End the Mumia Fiasco

Thomas and Mary raised seven children: Thomas Jr., Joseph, Joanne, Lawrence, Patrick, Kenny and Danny. They were a religious family, united not only by their Catholic faith, but also by the hardscrabble lives each led in Southwest Philadelphia and in Delaware County.

Thomas Jr. was a cop for five years until he was injured. Joseph worked for a cement company and battled many physical problems. Joanne was a waitress. Lawrence worked as a bartender. Pat has spent 40 years working for Acme, and Kenny worked a variety of jobs, including bartender. Of the seven children, only one became famous, and not in a way that any parent or sibling would ever desire.

The eminent one was Danny Faulkner, and his fame came only upon his execution Dec. 9, 1981. Mumia Abu-Jamal was tried and convicted for that murder one year later. It was a long time ago.

Stamps were 20 cents; Luke had finally married Laura on General Hospital; Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" was atop the charts. President Reagan, nearing the end of his first year in office, was enabling an expansion by the CIA into domestic counterintelligence. And Danny Faulkner liked to spend his Sunday afternoons watching another "Dan" -- Dan Fouts -- throw touchdowns for the Chargers in San Diego.

In the intervening quarter-century, many Faulkner family members have passed without closure, due to a delay initiated by death-penalty opponents. Danny's mother, Mary, was alive when he was killed and attended every day of the murder trial before passing a few years thereafter. (His father, Thomas, a trolley driver, died when Danny was a boy.) All Danny Faulkner's siblings were still alive at the time of his tragic death, but today, only two are with us: Larry and Pat. Maureen Faulkner, Danny's wife, is very much alive, but both of her parents, who agonizingly accompanied her to trial in 1982, have passed.

Meanwhile, the man who heaped tragedy upon everyone related to the Philly cop still lives, albeit behind bars. Abu-Jamal is now 53.

His attorneys were back in court last week for yet another round in his endless cycle of appeals. His long entanglement in the courts is an embarrassment to our judicial system, but not because an innocent man sits on death row. No: This saga is testament to a system easily manipulated for interminable delay. Consider that, since the death penalty was reinstated in Pennsylvania in 1978, only three have been put to death -- and each of them asked for it! Meanwhile, 225 inmates sit on death row.

I no longer fault Abu-Jamal's attorneys for the wait. Instead, I lay blame with those who give lip service to the death penalty, but don't act to enforce it by streamlining the appellate process. Legislators who talk a good game in election season, but lose sight of what a quarter-century of uncertainly does to crime victims like the family of Danny Faulkner.

No wonder Pat Faulkner, Danny's brother, told me he couldn't bring himself to be there in court last week.

"I just don't know how I would react after 25 years, and I don't want to overreact and embarrass my brother's memory with my temper," he said. "You can only hold something in so long."

The murder was in 1981. In 1982, Abu-Jamal was afforded a trial by his peers, which led to his conviction and death sentence. In 1989, his conviction and sentence were upheld by the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court. The commonwealth's highest court also rejected subsequent appeals (in 1995, 1996 and 1997, his case was the subject of Post-Conviction Relief Act hearings, which afforded him the opportunity to raise new evidence).

With the state appeals exhausted, Abu-Jamal has turned to the federal courts, where he seeks habeas corpus relief. In 2001, a federal judge upheld the conviction and rejected all but one of the 29 defense arguments.

Perhaps most telling was what that judge, William H. Yohn Jr., noted at the outset: "Since its inception, this matter has negotiated a tortuous procedural course, and this pattern continues today." Tortuous indeed. Just ask Maureen Faulkner.

"In 1982, when Jamal was unanimously sentenced to death by a jury that he helped pick, I never could have even imagined that, seven years into the next century, my family and I would still be taking time from our lives to attend appeals hearings," she told me last week.

"This process is obscene in the way it taints the survivors' lives for so long. You can never move on. There's never any closure: just endless rounds of hearings and motions made by new batches of crusading attorneys. This case has now even tainted the lives of Danny's nieces and nephews, who were just little children when Jamal murdered Danny. It gets out that you are the niece or nephew of Danny Faulkner, and people treat you differently. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but they can't get away from it. And now some of them will be standing in the courtroom in place of their uncles, who have lived their lives and passed on. And Jamal is still alive on death row writing books and mugging for the camera. It's all so wrong."

Twenty-five years and counting.