Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Crime Beat Column: Cop Killer, A Look Back At The Abu Jamal Case

The FBI recently released its annual publication Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2001.

The report stated that 142 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty. The terrorist attacks of September 11th claimed the lives of 72 officers. The FBI reported that the attacks on the World Trade Center claimed 71 officers and a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also died on September 11th when the airplane in which he was traveling was hijacked as part of the terrorist attacks and crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

The officers killed in incidents unrelated to the September 11th attacks represented a 37.3 percent increase in the number of law enforcement officers feloniously killed in 2000.

In my view, there is nothing more dangerous than a cop killer. The criminal who is willing to take on an armed police officer will not hesitate to kill anyone. A cop killer is a total outlaw.

As a writer I’ve spent a good amount of time with law enforcement officers. I’ve interviewed FBI, DEA and other agents from the alphabetized federal law enforcement community. I’ve spoken to military investigators, park rangers, sheriffs and cops from other cities, but I’ve probably spent the most time with Philly cops.

I’ve talked to them in the station houses, in patrol cars, on the street and in bars. I’ve listened to their concerns, prideful boasts and sorrowful confessions. I’ve accompanied Philly cops on patrol and witnessed them handle insane, intoxicated and violent people. I’ve observed how they consol crime victims and their families. I’ve seen how they cope with the aftermath of criminal violence and man’s inhumanity to man. And I’ve come to appreciate their black humor, which like military humor, is a necessary safety valve to get them through the day.

There is one cop killer in particular who rankles the rank and file of the Philadelphia police. In what can be called one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated criminal cases, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1982 for the shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Faulkner was only 25-years-old.

Last year Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was overturned by a federal judge in Philadelphia but denied him the right to a new trial. This decision made both sides of the issue unhappy.

The long, drawn out case of Abu-Jamal continues to this day. Abu-Jamal is the poster child of the death penalty opponents. A photo of Abu-Jamal, dressed in prison garb and sporting a beard and dreadlocks, adorns t-shirts and posters from Philadelphia to Paris. The anti-American international crowd, as well as celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Whoppi Goldberg, have called for a new trial.

Abu-Jamal supporters traveled to Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the sites of the 2000 political conventions to protest his death sentence. In Philadelphia there were also counter-demonstrations against Abu-Jamal. Faulkner’s widow, Maureen has campaigned steadily in an attempt to offset the publicity Abu-Jamal has garnered.

"If Abu-Jamal goes free, it will become open season on police officers," one angry cop told me during the Philadelphia convention. The cops are upset with the celebrity status and media attention bestowed on Abu-Jamal.

Popular among some Philadelphia police officers was a t-shirt made to counter the Abu-Jamal one. The off-duty cops’ t-shirt displays a photo of the slain officer and his badge on the front side and reads "In Memory of Daniel Faulkner." The backside of the t-shirt reads, "He killed Officer Faulkner. Let’s Kill Him Now."

The controversy rages on in the judicial system and on t-shirts.

Although some have made a racial issue out of the case (Abu-Jamal is black, and Faulkner was white), I don’t know of a single black police officer that favors Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal can be viewed however as a study in militant, radical race relations in Philadelphia. A former Black Panther and supporter of the militant back to nature group MOVE, his case is set against the backdrop of a history of contentious relations between the police and militants in the black communities of Philadelphia.

Abu-Jamal was a young Black Panther when the Philadelphia Police, under the command of Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, raided the Black Panther headquarters. Rizzo, known as a "cop’s cop" who was called "The Cisco Kid" during his early career, would go on to become the city’s populist, law and order mayor.

A big, physically impressive man, Rizzo was equally loved and hated along racial and geographic lines in Philadelphia. In South Philly, where Rizzo was born and raised, he remains a revered figure years after his death.

In response to the shooting of two police officers in 1970, Rizzo ordered the Panther headquarters to be raided. After a brief gunfight, the Panthers were arrested and lined up against a wall. A UPI photographer captured the scene. The photo of the Panthers, nude, with their hands against the wall, was carried in newspapers across the country.

Abu-Jamal would go on to become a radio reporter but was later fired for his obsession with and open advocacy of the MOVE group. A handyman named Vincent Leapheart, who renamed himself John Africa, founded the group. All of his followers also took the name Africa to identify themselves as members of one "family."

Africa instructed his followers to lick their children clean rather than wash them the conventional way. The group had many other unusual practices as well. They settled into an armed, barricaded compound in a black middle class neighborhood called Powelltown. The neighbors complained about piled garbage, human and animal waste and rats. MOVE members would not allow city workers to enter the compound to inspect for health violations.

In 1978 the police raided the compound and police officer James Ramp was killed in the assault. Rizzo had bulldozers flatten the compound. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd degree murder and other offenses.

