Grass-Roots Groups Rally for Death-Row Inmate

Convicted of murdering a Philadelphia cop, Mumia Abu-Jamal appeals for a new, 'less biased' trial

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL, a convicted Philadelphia murderer scheduled to be executed on Aug. 17, is the latest international cause celebre.

At the four-day National Governor's Conference in Vermont protesters from Quebec to Florida heckle Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has signed Mr. Jamal's death warrant. In a New York press conference, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author complains about ''racism'' and ''mistrials'' of justice in Jamal's trial. And in Rome, the US Embassy receives a petition signed by 100,000 people asking that Jamal be spared.

Jamal was convicted in 1981 of killing a policeman. His supporters, however, claim he was railroaded by a biased judge. The prosecutors have stood by their case, which included eyewitness testimony.

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The case is focusing international attention on the judicial system in the United States where there have been 33 executions this year. On Tuesday, the International Writers' Parliament held a press conference in Paris to condemn what it termed the ''judicial error'' in Jamal's case. In New York, on the same day, the authors' group PEN, argued that Jamal deserved a new trial as well. ''Guilt was never satisfactorily proved,'' said William Styron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Death-row observers believe it is possible that Jamal will get a new trial. ''Legitimately, he has a lot of issues,'' says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death-penalty group in Washington. Among the issues:

r Jamal never had counsel he was satisfied with. In addition, Jamal's original lawyer was given only a small amount of money to defend the case.

r An autopsy report raised questions about whether Jamal's gun was the murder weapon

r The judge, Albert Sabo of the Common Pleas Court, has become an issue as well. A retired member of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, he banished Jamal from the courtroom for ''outbursts.'' At the time, Jamal was defending himself. Judge Sabo is now presiding over a hearing for a new trial.

Even before his conviction, Jamal was well-known to the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his political activities. He was founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers and was a supporter of the radical group MOVE, whose showdown with the Philadelphia police ended with a calamitous police firebombing in 1985. He was also a part-time reporter for National Public Radio.

From prison, Jamal has continued to prick consciences. He has published a collection of commentaries, ''Live From Death Row,'' which has received favorable reviews.

Jamal's troubles began when he was moonlighting as a taxi driver. Since he had been robbed twice, he was carrying a handgun. Early in the morning, Officer Daniel Faulkner had pulled over Jamal's younger brother for driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

Jamal later said he saw the officer beating his brother. He claims he jumped out of the cab with his gun to help his brother. When police backups arrived, they found Faulkner in a pool of blood. Nearby was Jamal, who was also shot. His .38 caliber gun had five spent shells.

At the autopsy, the medical examiner identified the slugs in the officer as .44-caliber. Jamal's lawyers now claim the jury was never told about the autopsy report.

Because of such issues, some observers believe Jamal will eventually get a new trial. ''From what I have read, he should have long ago been granted a new trial,'' says Hugo Bedau, an expert on the death penalty and a professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Although Jamal is scheduled for execution in two weeks, he has yet to exhaust his federal appeals.

Why so much clamor, if Jamal is still years away from facing lethal injection? Mr. Bedau, a death-penalty opponent, replies, ''If you wait in your public protest until there is nothing left but political efforts, you may well lose.''

Governor Ridge is not likely to intercede, says spokesman Tim Reeves: ''He does not see himself as a super jury to retry the case.'' So Jamal's only hope is for a court-ordered retrial, or a more sympathetic governor.

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