Think Twice Before You Wear Your “Free Mumia” T-shirt

I was sitting in the student union at the University of Chicago last week when a student came by putting “Free Mumia” leaflets on the tables.

I have never paid much attention to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. On the one hand, I know enough about police, the criminal justice system, and racism to believe that an innocent black man could be framed. On the other hand, it makes me nervous when people like Mike Farrell, Oliver Stone, Sting, and Jacques Derrida suddenly become legal experts and publicly proclaim the innocence of someone on death row.

Whatever else you might think of Abu-Jamal, one has to congratulate him on an incredibly effective media campaign over the last 15 years.

It started in 1991 when Yale Law Journal published an article by Abu-Jamal entitled “Teetering on the Brink Between Life and Death” and was fueled by his book Live From Death Row. (I’m pretty sure I own that book; I’m more sure that I never read very far into it.) Somehow, Abu-Jamal and his supporters have managed to keep Hollywood celebrities and cohort after cohort of college students convinced of his innocence and willing to work on his behalf.

He has been somewhat less successful in the court room.

His death sentence has been turned over on a technicality, but I believe he still faces life in prison without parole. Even while on death row he was pretty safe: there are more than 200 people currently sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, and there have been three executions in that state in the last forty years. As in most states, death row in Pennsylvania is a lot safer than the streets if you are a criminal.

To anyone interested in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, I highly recommend a book entitled, Murdered by Mumia written by Maureen Faulkner and Michael Smerconish. Maureen Faulkner is the widow of Danny Faulkner, the police officer who Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. Michael Smerconish is an outspoken (but extremely intelligent) writer and radio host in Philadelphia.

Having just finished the book in a single sitting, I can’t say I feel too sympathetic to Abu-Jamal. It’s easy to be swayed when you only hear one side of the story, but I have to say that the facts (at least as presented here) don’t look so good for him.

If you are a college student, or a Hollywood celebrity, thinking about publicly proclaiming Abu-Jamal’s innocence, I strongly recommend that you read this book first. One of my favorite passages from the book will give you a little extra incentive. In this (slightly condensed) excerpt, Maureen Faulkner describes a chance encounter with a college student 15 years and 3,000 miles away from where her husband died:

As I pumped gas, a young man, a white kid who looked college age, pulled up behind me. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” and it immediately caught my eye.

I walked up and asked him where he got the T-shirt. He said he was a student at U.C.L.A. and they had recently held a rally for Abu-Jamal. I asked him if he knew anything about the case in which Abu-Jamal was involved.

He said, “Well, I know that this guy was a Black Panther who was railroaded. Someone else shot a police officer and he was framed for it.” I cringed when he went on with the usual recitation of misinformation being spun by the Abu-Jamal defenders: a peaceful black activist, a social dissident, hostile white police force, F.B.I. surveillance, conned eyewitness accounts, phony ballistics, etc.

I heard him out and offered to provide him with the actual facts of the case. He politely declined my offer. Before I left, I suggested that when he wore a political statement on his chest he would be well served if he knew his facts, because you never know when you might run into the widow of the officer. I left him in stunned silence.


Read "Murdered by Mumia" and do some confirmation, and you'll find how many of the "facts" presented by the "Pro-Mumia" side are made up. "Mumia" has never even denied being the killer! What a well-run scam campaign to free a murderer this is. FRY MUMIA!


@ Matt (post #10)
"For instance, the famous Geno's Cheesesteaks has a very large picture of Faulkner posted right next to their "order in English" sign."

Support for a cop by a place with a borderline racist sign? Imagine my surprise...

@ Will (post #16)
Presumably the survivors of the KR you spoke to were actually present at the scene of the crimes committed against them? Faulkner's widow wasn't there when her husband was shot.

I don't know anything about the Mumia case but there is some silly stuff being said here.

Dale S.

To Alex Post #44,

Your "evidence" is a perfect example of what this article is about. All of the "facts" you list have been refuted in court.

I suggest you and everyone here read the "Mumia Myths" here:

Dale S.

I agree with Steven. Many far-from-center progressives will find Mumia their perfect all-encompassing cause(black, left-wing, dreads, panther, the whole nine) while the facts presented against him are just as strong as any death penalty case.

What gets me is that you will NEVER hear any of these people make the case that they are against the death penalty for a guilty convict, but, in fact, that the individual they are supporting is innocent and deserves to be free! Why are they so afraid to admit that they are against the sentence but not the conviction?

Read the essay written by Mike Farrell on his website concerning the convicted murderer Tookie Williams. He of course comes out against the death penalty, but then says he is oblivious when it comes to the crimes committed because he himself "wasn't there".

A question for those who believe in "Free Mumia" and "Free Tookie" - would you have settled for Life in Prison for these men? And if so, what does that say about how "free" you really believe they should be?



Nice to read such a passionate entry.

But the laziness and hypocrisy of people I'm sure actually doesn't surprise you. And the inability of advocates to see the truth is a given.

A few quick examples to add to the discussion. I'm in favor of rational climate control, but when I'm approached by these kids with "Save the polar bear" shirts, I ask them how many will be saved and ask them if they know how many are shot each year. In Hudson's Bay alone, about 50 polar bears are shot each year. I tell them they should learn their story better . . . for their own good.

