Nov 1 1995

Witness for the Prosecution

NPR Slants the Case Against Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal (cc photo: dubdem sound system)

Mumia Abu-Jamal (cc photo: dubdem sound system)

After attacks from police groups, National Public Radio quickly backed away from its plan to air commentaries by Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal, an African-American journalist, received a death sentence after being convicted in the December 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner–in a trial marred by gross procedural errors.

NPR vice president Bill Buzenberg explained the 1994 decision not to air Abu-Jamal by saying it was “not appropriate to use someone in the commentator’s role who is the focal point of a highly polarized and political controversy without at the same time providing the context of the controversy and without other voices involved in that controversy.”

Many of those who had hoped Abu-Jamal’s commentaries would give mainstream audiences a rare insider’s view of death row were curious to hear how NPR would cover Abu-Jamal as a news story. The answer: It didn’t. From May 1994, when NPR announced the cancellation of the commentaries, until August 17, 1995, Abu-Jamal’s scheduled execution date, Nexis transcripts reveal not a word on NPR about this “highly polarized and political controversy.”

As the execution date approached, the case garnered increasing attention, until NPR‘s silence became deafening. Only on August 19, after Abu-Jamal had won a stay to complete his appeals, did NPR air a story on his case–a lengthy feature by NPR‘s Scott Simon. But rather than dealing with the controversy in a balanced fashion, Simon skillfully provided a brief for the prosecution under the pretense of covering both sides.

Disputed Facts

Simon’s presentation of the “facts” is carefully constructed to evoke pity for Faulkner and hatred for Abu-Jamal, presenting prosecution claims as undisputed fact. In a detailed enumeration of Faulkner’s wounds, for example, Simon states that Faulkner was “shot once in the back at close range”–even though the officer’s jacket showed no trace of the gunshot residue that such a shot would have left.

After describing Faulkner’s shooting, Simon reveals that Faulkner also shot Abu-Jamal–with the obvious implication that the officer fired in self-defense. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers’ contention that Faulkner fired the first shot that night is never mentioned, nor does Simon note that the prosecution’s version of how Abu-Jamal was shot does not match the path the bullet took through his body.

Faulkner was shot after he pulled over William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother, on a traffic violation. Simon notes that there was “some sort of struggle” between Faulkner and Cook; he doesn’t mention that this struggle, according to one witness, amounted to Faulkner beating Cook in the head with his flashlight.

False Witnesses

In outlining the evidence against Abu-Jamal–ostensibly for the purpose of explaining why Abu-Jamal needed a good lawyer–Simon says: “Three eyewitnesses in different locations who did not know each other came forward and identified Mumia Abu-Jamal was the man they had seen at the shooting.”

In fact, only two eyewitnesses–out of at least 10 people at the scene–positively identified Abu-Jamal as the shooter. Simon appears to be hiding behind the phrase “seen at the shooting”–his third witness actually initially identified Abu-Jamal as being the driver of the pulled-over car, not as the shooter.

Of two witnesses who identified Abu-Jamal, whose veracity Simon has implicitly vouched for, one was a prostitute whose story progressively changed after repeated arrests by police. The other witness was a convicted arsonist on probation whose story also changed to match the police version.

Simon does note later that “over the years,” people have come forward to say they saw the shooter flee the scene–which would clear Abu-Jamal, since he collapsed to the pavement after being shot by Faulkner. In fact, police inquiries immediately after the shooting turned up witnesses who said they saw someone fleeing the scene.

Simon also notes that a gun registered to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene of the shooting. But he fails to mention that the police never performed elementary tests to determine whether the gun had been fired, or if Abu-Jamal was the one who fired it.

Simon does consider the defense’s point that the coroner identified the fatal bullet as coming from a .44 caliber gun, whereas Abu-Jamal’s gun was a .38. He then brings on Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Kaufman to rebut the defense, who says that the coroner later said that the bullet might have come from a .38 after all–“so I think that there’s a lot less there than meets the eye.” Note the reversal here of the burden of proof–the question Simon’s source addresses is not whether the prosecution proved that the bullet came from Abu-Jamal’s gun, but whether the defense proved that it did not come from his gun.

The Unmentioned Confession

Simon also interviews Police Officer Gary Bell, who recounts Abu-Jamal’s supposed hospital-bed confession: “I shot the motherfucker, I hope he dies!” This story has been so thoroughly discredited that even Abu-Jamal’s staunchest opponents, such as Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, no longer point to it as an indication of guilt (New York Times, 8/13/95). Simon therefore has to make a show of challenging Bell’s account.

Several minutes after airing Bell’s gripping account, Simon asks him why he waited more than two months to report this vital evidence. Bell responds that he had been assigned with other officers to look after the widow.

Our job, at that point, was to stay with her 24 hours a day to take care of anything–any of her needs that she had…. I don’t know if I was just preoccupied with that, or the whole situation, but I didn’t–it didn’t dawn on me to call right away to talk to anybody about it.

A moving story, certainly–but Simon might have followed up by asking Bell why, in his report to police a week after the shooting, he inexplicably made no reference to the confession. Or why the officer who was specifically assigned to guard Jamal, Gary Wakshul, filed a report immediately afterward that stated that “the negro male made no statements.”

Instead, Simon cuts to prosecutor Joseph McGill, who claims that a security guard “who had no connection with police” had also heard the confession. In fact, the security guard, Patricia Durham, did know Faulkner, sometimes had coffee with him, and acknowledged crying when he died. Simon also seems to endorse McGill’s claim that Durham had “reported [the confession] within 24 hours.” Durham actually said she had written a handwritten note about the event within 24 hours–a note that was never produced. Other than this purported document, she never mentioned the “confession” until after Bell had.

Silence Equals Guilt

In concluding his report, Simon states, “Mr. Jamal has never said in any courtroom, article, or interview, what he did, saw or heard the night of the killing for which he’s been convicted.” He then plays tape of Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, who declares:

I’m challenging him to get up on the stand and tell what happened on December 9, 1981. He is the only one who has not been heard in fourteen years. What is Mumia Abu-Jamal afraid of? If he was there at the scene of the crime, and he did not commit the crime, why doesn’t he get up and tell who did it?

No one can deny the frustration and grief felt by the widow of a police officer cut down at the age of 25. But why does Simon choose to end his report by implying that a defendant who exercises his Fifth Amendment rights is guilty? It is standard practice that defendants do not make public statements about their cases, since anything they say, as the Miranda formula famously warns, can be used against them in a court of law.

Following the airing of this report, at least one letter was sent detailing NPR‘s omissions and errors. Simon chose not to acknowledge this on the air, but instead remarked a week later (NPR 8/26/95) that the response of his audience could best be summarized in one letter. He then read the listener’s letter, which accurately recapitulated the brief for the prosecution that Simon had presented:

Let me get this straight: It was his registered handgun; he was identified by three separate witnesses; he was shot by his own purported victim; he raved about his accomplishment in the hospital; he refuses to discuss his alleged innocence.

The letter-writer can’t help but conclude: “Why the heck are we discussing this?” Indeed, no other reasonable conclusion is available from the selective evidence and distortions presented by NPR.

Greg Bates contributed to this article. Bates is the co-founder of Common Courage Press, which published Race for Justice: Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Fight Against the Death Penalty.