Guest Author - Donna Johnson
On June 17, 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal went on trial for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, which occurred on December 9 of the previous year. After the Commonwealth presented its case, Abu-Jamal’s defense went to bat.
During this phase of the trial, Abu-Jamal initially attempted to put on his own defense, with public defender Anthony Jackson providing assistance and guidance. Citing disruptive behavior on the part of the defendant, presiding Judge Albert Sabo ordered Jackson to take over the defense on the first day of the trial. Subsequently, Abu-Jamal did not act as his own attorney, nor did he take the stand at any point in the proceedings. Another key party who did not testify for Abu-Jamal was his brother William Cook, the motorist whom Faulkner pulled over just prior to the shooting. Cook’s only statement in regards to the case at that time was the one he gave at the scene, in which he stated, “I ain’t got nothing to do with this.” According to the defense, at least one other possible witness to the crime refused to appear in court.
Those who did testify gave varying accounts of the shooting. One woman, Veronica Jones, claimed to have only seen three men, one of whom was a police officer, lying on the ground. No one was moving at all, according to Jones, who also admitted to being intoxicated at the time. Another witness, Debbie Hightower, claimed to have seen a man, possibly the real shooter, running away from the scene of the crime. Over time, this testimony would come to be known as the “running man theory.”
Other defense witnesses spoke not of the crime, but of the character of Abu-Jamal. African-American poet Sonia Sanchez and several others described the accused as a peaceful, genial man who was both creative and articulate. Hardly the type to commit a cold-blooded murder.
On July 2, 1982, after just three hours of deliberation, the jury found Abu-Jamal guilty of first degree murder. The sentencing phase began the next day, with Abu-Jamal reading a statement that touched on the inadequacy of his attorney; the court’s refusal to allow John Africa, the founder of the MOVE group who was not himself a lawyer; and his perception of a conspiracy involving the judge. Abu-Jamal also maintained he was innocent of the crime.
The same day that the sentencing phase began, it ended, with the jury recommending the death penalty. This act would set in motion nearly 30 years of appeals, along with theories of conspiracy and wrongful conviction, and the involvement of prominent activists and celebrities who came to believe in Abu-Jamal’s innocence.