Some years back, I wrote a review of a book by Catherine MacKinnon, the extreme feminist law professor. I think it was called "Only Words" but I'm not 100% sure. I looked up each case. She had misrepresented each one. My favorite was an argument that a man had "consumed" porn at a convenience store and then gone out and killed a young woman - and the porn impelled him to do this because it contained a mild bondage scene with a young- looking woman. There was no reported decision but I found the facts in a newspaper article: the guy was using a claim that he'd been at the store looking at porn as his alibi. He was never there and was placed at the scene. She simply made up the connection that this guy read Penthouse and then had an urge to commit violence. That's advocacy for you.

Another example is bald-faced distortion. If you remember Lani Guinier, the Clinton nominee to run Civil Rights who was attacked by conservatives. I kept hearing blunt condemnations that she'd written about "authentic" representatives for black Americans and blunt defenses that in another article she'd "merely" argued for proportional voting and had not presented some completely horrid attack on our democratic system. (In my circles, she was defended with fervor.) I read the articles. I know that few did because the law reviews were buried under two feet of books in the library and the second one was still bound in a stack. I found that both sides were lying. She merely quoted some authority that there's a concept of "authenticity" in racial representation - and that article was so poorly written or edited that you couldn't say more. The second article, from the Virginia Law Review, did not argue merely for proportional representation as a voting system. She in fact argued for proportional decisions: you guys get your way some of the time but the minority gets its way some of the time. She offered clear examples where minorities could veto the decisions of the majority. Totally not as represented by the left wing. When I explained this to my circle, I was met with silence but the nomination never went anywhere.


John Brady

Three thoughts on this.

1. A similar thing can be said about almost any issue in public policy. Most take a stand without knowing the full depth of the arguments, research, etc. on both sides. I am not defending their ignorance, more stating it is a continual problem in our country that everyone has an opinion on everything and knows they are right.

2. I think there is a reasonable argument to be made (though I dont think most mumia defenders are making it) that he shouldn't be (have been) on death row simply based on racial issues at the time and not getting a jury of peers who understand the relevant racial issues. It may not be a strong argument to some, but I think it is an argument made on principles that requires less knowledge of the facts. It is similar to the argument that we should allow many death row inmates off of the hook because there are too many incompetent (or under funded) public defenders.

3. The large amount of death row cases overturned in the past years in Illinois is an interesting case study for both sides. Both because there were hard working people equipping themselves with the facts of the case to overturn the wrongful sentences, and because there were activists (some of whom werent as knowledgeable) who worked hard to change public perception of the issue.



I am astonished by this article and the comments that follow. Its unfortunate Steven that celebrity endorsements make you nervous, but I am confused why you decided not to note the other endorsements that Mumia Abu Jamal has recieved from people who have looked at the overwhelming evidence of judicial wrongdoing and have added their support to a retrial. Those other celebritys like Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the European Parlaiment, Sister Helen Prejean and Amnesty International.

Facts about Mumia's 1982 trial:

* The policeman was killed with a 44 caliber gun. Abu-Jamal's gun which he was licensed to carry as a night-time taxi driver, was a 38 caliber.

* The police never tested Abu-Jamal's gun to see if it had been recently fired. They never tested his hands to see if he had fired a gun. They have never shown Abu-Jamal 's gun to be the fatal weapon.

* No police officers present at Abu-Jamal's arrest claimed to have heard Jamal's "confession" until two months after it allegedly occurred. This was right after Abu-Jamal had filed police brutality charges.

* Abu-Jamal's doctor said that Abu-Jamal, who was unconscious, said nothing. He reported that a nurse found police with loaded guns pointed at Mumia as he lay unconscious in his hospital bed.

* William Singletary, a Vietnam veteran and local businessman, saw the whole incident and has testified that Abu-Jamal was not the shooter. However, the police forced him to change his story and intimidated him into leaving Philadelphia.

* Other key witnesses, such as Veronica Jones -- who now testifies in support of Abu-Jamal, were harassed into giving false testimony. Two prosecution witnesses were given special favors, including exemption from criminal prosecution, for their testimony.

Elements in an unfair trial:

* The Judge, Albert Sabo, sentenced more people to death than any other sitting judge in the US.

* The public defender didn't interview a single witness in preparation for the trial, and didn't have funds for defending a capital case.

* The prosecutor removed 11 qualified African Americans from the jury. He also argued for the death penalty because of Mumia's membership in the Black Panther Party, a practice later condemned as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

* The racial bias of Philadelphia's courts has resulted in 120 people on death row, all but 13 non-white.



Great insight, Caleb.

Thomas B.

I'm always surprised when I look up those stats on the death penalty and am reminded that across every American demographic, the majority supports the death penalty.

I'm not much of a Christian, but it's mystifying to me how anyone can read their Bible and miss the commentary on capital punishment.


Without wanting to be disrespectful to the material we are discussing, did Levitt really sit down and read a 368 page book in one sitting? Is he some kind of superman? I read as much as the next guy and I never find myself reading more than 150 pages of a book a day, even if I'm at the beach or something.