John Africa, who was not at the compound during the time of the raid, moved his remaining members to another black middle class neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The neighbors there soon complained to the city about garbage, dogs, rats and the openly hostile MOVE members who brandished weapons and used loudspeakers to harass the neighbors.

Three years later, after Abu-Jamal was convicted and imprisoned, the MOVE house would make headlines around the world when the Philadelphia police ended an armed standoff by dropping an explosive device on the rooftop bunker. The bunker housed MOVE riflemen who were firing on the police.

The fire than ensued was allowed to burn out of control and destroyed the MOVE house and 60 others in the neighborhood. John Africa and five other MOVE members were killed in the blaze. Tragically, five children were also killed in the fire.

Several police officers and former military men have told me that the dropping of the C-4 explosive on the rooftop bunker was a tactically sound decision – MOVE had the high ground in the urban battlefield – but the decision to allow the fire to burn on was a bad one.

The police officials under the city’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, who succeeded Rizzo as mayor, made that call.

In the midst of the long-running MOVE controversy, Abu-Jamal, fired by WUHY Radio for his lack of objectivity and his intimate involvement with MOVE, began to drive a cab.

According to the testimony that convicted Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed on December 9, 1981 at 4AM on 13th and Locust Streets in Center City Philadelphia.

Faulkner had stopped William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother, for driving the wrong way on 13th Street. Cook and Faulkner were wrestling when Abu-Jamal drove up in his cab. According to three witnesses, a man in dreadlocks ran through the parking lot and shot Faulkner. Two of the three witnesses positively identified Abu-Jamal as the murderer.

Abu-Jamal came up behind Faulkner and shot him in the back. Faulkner returned fire as he fell to the street and was able to place a round in Abu-Jamal’s chest.

Although wounded, Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner again, but this time it was point-blank between Faulkner’s eyes. Abu-Jamal then collapsed in the street alongside Faulkner.

Police responding to the scene found Abu-Jamal sitting in the street and suffering from a gunshot wound from Faulkner’s gun. Abu-Jamal’s legally registered .38 caliber revolver was discovered at the scene, along with five spent shell casing.

Abu-Jamal was taken to the hospital by the police and was overheard by a police officer and a security guard as saying, "I shot the mother...and I hope he dies."

A ballistics expert testified that the bullet that killed Faulkner was too damaged to be identified as being from Abu-Jamal’s gun, but it bore tracings consistent with the type of gun he owned.

Both Abu-Jamal and his brother have steadfastly refused to testify or publicly give their side of the night’s events.

The lawyer who originally defended Abu-Jamal admits to making crucial mistakes. He says he failed to offer character witnesses and interviewed key witnesses only on the day of their testimony. Abu-Jamal’s later defense team also contends that Abu-Jamal had the right to select his own counsel. He wanted to be defended by MOVE founder John Africa. He cursed the judge and the jury and had to be restrained and once was removed from the courtroom.

"Abu-Jamal was represented by a an experienced former prosecutor who was not foisted on him, but took the case at the request of one of Abu-Jamal’s friends," wrote Philadelphia District Attorney, Lyn Abraham in a New York Times op-ed, which was later carried in the Philadelphia Daily News..

Abraham, who was once called "one tough cookie" by Frank Rizzo, went on to say that the jury was composed of blacks and whites chosen with Abu-Jamal’s personal participation. They voted unanimously to convict him of first-degree murder for executing a police officer in cold blood.

Abraham went on to state that the crime was committed at a well-lighted intersection in full view of numerous people.

"When the police happened on the scene, almost immediately after it occurred, the evidence of guilt, both eyewitness and physical, was at the scene along with the perpetrator. There was no reason or opportunity to fabricate the evidence, all of which corroborated each other. There is no question of guilt," Abraham wrote.

Even though Abu-Jamal’s supporters were successful in having the death penalty dropped; they are still appealing for a new trial. Lyn Abraham’s office is also appealing. Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence at Graterford Prison in Philadelphia

Cop killers were glorified in a "gangsta" rap song by Ice-T some time ago. Today, ironically, Ice-T is portraying a police officer on the TV program Law & Order: Special Victims. He is somewhat convincing as a streetwise former narc.

If Hollywood ever makes a film or TV movie about the Abu-Jamal case, I would cast Ice-T as Abu-Jamal.

I’m not sure who I would cast as Danny Faulkner. But with so many of the Hollywood types supporting Abu-Jamal, I don’t suppose it would a fair or balanced film.

Perhaps Abu-Jamal’s celebrity supporters, like Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, should take leave of their TV-sound stages and try patrolling the mean streets of Philadelphia one weekend.

Let them try living and working with the knowledge that they may be targeted at any time by any criminal, radical or nut who fancies himself a public enemy.

Police officers, who make a lot less than TV actors, do this every day.

Note: The column originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2003.

No comments:

Post a Comment