On this day in 1999, the governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Ride, signed the death warrant for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was charged with the slaying of a police officer.
Mumia was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in April of 1954. When he was in high school, he had a teacher encourage students to take on African or Arabic names for use in the classroom. Cook chose “Mumia” and the name stuck.
Abu-Jamal describes being “kicked … into the Black Panther Party” after being beaten by “white racists” and a police officer due to his attempt to disrupt a 1987 George Wallace for President rally. At 14 years old, Abu-Jamal worked with the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party. He was responsible for writing and handling media communications. That same year, he dropped out of high school and began living at the Philadelphia branch’s headquarters.
After leaving the organization, Abu-Jamal returned to high school. Unsuccessfully, he attempted to change the school’s name to Malcolm X High. He earned his GED and studied very briefly at Goddard College. From 1979 to 1981, Abu-Jamal worked at National Public Radio (NPR).
On December 9, 1981, Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia Police Department officer, conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle being driven by Abu-Jamal’s younger brother. A psychical confrontation began between the two of them, and Abu-Jamal intervened. Faulkner was shot from behind as well as in the face. He died at the scene. Abu-Jamal was shot in the stomach and suffered only minor injuries.
He was taken by police to directly Thomas Jefferson University Hospital to receive treatment for the wound and shortly after was charged with the first-degree murder of Officer Faulkner.
The trial began in Philadelphia in June of 1982. He was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. However, in December of 2011, it was announced by Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams that the death penalty would no longer be sought for Abu-Jamal. Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, made the following statement:
“I would like to say that I believe the lowest dimension of hell has been reserved for child molesters and unrepentant murderers, like Mumia Abu-Jamal. After thirty years of waiting, the time remaining before Abu-Jamal stands before his ultimate judge. It doesn’t seem so far off as it once did when I was younger. I look forward to that day so I can finally close the chapter of my life and live with the gratification and assurance that Mumia Abu-Jamal will finally receive the punishment he deserves, for all eternity.”
On July 9, 2013, Abu-Jamal’s sentence was reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Labor unions, activists, and several human rights groups continue to criticize the quality of Abu-Jamal’s trial and are fighting for his release. He has been made an honorary citizen of 25 different cities across the world, including Paris, Palermo, and Montreal.