Eloquence counts for a lot. Writing a book counts for more. Combine them, and you have a cause celebre. After all, someone who is not only eloquent but an author can't be guilty.

It may be that death row inmates, instead of lifting weights, should bone up on The Elements of Style and Wariner's.


I feel the same way about people who wear those Che Guevara t-shirts.

Jen (SLC)

Mumia was chosen as the graduation speaker at my undergraduate college the year before I graduated. I never read his whole book, but we did spend some time studying the case in one of my courses. We watched a very pro-Mumia documentary, but the evidence presented in it was very inconclusive. In fact, it made me lean more in favor of his guilt. That wasn't the case for most of my classmates who went on to hold rallies and, ultimately, elect him as graduation speaker. Personally, I don't know enough about the case to make a call of guilt or innocence, but I think the most interesting aspect of it is how people are swayed and what causes them to take action.


"His death sentence has been turned over on a technicality"
The technicality being that, in the words of the judge: "The charge and verdict form created a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed it was precluded from considering any mitigating circumstance that had not been found unanimously to exist" (the presiding judge gave jury instructions that gave the impression the juries didn't need to use the "beyond a shadow of a doubt" standard since he'd get automatic appeals).
Is that a technicality?

The passage you quote implies that the idea of tampering evidence is only that of the uninformed. But there's photographic proof:
On the today show, when confronted with these photos, the guy that helped ms. faulkner write the book, ignored them and did a straw man:


If I am angry over anything in the world, it is the utter mockery of our death penalty.

When men can sit on death row for 10 - 15 years--sometimes outliving the grandparents of the little girl they raped and killed--we have a problem with justice.

Very simply, I propose that if DNA, confession, video evidience, or other such overwhelming evidence proves a person is guilty, then they have ONE YEAR (for the sake of their family and final affairs), and they are then executed.

Further, for certain heinous crimes (not all crimes, just those of a particularly heinous nature), one should not be able to get off on a technicality. You are either guilty or not guilty. Insane? Well, if in your insanity you killed a child or stabbed someone 200 times, you are still put to death--not so much as punishment...but as protection FOREVER from you.

After all, you can be sure that eventually some foolish judge will declare that the death penalty is excessive, and that a person shouldn't have to spend more than 20 years in prison (or some such)...and that insane person will walk out, perhaps wanting to experience a certain thrill he experienced 20 years before.

For these heinous crimes, there should be no appeal but innocence. So the jury wasn't the proper blend of male and female, black and white? Too bad. The question is not whether you could have swayed another jury configuration, but whether you are guilty.

Lastly, EVERY applicabl eperson on death row should have IMMEDIATE DNA testing. If the test proves them guilty, they get executed in two weeks. If they are innocent, they are freed, given a monthly stipend for the next 30 years, apologized to, and that's about the best we can do.

Appeals from these death row inmates should be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court. Get it over with and now. Either you're innocent or your guilty.

It angers me that anyone can stay on death row so long. If we are sure they are guilty, we should be sure about executing them.


Hans Bennett

I think Mumia certainly needs a new trial, and the recent rejection of a new guilt-phase trial is an outrage. If the evidence against Mumia is so strong, what is there to lose. Until there is a new, fair trial, this case will continue to outrage many around the world.

Via my organization, Journalists for Mumia, at the website we display the newly discovered crime scene photos that were spotlighted on the Dec. 6 Today Show featuring Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner, which can be watched here:


Wow. What courage it took for this woman to stand there and listen to an obviously uninformed college student blather on about her own husband's senseless murderer, then to leave him speechless. I was never much interested in this case, but I'm heading out to buy her book now.

Lyn LeJeune

How many "political" causes are forged before the facts of the case are brought into the open. I do not know about this case and this is the first time I've learned anything about it. But, over the years we must be astounded at the number of "free whoever" campaigns we've read about and then they slip away into news oblivion. How do we as a society take the measure of what is the measure of a person's innocence, espcially one sitting on death row? Remember, in the last few years how many people have been released and found innocence only because a bunch of law students needed a thesis project. What lies beyond DNA evidence?

Lyn LeJeune - rebuilding public libraries, the cornerstone of a free society.

Joe Z.

Yes, that person was being ignorant for not wanting to hear the other side of the story, but it should be patently obvious that you're doing the exact same thing. You read a convincing book by the wife of a person who was ALLEGEDLY killed by Mumia (just as this person heard only convincing info about the unfair nature of his trial and whatnot) and openly admit to not having sought out more information on the case. Why did you post this - to show the parallel examples of this student, and yourself?

Jim Lennon

There are about 35 people around Philadelphia who think that Mumia is innocent leaving the remaining several million who think he's guilty and should rot in jail. It's been my observation, over the years, that his charm increases with the square of the distance from Philadelphia. Thus we think he's a lousy murderer and the people of Paris have named a street after him. It doesn't surprise me that kids in California support Mumia.
Maureen Faulkner is an ace and Michael Smerconish gives talk radio a good name. We are lucky to have them around.