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March 2–9, 2000

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Mumia, Word for Word

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Transcripts transmitted: Talk show host and lawyer Michael Smerconish has posted the Mumia Abu-Jamal trial transcripts on the Justice for Daniel Faulkner website.

photo: Shoshanna Wiesner

The best Mumia source may be the trial transcript itself.

by Noel Weyrich

Like almost everyone in Philadelphia, Michael Smerconish has some strong opinions about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s claim that he was unfairly convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia policeman.

And like almost everyone in Philadelphia, Michael Smerconish had never read the actual transcripts from that celebrated and controversial trial. Until, he says, last spring.

When he finally did read the transcripts, he liked them so much that over the past few months he’s had all 5,000 pages put up on the web, at the Justice for Daniel Faulkner website (

"It’s an idea I came up with a couple of months ago because it occurred to me that despite all the bullshit on the other side of the fence and all of their claims about how Mumia was railroaded, they had never taken the time and expense to post the trial transcripts," says Smerconish, a talk show host and lawyer prominent in Republican political circles. "There are in excess of 100 pro-Mumia websites. It struck me as an oddity that they are all long on hyperbole and short on fact."

Daniel Faulkner was the name of the patrol officer Abu-Jamal was convicted of shooting to death at a 4 a.m. traffic stop at 13th and Locust streets in December 1981. Abu-Jamal was found at the scene, injured in the chest from one of Faulkner’s bullets. At his side was a gun, registered in his name, with five spent shell casings inside. He was convicted and sentenced to death in a two-week trial in the summer of 1982.

In recent years, however, the movement to get Abu-Jamal a new trial and cast his original trial as a travesty of justice has gained growing and unprecedented currency among Hollywood celebrities, left-wing intellectuals and anti-death penalty activists from all over the world. But few of them, aside from Abu-Jamal’s attorneys, have ever claimed to have seen the original trial transcripts.

To be fair to Abu-Jamal and his followers, the main claims against the 1982 trial concern what was allegedly excluded from the trial record. A petition now before the federal district court in Philadelphia enumerates 29 distinct claims that focus almost entirely on evidence that was not collected, contradictory witnesses not interviewed and leads involving other suspects that were ignored. (Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Leonard Weinglass, referred a request for comment to C. Clark Kissinger, an author and prominent Abu-Jamal advocate. Kissinger did not return calls for comment.)

Yet the transcripts serve nonetheless to clear away some of the most grievous canards about the trial, melting the common claims, for instance, that Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death by a "hanging judge" (the death penalty was voted on by the jury) and that he was denied a competent lawyer. (In truth, Abu-Jamal repeatedly stated he didn’t want any member of the bar as his attorney. He would only allow MOVE member John Africa to represent him.)

The transcripts also show in vivid detail the stubborn defiance and vitriol Abu-Jamal exhibited in the courtroom. Much of the transcript, especially in the early days of the case when Abu-Jamal served as his own defense attorney, resembles nothing so much as an act of legal self-immolation. Abu-Jamal protested repeatedly to the judge that "your court means nothing to me, your honor," and often uttered the phrase "I’m fighting for my life here," which prompted Judge Albert Sabo to retort at one point, "I don’t think you’re fighting for your life. If you were you wouldn’t be using such tactics." When asked to offer his plea, Abu-Jamal remained silent, and refused to respond again when asked whether he wanted a trial by jury.

Where Abu-Jamal’s defenders have used excerpts from the transcripts, a quick check with the Faulkner website often reveals the full extent of their selectivity. For instance, a recent Amnesty International report entitled "Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance," calls for Abu-Jamal’s re-trial, in part by declaring that "it is clear from the exchanges between [the judge and Abu-Jamal] that Abu-Jamal had come to the conclusion that he would be denied a fair trial by the court." It uses the following exchange as an example:

THE COURT: Mr. Jamal, it is quite evident to this Court that you are intentionally disrupting the orderly procedure of this court. I have warned you time and time again that if you continue with that attitude that I would have to remove you as counsel in this case.

THE DEFENDANT: Judge, your warnings to me are absolutely meaningless. I’m here fighting for my life. Do you understand that? I’m not fighting to please the Court, or to please the D.A. I’m fighting for my life. I need counsel of my choice, someone I have faith in, someone I have respect for; not someone paid by the same pocket that pays the D.A., not a court-appointed lawyer, not a member of the ABA, not an officer of this court but someone I can trust and I have faith in. Your warnings are absolutely moot, they’re meaningless to me.

What the Amnesty report neglects to mention is that the above exchange took place only after an exasperated Sabo had cleared the jury from the courtroom. (Amnesty officials did not return calls for comment.)

Sabo had asked Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGill to begin the next part of his case, when Abu-Jamal interrupted, repeatedly refusing to accept Sabo’s ruling that Pennsylvania law forbade John Africa (or any other lay person) to represent him in court:

[DISTRICT ATTORNEY] MR. McGILL: Your Honor, if it please the Court —

THE DEFENDANT: I’m not finished.

MR. McGILL: Your Honor —

THE DEFENDANT: I’m not finished speaking, Judge.

MR. McGILL: Your Honor, we’ve just had about a half hour, 20 minutes, anyway, of side bar conference and I believe Your Honor has ruled.

THE COURT: Yes, I have.

