Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
“Executing Justice” by Daniel R. Williams St. Martin’s Press, 369 pages, $24.95 In 1982, Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death. For nearly 20 years since, Mumia (as everyone refers to him) has been an international celebrity, the handsome, dreadlocked symbol for those who believe that the American criminal justice system is rigged and rotten to the core. For opponents of capital punishment, Mumia’s appeal is obvious. He is attractive and articulate. As a journalist, he had a genuine talent for portraying the lives of Philadelphia’s poor and oppressed. As a symbol, Mumia has got domestic terrorists and drug kingpins beat hands down. But Mumia is more than the T-shirt logo of choice for the anti-death penalty movement. Amnesty International says Mumia is a political prisoner; Nelson Mandela wants him to get a new trial; Alec Baldwin thinks he’s innocent. Commanding the support of such organizations and luminaries is no easy trick. Daniel R. Williams, one of the lawyers seeking to win Mumia a new trial, has written “Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal” to persuade us that all this attention is justified. The worldwide struggle to “Free Mumia” is “perhaps more profound than most other struggles waged for the unjustly convicted,” not just because Mumia was railroaded, but because of who Mumia is. At the outset, Williams proclaims “Mumia’s heartfelt allegiance to social justice, genuine human connectedness, and fundamental morality,” and goes on proclaiming for 369 pages. The man, Williams wants us to believe, is worthy of the movement. There are a few undisputed facts, but not many. Before dawn on Dec. 9, 1981, Philadelphia police officer Danny Faulkner stopped Billy Cook, Mumia’s brother, while Cook was driving on Locust Street. Mumia was across the street in the cab he sometimes drove to earn extra money. Cook got out of his car; at some point, he punched Faulkner. During the ensuing fight, Mumia ran across Locust toward the two men. What happened next is, of course, hotly contested. By the time the police arrived, Faulkner was dead. Mumia, shot once by Faulkner, was sitting on the curb less than a foot from his own .38-caliber revolver. Ballistics tests confirmed that Faulkner was shot with a .38 and tended to implicate Mumia’s gun, but were not conclusive. Cook was caught close to the scene. At the hospital, Mumia refused treatment and apparently shouted out a confession that hospital personnel reported immediately but, curiously, the police didn’t report until some time later. According to Williams, the case against Mumia was systematically rendered insurmountable by a trial judge, police, and prosecutors bent on convicting Mumia at all costs. Some of what Williams says on this score is convincing. Judge Alfred Sabo’s conduct of the trial has been widely and deservedly criticized: He made questionable rulings throughout both the trial and the post-trial proceedings and bent over backward for the prosecution. Mumia was disruptive throughout, but Sabo injudiciously descended to Mumia’s level, at some cost to the defendant’s rights and to the integrity of the proceedings. Sabo also deprived Mumia’s court-appointed lawyer, Anthony Jackson, of time and of resources he needed for investigators and experts. He removed Jackson as trial counsel at Mumia’s insistence, then reinstated him with insufficient time to prepare for the role. Finally, Jackson himself was woefully unprepared for the critical sentencing phase. As background to Mumia’s case, Williams provides a tendentious history of Philadelphia in the 1960s and ’70s. During those decades, Williams correctly contends, the city waged an aggressive (sometimes overly aggressive) campaign against a variety of mostly African-American organizations. The campaign was fueled in part by the racism and paranoia of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. But this is only half the story. Williams cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the Black Panthers, one of Rizzo’s targets, were domestic terrorists who openly preached armed confrontation with the police (their slogan was “Off the Pigs”) and were responsible for countless acts of bloodshed. MOVE, a Philadelphia organization that Mumia championed, shared some of the Panthers’ rhetoric. While they may not have been terrorists, they were hardly peaceful revolutionaries. In the mid-’70s, as Williams admits, MOVE’s leader urged his followers to “prepare for a showdown with the police,” and began stockpiling weapons and ammunition. But that is the last breath of criticism of MOVE from Williams, who otherwise embraces the organization and its support for Mumia throughout the book. Williams argues that the government constructed a simple narrative of good and evil around Faulkner’s murder that would resonate in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, and then engineered a trial at which only the evidence supporting that narrative was put before the jury. In contrast, he insists, the truth is ambiguous (a word he uses often); he wants to restore Mumia’s case to its full factual and moral complexity. The government always had a strong case, but the defense wasn’t without ammunition. Although one of the two eyewitnesses, Cynthia White, apparently identified Mumia at the scene, her testimony did appear to evolve in ways favorable to the prosecution, and there is no question that as a working prostitute she