Even from a concrete cell where he is locked up 23 hours a day, Mumia Abu-Jamal — convicted murderer and former public radio journalist — draws attention.The governor’s, for example. Pennsylvania’s newly elected Thomas Ridge last year promised a state legislator pushing for Jamal’s execution that he would sign cop killers’ death warrants first. Ridge later reneged — putting cop killers up top would send the message that certain murders are more grievous than others. But he has significantly accelerated the signing of warrants. Where former Gov. Robert Casey signed 25 warrants in eight years, Ridge has signed five since his January swearing in (a ceremony that took place amidst the chants of Jamal supporters: “No death row! Free Mumia now!”).
Beverly Hills celebrities have noticed Jamal’s plight as well: An April 2 fundraiser was attended by Ed Asner, Mike Farrell and others.And Jamal is getting more attention from the media. Addison-Wesley Press will release a book of his essays May 2, including about a dozen commentaries NPR commissioned last year but decided not to use. The widow of slain police officer Daniel Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) have protested the book, calling for a boycott of all Addison-Wesley titles. Meanwhile, the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, Pa., is denying reporters access to Jamal, citing a correctional department probe of the book deal. The crackdown only makes Jamal’s devoted advocates, who maintain his innocence, more determined to keep him in the public eye — and they seem to be having success. People magazine is working on a story, as is Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition. Supporters say there have been inquiries from Nightline, Connie Chung and European journalists.
Who is the governor to intervene?
The stepped-up activism and media attention are spurred in part by Ridge’s position on capital punishment. The governor believes the death penalty is the will of Pennsylvanians, says spokesman Tim Reeves. Though the state reinstated the penalty in 1978, it has not executed a prisoner since 1962. Ridge campaigned around the issue, and supported legislation — recently passed — requiring the governor to sign all death warrants within 90 days of receiving them, and to set the execution within the next 30 days. Explains Reeves: “The governor has said, ‘If 12 jurors render what will probably be the most agonizing decision of their lives, then who is the governor to overturn that?’ ”
Ridge is signing warrants in chronological order — the oldest case first. Jamal’s place on that list is unclear. The first convict’s case landed on the governor’s desk in July 1983. Jamal’s papers went to the governor April 4, 1989. This would put Jamal about 30 names down on the list, says Pam Tucker, secretary of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Others say he’s in the first 10.
Everyone seems to agree that, despite Ridge, Jamal is not in imminent danger of being executed, because his lawyers have been compiling new evidence for another trial. Attorney Leonard Weinglass could not be reached for comment, but sources say he’ll appeal after Ridge signs Jamal’s warrant.
These sources include Noelle Hanrahan, who produced 52 Jamal commentaries and recently moved from the West Coast to Washington D.C., to work on the prisoner’s behalf. She and other supporters make up an international network that works to free Jamal and holds fundraisers for his defense and his family. Hanrahan is the one who prompted the book deal and got Jamal a $30,000 advance.
To Jamal’s detractors, the book and other shows of support are an added crime, salt in the wound of Faulkner’s murder. Rick Costello, head of the Philadelphia FOP, has protested Live from Death Row in local media and wants a national campaign against it. He said the book is “like advocating the murder of a police officer.”
The network that “shied away”
The controversy that erupted last year when NPR announced the commentaries and blew up again when it cancelled them is casting a long shadow. A Live from Death Row promo, for instance, has the headline, “Addison-Wesley to Publish Canceled NPR Commentaries. . . ” And a Feb. 15 New York Times brief about the book begins, “National Public Radio shied away, even after agreeing to broadcast the inmate’s words.”
Such negative publicity made cancelling the pieces the least appealing option, said NPR Managing Editor Bruce Drake at the time he pulled them. He knew the network would seem to be caving in to political pressure: days earlier, Sen. Bob Dole had blasted NPR for using tax dollars to air a cop-killer’s comments and pay him $150 per piece to boot. But Drake felt it was inappropriate to run a series of commentaries from a convicted murderer without accompanying material to provide context or contrasting viewpoints. “A different standard has to be held in choosing commentators,” he concluded. The commentaries were not so “compelling” as to overcome his misgivings, Drake said.
Hanrahan, who had brought Jamal’s work to the attention of ATC Executive Producer Ellen Weiss, says she was energized by NPR’s reversal. “I moved to D.C. because I can’t stand being censored, because NPR censored his commentaries,” she says.
Though Jamal hasn’t recorded any work via Hanrahan’s Prison Radio Project since February 1994, just before the NPR controversy blew up, the project disseminates tapes to stations that want them. In addition to Pacifica stations, which have carried Jamal’s work regularly, about 25 NPR affiliates have aired his essays since NPR decided not to air its tapes, she says. The project will market Jamal’s work to 1,500 public radio stations in coming months.
Hanrahan has asked for the NPR commentaries, but Weiss is hanging on to them, fearful that Jamal’s friends or foes will use them to further their agendas. “Whether it was naive or not, we tried to stay out of the politics of [the case], which was hard to avoid,” she says. “I think the potential for them being misused is too great” to release them. “I don’t want them to become The Tapes NPR Didn’t Air.”
For and against
The Faulkner-Jamal case seems to sharply divide observers. His supporters portray a charismatic, eloquent, ultra-talented journalist who went further than most reporters to cover issues such as police brutality, advocating for those with the least power — and winning awards in the process. His detractors say that as a reporter for various radio outlets in Philly, Jamal crossed the line separating objectivity and activism. He covered the city government’s relationship with the radical group MOVE, and sources say became known as a MOVE supporter.
For their part, Philadelphia police officers paint Jamal as a heartless man who, in 1981, stood over the wounded Faulkner and shot him. Three people saw it happen, they say. “This was not a case where we picked out an innocent political activist and said, let’s hang a cop-killing on him,” says Costello. “This was a cold-blooded execution.”
Ken Hom, an associate producer for Weekend Edition, which is developing a piece on the case, says he’s not sure the prison will allow the crew to interview Jamal, at least not this year. But if it does, “we’ll have to ask him, what happened that night?” Jamal used his trial for political purposes, Hom says, and never stated his innocence. But Pamela Africa, A MOVE member who co-edits the Jamal Journal, says this is flatly untrue, that Jamal has said he is innocent from day one.
Africa believes the prison “got word” to keep reporters away from Jamal because “at this point, people want to know why, people will start digging more and more and begin to find out why he has international support.” Africa ticks off a litany of points she believes prove Jamal is innocent and his trial unfair. She says, for example, that there’s evidence that the fatal bullet did not come from Jamal’s gun.
Jamal now is being limited to one two-hour social visit per week since he was transferred to SCI Greene in January, according to Hanrahan. Prison spokesperson Jean Mears would not address charges by Jamal’s supporters that he is kept in his cell for 24 hours, two days a week, and that the jail has denied him access to his attorney’s paralegals. She confirmed, however, that reporters can’t see Jamal because he is being investigated for making the book deal.
But Hanrahan believes the prison is “tightening down so they feel they have carte blanche to execute him.”
“Prisons don’t want somebody on death row appearing in the media in first person at all. They’re much harder to execute when people see them as human beings.”