THE DEFENDANT: He has not ruled to my satisfaction. This is my trial. This is my trial and it isn’t your trial. I need counsel of my choice, Judge.

THE COURT: Are you going to allow the District Attorney to address the jury?

THE DEFENDANT: Are you refusing to allow me counsel of my choice?

THE COURT: I did rule on that before, yes.

THE DEFENDANT: I need counsel that I can have faith in, that I trust, that I respect —

THE COURT: This is —

THE DEFENDANT: — that is not a member of this court, that is not an officer of this court —

THE COURT: Mr. Jamal, are you refusing to allow the District Attorney to proceed?

THE DEFENDANT: Are you refusing to give me counsel of my choice?

MR. McGILL: Your Honor, as I understand it Your Honor has said that —

THE COURT: Take the jury out.


This question of John Africa serving as Abu-Jamal’s legal representative dominated the start of the trial, particularly on the first day. Even after the state Supreme Court upheld Sabo’s ruling, Abu-Jamal persisted. Some of the resulting exchanges are comically absurd:


THE DEFENDANT: This man has gone to law school, right, but he cannot guarantee me my freedom; he cannot guarantee me victory.

THE COURT: Nobody can do that.

THE DEFENDANT: Well, how do you know?

THE COURT: Well, how do you know?

THE DEFENDANT: I do know. I do know. John Africa can do that.

THE COURT: No, nobody can.

THE DEFENDANT: Well, you don’t know that. I do know.

THE COURT: Neither do you.

THE DEFENDANT: Well, do you know John Africa?

THE COURT: I don’t have to know him.


THE COURT: I don’t have to know him.


Shortly thereafter, Sabo removed Abu-Jamal as his own lawyer and Anthony Jackson, a young court-appointed attorney assigned to assist Abu-Jamal in his self-defense, became the defense attorney. He and Abu-Jamal proceeded to bicker throughout the trial, and Mumia would later denounce him as a "worthless sellout and a shyster."

Jackson emerges as a particularly tragic figure in the transcripts. Cast in a no-win situation, with a defendant who wouldn’t cooperate and a judge who threatened him with disciplinary action if he tried to quit, Jackson ended up as nobody’s hero. On the next-to-last day of the trial, he had this interaction with Sabo:

THE COURT: You are late again, Mr. Jackson. What’s the excuse this time?

MR. JACKSON: This morning, Your Honor, at about 6:30, a quarter to 7:00, fire engines came to my house again, and I think I indicated that to you before. There was no fire.… At about a quarter after 9:00, my son called me and indicated that someone called and said… "You are the one we want. We will be over to get you."… I then decided to go home and take him to my mother’s house.

The unexpurgated transcripts generally make Abu-Jamal look extremely unsympathetic, an odious and self-justifying criminal whose only defense is to tear at the justice system until the judge is forced repeatedly to remove him from the courtroom. When Jackson gamely perseveres in pursuing the case, however, there is plenty of evidence on the record that Abu-Jamal, as an indigent defendant, was getting cut-rate justice. At one point, Jackson pleads pathetically for more than the court-allotted $150 to pay a ballistics expert.

One important segment of the trial that is still not up on the Faulkner site is the jury selection procedure, which Amnesty International’s report claims set Abu-Jamal against the whole process to begin with. Smerconish explains he is relying on volunteers who are gradually putting the transcripts into fast-reading "html" computer language. Most of the beginning and end of the trial are already in "html" files on the website, while the complete proceedings are only available in the more balky "pdf" format. The jury selection segment and Abu-Jamal’s subsequent appeals will be added later, he says.

It is a gruesome spectacle nonetheless to read about Abu-Jamal, articulately helping dig his own grave with both hands, piling one absurd and offensive statement on top of the other. After hearing so much about the trial and its world-famous defendant, it’s fascinating to finally read Abu-Jamal in his own words, before his judge and jury, almost 20 years ago:

On the justice system: "In terms of lawyers it’s very clear that there are 1,300 people at Holmesburg Detention Center, House of Correction. All of them have lawyers, either private or Public Defenders and it’s very clear for those 1,300 people that those lawyers have not served their needs in terms of obtaining freedom for them, in terms of finding them innocent of charges."

To Judge Sabo on refusing to take the stand: "You have taken every right I have and you want to save one right. You have taken all my rights and you want to say ‘You can have that right but you can’t have the other four that I said you had.’ I mean it is horse shit."

On the trial: "On December the 9th, 1981, the police attempted to execute me in the street. This trial is a result of their failure to do so."

Smerconish says that going through the 5,000 pages of trial transcripts was easy because "the thing reads like a novel. It’s not a bad read at all."

Certainly many of the passages have the quality of classic courtroom drama, so much so that Walter Dallas of Freedom Theater and Nick Stuccio of the Fringe Festival have been in discussions to produce a one-man show with Roger Guenveur Smith as Mumia. Smith’s solo turn as Black Panther Huey Newton was a Fringe hit in 1998.

Mumia may indeed die someday on a gurney in a Pennsylvania death chamber, but portions of this, his last public performance, could live on — in the theater.

For more information
The most comprehensive pro-Mumia site

Legal documents in Mumia Abu-Jamal's defense:

The Amnesty International report on Mumia Abu-Jamal:

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