I read that former Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey had never heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal, despite the thousands of letters and petitions for Abu-Jamal’s release that were sent to his office. Now that the new governor, Tom Ridge, has signed Abu-Jamal’s death warrant for August 17, I suspect he also has no idea who Mumia is. Who pulls the governor’s strings? Is this state murder of a liberal reporter a further COINTELPRO operation, or is some hateful petty bureaucrat to blame? As time is running out for Mumia, it is vital that the calls for mercy reach the appropriate ears. –Andres Musta, North York, Ontario

Can’t speak for the governor of Pennsylvania. But the fact is that until quite recently the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical facing execution for killing a cop, hadn’t shown up on the radar screen of virtually anybody outside Philadelphia except for members of the left, for whom it has been a cause celebre. Abu-Jamal, a freelance radio reporter, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Black Panthers and later supported MOVE, the black group massacred in the 1985 firebomb fiasco. His death sentence has provoked protests around the world plus the now-inevitable Web page on the Internet.

You can guess the reaction: Mumia who? Even among those having a clue, many figure the guy’s an unrepentant rad, he had a gun, he was involved in a shoot-out in which a cop got killed. Just as bad, his supporters are the usual radical-chic crowd (Ed Asner, Whoopi Goldberg), he wears dreadlocks, and you can’t even pronounce his name. Let him die.

Here’s what we know. Around 4 AM on December 9, 1981, Philly cop Dan Faulkner pulled over a VW carrying Mumia Abu-Jamal’s brother for a traffic violation. In the ensuing scuffle, Faulkner clouted the brother with his flashlight. Abu-Jamal, who was driving a cab, happened by and went to his brother’s aid (maybe) carrying a legally registered pistol.

The prosecution says Mumia shot first, hitting Faulkner in the back. Faulkner returned the fire, seriously wounding Mumia. Mumia leaned over the now-prostrate officer and shot him in the face, killing him, then collapsed himself. Two eyewitnesses said that they saw this occur, more or less, and two others offered corroborating evidence.

No way, says the defense, which claims Faulkner was killed by an unknown assailant who fled. Both key witnesses had police records and could have been pressured. On the stand some witnesses contradicted their previous statements to police. It was never proved Abu-Jamal’s gun killed Faulkner. (The bullet shattered, and ballistics tests were inconclusive.) There may have been suppressed evidence, judicial bias, etc.

Granted, if you put enough lawyers on the case you can create a reasonable doubt that the sun rises in the east. Many of the defense’s claims are speculative. No persuasive alternative explanation of Faulkner’s death has been offered, although Mumia surely has some idea. Even discounting the more improbable prosecution testimony, Cecil is prepared to concede the state may have proved its case well enough to convict.

Whether Abu-Jamal deserves the death penalty is another matter. Initially he was trying to help his brother. The prosecution said he didn’t fire the fatal shot until he’d been wounded himself. It was all over in seconds. Was the killing premeditated, the usual standard for execution? The jury evidently was unsure, since it asked the judge to explain third-degree murder and manslaughter after deliberations began.

Abu-Jamal was found guilty of murder one, but given the doubts of the jury might have avoided execution had it not been for the penalty hearing. As was his right, the defendant made a contentious statement to the court. This ticked off the judge, who ruled that Abu-Jamal, who had not testified during the trial, could be cross-examined. Prosecutors took the opportunity to introduce Maoist rhetoric the defendant had spouted 12 years earlier, at age 16. These irrelevant remarks apparently helped convince the mostly-white jury that Abu-Jamal was a dangerous revolutionary, and though he had no prior criminal record they condemned him to death. Amnesty International has rightly protested that he is being killed for his political views. The guy maybe deserves prison but probably not the fatal dose.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.