was vulnerable to police pressure. In the same vein, officers did not mention Mumia’s emergency room confession for weeks, and their various explanations as to why are suspect. The prosecution chose not to put on the stand a witness whose account differed markedly from its other eyewitnesses. Finally, Williams contends that a possible passenger in Billy Cook’s car is a more plausible suspect in the crime. Where such legitimate ambiguities exist, Williams dutifully points them out. Similar ambiguities lie at the heart of many crimes. But in the main, Williams’ book is more an example than a critique of what he professes to deplore: a one-dimensional view of the case. Williams’ own problems with ambiguity are apparent throughout the book in ways small and large. He frequently attributes discreditable thoughts or motives to people, even though he would have no earthly way of knowing what was in their heads. Take, for example, Williams’ account of officer Shoemaker’s arrival on the scene. With his weapon drawn, Shoemaker sees Mumia sitting on the ground, wearing an empty holster, reaching for a revolver less than a foot away. Shoemaker orders Mumia to freeze. He doesn’t. Shoemaker then kicks Mumia, and naturally the kick lands on his head — after all, Shoemaker is standing and Mumia is sitting. For Williams, amazingly, this moment of drama is best understood as a history lesson. Williams refers to Shoemaker’s connection to police units involved in anti-MOVE operations, then asks rhetorically whether Shoemaker recognized Mumia as a “MOVE sympathizer” and whether the kick was simply retribution. In all of this, there is not a syllable about Shoemaker’s personal safety. It apparently never occurs to Williams that an officer might legitimately fear a man who reaches for a gun after he has been ordered to freeze. Williams is equally selective when it comes to more central facts. Regarding the police investigation, he breezily asserts that a few “rudimentary crime scene” techniques could have “conclusively linked [Mumia's] .38-caliber Charter Arms revolver with the death of Faulkner.” This would be important — if true. But it’s not. The only way to “conclusively” link a weapon to a spent cartridge is through ballistics tests. Those tests were performed, with inculpatory but inconclusive results. Williams is referring here to what he calls a “lead residue test.” He means, presumably, a paraffin test, which measures the presence of microscopic particles blown back onto the body of someone who fires a weapon. But paraffin tests are widely regarded as unreliable. Williams must know that there is a vast literature devoted to the test’s inadequacies and that they are rarely performed any longer, much less admitted into evidence. No paraffin test could possibly, as Williams claims, eliminate the need for “second guessing” in a homicide. Williams’ inability to think outside Mumia’s box is even more striking when it comes to the defense’s primary contention: that the real killer got away. Four witnesses testified that at least one man ran eastbound from the scene toward an alley immediately after the shooting. The escaping shooter? Innocents fleeing gunfire? For Williams, the evidence is unambiguous: “the consistency in the description of flight refutes any suggestion that what these people saw was nothing more than a scattering of people away from the eruption of gunfire.” What consistency? The witnesses’ descriptions of the number and physical appearance of whoever fled varied. Not one of these witnesses said that whoever fled was the shooter: One, Robert Chobert, testified that Mumia was the shooter, and the other three did not claim to see the shooting at all. Finally, the testimony of the four varies as to whether whomever they saw flee was stopped. There is little consistency here. “Executing Justice” finally wrecks at the point that Williams’ two themes — the unfairness of the trial and Mumia’s stature — intersect. Williams wants “a fair trial where all of the evidence is presented.” Mumia’s moral authority demands nothing less. But there will never be a trial where all the evidence is presented. That trial would require the testimony of one Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia, of course, has a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and he has exercised it. He has never told anyone, as far as we know, what happened on Locust Street at 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981. He doesn’t have to. We must not, of course, hold Mumia’s invocation of his rights against him — in a court of law. But Williams is not asking us to think like lawyers. He insists on the poverty of a legalistic perspective, and invites us to take a larger view. This is no service to his client. Based on Williams’ own account, Mumia either killed officer Faulkner or knows who did. We cannot force him to tell us, and that is exactly as it should be. But someone who knows how a police officer was killed, and won’t tell us, has no claims to our admiration or respect. Mumia Abu-Jamal deserves all of his rights, like any defendant. But Daniel Williams has failed to show that he deserves anything more than that. Barton Aronson is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was an associate in the D.C. office of O’Melveny & Myers and an assistant district attorney in Norfolk County, Mass. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Department of Justice.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.