearly four o'clock that morning, both Faulkner and Cook's brother lay bleeding on the street.  Cook's brother was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for his wounds.  He survived.  Faulkner did not.

William Cook's older brother, born Wesley, had spent part of his youth as a disciple of the Black Panthers.  He dropped out of high school and became involved in Panther politics, eventually drawing surveillance from COINTELPRO and the Philadelphia Police Department, but was convinced to return to high school.  Radicalized by his Black Panther experience, the elder Cook found himself drawn to the more militant aspects of the civil rights movement.  An African Studies teacher from his high school bestowed "classroom names" on the students; Wesley's meant "prince."  Later, after the birth of his son Jamal, drawing on that experience, Wesley Cook would take the name Mumia Abu-Jamal.

* * * * *

The story of Mumia Abu-Jamal remains the subject of hot debate among conspiracy theorists, but the racial aspect of the story has made for a far higher level of controversy and given it staying power.  In 1982, Mumia was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death.  There was substantial evidence supporting the conviction, including both circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony.  The passage of time has caused some elements of the proof to be eroded, but to what degree that matters is probably a matter of perspective.

I cannot say for certain whether Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Daniel Faulkner.  I wasn't there.  It would certainly not be out of character for the Philadelphia Police Department to have framed him.  PPD has a long history of friction with radicals, especially black radicals, that culminated in the 1985 bombing, by the PPD, of a communal house occupied by members of MOVE, a cult-like "back-to-nature" group that loudly advocated for its positions and engaged in violent conflict with the police.  But Mumia was unanimously convicted by a 12-person jury, and that conviction has been repeatedly reviewed by higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and upheld. 

You will never see me wearing a "Free Mumia" t-shirt.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I certainly have no sympathy for cop killers.  In fact, there is little doubt in my mind that Mumia did kill Faulkner.  I am not equipped to sort out whether there were factors that would support a lesser sentence than death or life imprisonment.  Ballistics showed that Mumia was shot by Faulkner's gun.

In 2008, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals--a federal court that, among other things, reviews state-level criminal convictions in Pennsylvania--ruled that Mumia's death sentence had been decided according to improper jury instructions, and it ordered that either the state would conduct a new sentencing hearing or Mumia's sentence would be reduced to life in prison.  After further review of that decision, the prosecutor decided not to attempt to re-sentence, and Mumia left death row--but not prison--in 2012.

* * * * *

The appeal that led to the altered sentence was spearheaded by the NAACP, an organization that has a long history of advocacy for justice for African Americans.  After all, it was the NAACP who employed attorney Thurgood Marshall to argue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, which brought de jure racial segregation in education to an end, albeit slowly.  The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund exists to provide legal representation to criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs on issues of importance to persons of color.

As an attorney, the one thing I can glean from the NAACP's position in the Mumia case is that because they won, they had a point.  The Third Circuit reviews thousands of cases and leaves convictions undisturbed almost every time.  If these judges--two Reagan appointees and one Clinton appointee--could unanimously agree that the jury instructions were improper, there is a pretty good chance that the jury instructions really were improper.  So I view this result as a just result.

* * * * *

Debo Adegbile was an attorney for the LDF who assisted on the Mumia appeal.  He did not argue for Mumia, nor was he in any respect a lead attorney in the case.  But he did assist, and in 2012 he became the acting director of the LDF following the death of his predecessor.

Adegbile was recently nominated by President Obama to be the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, an immensely important position that bears day-to-day responsibility for managing the division of the Justice Department that ensures that Americans' civil rights are upheld.  For me, it is hard to think of a more worthy goal of the government than to ensure that our rights are upheld, even when those rights and the exercise thereof may be unpopular.

Every morning, millions of school children stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and as much as it infuriates me that "under God" has been inserted into it, the far more important part of that pledge is in its last clause:  "With liberty and justice for all."  I do believe that those words mean something.  Our American experiment doesn't work unless we have people willing to put those words into practice.  That means that even rapists and murderers, even terrorists and assassins, even cop-killers and racial radicals like Mumia Abu-Jamal get justice--real justice, not "the right to be convicted," but genuine review, basic fairness, and equal treatment by and through the law.  Adegbile appears to be genuinely dedicated to the cause of justice, and we will be well served if he becomes the AAG for civil rights.

As you might imagine, the Fraternal Order of Police has been highly interested in Mumia's case from the beginning.  The FOP has been the focal point of the "Fry Mumia" movement, and it has long opposed attempts by various organizations to obtain a different result in that case.  It was incensed when Mumia's sentence was reduced.  It also has a long memory.

The right wing's professional outrage machine has seized on the FOP's view and amplified it, suggesting--no, outright alleging--that by nominating Adegbile, Obama supports cop-killers.

The outrage machine is doing what it does best, and it should simply be ignored.

But this episode has made it clear that the FOP has gone too far.  It has lost its perspective.  We must respect and honor the dangerous service that police officers provide, and we must do what we can to protect police officers from those who would do them harm.  We must not shrink from the duty to hold cop-killers accountable.

But Mumia is being held accountable for what he was convicted of doing.  He will leave prison in a hearse.  That day may be a long time from now, but it will come eventually.  By allowing its position to be used as a foil for politics by people who don't much care for them as a rule,* the FOP undermines the broader message that its organization stands for.

* - One need only witness the gleeful advocacy, popular among right-wingers, for dismantling civil service and union protections for public workers, including--especially including--police officers, to understand that these people are no friends of police.

The truth is that the death penalty is simply unnecessary to justice in this case.  Mumia Abu-Jamal has been removed from our society; to whatever extent he once represented a danger to the public, he no longer does.  Advocating for the proper application of the law to every case, as Debo Adegbile has done, does not change that.  It makes our justice system better by proving that we are all equal before the law.  I would hope that the FOP could get behind that.

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