Mary Papenfuss, Chronicle Foreign Service, May 17, 2009
(05-17) 04:00 PDT Paris - -- An ardent group of activists who meet weekly to protest the imprisonment of a death-row inmate, chanted slogans, shouted into microphones and held up printed banners. They could have been Bay Area residents in front of San Quentin before an execution, but they wore Chloé flats, spoke French, gathered near the Seine River and yelled liberté for a man languishing 3,700 miles away in a Pennsylvania prison.
While Mumia Abu-Jamal, 55, has been excoriated as a vicious cop killer in Philadelphia, he has been a cause-celebre in France for years.
In 2001, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe declared him an honorary citizen, adding Abu-Jamal to a list of notables such as Pablo Picasso and the Dalai Lama. In 2006, the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis named a street after him, prompting the city of Philadelphia to file a "crime of denial" grievance under an 1881 French law.
Late last year, Abu-Jamal's San Francisco attorney, Robert R. Bryan, received a medal from the city of Lyon for his work against the death penalty. At a news conference, Bryan joined Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of former President Francois Mitterrand, to speak to Abu-Jamal by cell phone at a palatial 17th century city hall.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to order a new trial 27 years after Abu-Jamal's 1982 conviction for killing 25-year-old Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner's widow, Maureen, who now lives in Southern California, said she wept after the decision. "I've been haunted by the Free Mumia movement," she has told reporters. "He murdered my husband in cold blood."
Her sentiment and the court's decision, however, haven't discouraged Abu-Jamal's European supporters, whose rallies often eclipse those held in New York and San Francisco. Along with Paris, he has been given the status of honorary citizen in some 20 other cities, including Palermo, Sicily, and is an honorary member of Berlin's Association of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime.
Most of his ardent European backers believe he didn't receive a fair trial and is innocent. Others are simply against the death penalty. Currently, Belarus is the only European country that still uses capital punishment.
"He's innocent," said Abdel Chaoui, a 56-year-old resident of Saint-Denis. "If he's not, he shouldn't be put to death ... he has served enough time."
Although French activists have lobbied for the release of other U.S. prisoners - at last month's rally, protesters also collected signatures demanding a new trial for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of two FBI agents - no other inmate galvanizes the French public like Abu-Jamal.
Some observers attribute such support to France's love affair with African Americans who sought refuge from U.S. racism, such as dancer Josephine Baker, writer Richard Wright, singer Paul Robeson and poet Langston Hughes. Many French supporters are convinced American institutions are inherently racist.
In addition, Abu-Jamal "is uniquely articulate for a death-row inmate," said UCLA political science Professor Mark Sawyer. "The idea of someone of his intellectual heft on death row makes some think of him as a condemned philosopher."
Before his arrest, Abu-Jamal had no previous criminal record. He had been a member of the Black Panther Party and had worked as a cab driver and radio journalist. He has continued writing behind bars and recently published his sixth book -"Jailhouse Lawyers" published by San Francisco's City Lights Publishers, making him a compelling poster child for death-penalty protesters.
Meanwhile, San Francisco attorney Bryan is convinced that European support will help his client avoid the death penalty and win a new trial.
"International support is crucial. If protests on Mumia's behalf are heard on the other side of the Atlantic, it has a major effect," he said. "Judges try to be impervious to public sentiment. But they're not machines; fortunately, they're human."
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal
On death row since a 1982 conviction for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Mumia Abu-Jamal has received much attention both at home and abroad.
Hollywood celebrities such as Martin Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Moore, Ed Asner and Edward James Olmos have called for a new trial. The American rock band Rage Against The Machine have sung his praises in "Voice of the Voiceless." British actor Colin Firth produced a 2007 documentary about his case called "In Prison My Whole Life."
Abu-Jamal supporters say somebody else shot the police officer, his court-appointed lawyer was incompetent and several witnesses have contradicted themselves over the years. In a 2000 report, Amnesty International said trial evidence was "contradictory and incomplete,"
But critics say Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, shot the police officer, four witnesses testified that he was the gunman, and shell casings from his .38-caliber gun were found at the crime scene. Moreover, police say he confessed to the crime while recuperating from his wounds in a hospital bed.
Few, however, argue that a police officer named Daniel Faulkner pulled over a Volkswagen driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal's brother on Dec, 9, 1981, for a traffic violation. Faulkner soon called for backup, but was dead from gunshot wounds to the back and face by the time other officers arrived. Police found Abu-Jamal nearby in the cab he drove lying in a pool of his own blood from a gunshot wound to the chest. Abu-Jamal has long said he saw Faulkner beating his brother, and when he went to his aid the officer shot him.
Over the years, state and federal courts have denied various appeals for a retrial and a habeas corpus review. The courts have also denied claims that witnesses perjured themselves and that Abu-Jamal had ineffectual counsel. In the latest decision last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal appeals court ruling that upheld his conviction, rejecting the argument that prosecutors sought to exclude black people from the jury. Abu Jamal was convicted by a jury of 10 whites and two blacks.
Abu-Jamal's San Francisco lawyer, Robert R. Bryan has filed a petition for a Supreme Court rehearing in the case, and is considering challenging ballistics findings in a separate action. The court has yet to consider a lower court ruling that set aside the death penalty. That ruling has been appealed by Philadelphia authorities, leaving Abu-Jamal on death row.
"We're closer to meeting the executioner," said Bryan.
E-mail Mary Papenfuss at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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