Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black journalist and former Black Panther
who has spent the past 19 years on Pennsylvania's Death Row for
the murder of a white cop, has fired his legal defense team in response
to the pending publication of a book authored by one of his key
Abu-Jamal made the dramatic move on March 1 in a handwritten request
filed with Federal District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., who is currently
considering Abu-Jamal's last-ditch habeas corpus appeal of his state
court murder conviction. In that brief he says he needs to drop
his attorneys because the book, Executing Justice: An Inside
Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (St. Martin's Press),
represents a breach of legal ethics and of lawyer-client confidentiality
by attorney Dan Williams.
Abu-Jamal doesn't explain his reasons for wanting to toss out lead
Weinglass and several other lawyers associated with the case along
with Williams, but there is speculation that he may want the case
to move in a different, more political direction--or that he intends
to be his own lead counsel, as he attempted to do during his original
trial until blocked by Judge Albert Sabo.
Mumia says one of his lawers
violated legal ethics.
Williams, a death penalty appeals expert, expresses regret at being
dropped from the case, which he has been involved in since 1994,
and claims that Abu-Jamal knew for months of his plans to write
a book. "I provided to Mumia, through his agent, a detailed synopsis
of each chapter before I wrote the book," he says.
He further insists that there has been no violation of ethics and
no breach of confidence with his client, saying, "Everything in
this book was already on the public record." He explains that the
arguments among defense attorneys, and the broader disputes over
legal strategy that are reported in detail in the book, all occurred
in the presence of other people--usually members of the Abu-Jamal
support network--or were previously published. "There is nothing
in this book that violates legal ethics," insists Williams, who
says he continues to believe that Abu-Jamal is "innocent and, most
importantly, has never been given a meaningful opportunity to refute
the prosecution's flawed case against him."
The book itself, at more than 300 pages, provides the most detailed
analysis of this complex case to date, and invites controversy by
charging both the prosecution and some Mumia backers alike with
overstating and misrepresenting their cases. Williams retraces the
original 1982 trial, in which a jury of two blacks and 10 whites
convicted Abu-Jamal of first-degree murder and sentenced him to
death. He then reviews the subsequent Post-Conviction Relief Act
(PCRA) rehearing of the facts in the case, where serious questions
were raised about the reliability and honesty of earlier prosecution
witnesses (as well as new evidence that the prosecution withheld
from the defense). He argues that there are sound reasons to suspect
that Abu-Jamal did not fire the first shot back in 1981--a key part
of the prosecution's successful portrayal of this as a first-degree
Instead, Williams argues that the evidence suggests officer Daniel
Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the chest first, before being shot fatally
himself--a scenario which would open the door to a self-defense
argument. Williams' theory, based on eyewitness testimony, has someone
else firing the fatal shot that killed the officer. But he seems
to suggest that this is less important than proving that Abu-Jamal
was not the cold-blooded assassin the prosecution made him out to
be at trial, and getting him off of Death Row. (His view is that
it would be much easier to overturn Abu-Jamal's death sentence,
and even his first-degree murder conviction, than to have him declared
innocent.) Williams goes on to charge that, in promoting the theory
of a grand conspiracy to kill Abu-Jamal, some of Abu-Jamal's supporters--including
MOVE and lawyers from the Trotskyist Partisan
Defense Committee (PDC)--are more interested in "exploiting"
his case for political ends than in overturning his death sentence.
Those conspiracy advocates, who have seen the hand of everything
from the FBI to Abu-Jamal's original attorney Anthony Jackson behind
his conviction, undercut the strength of his case, Williams argues.
Weinglass and he struggled behind the scenes to keep several witnesses
promoted by PDC attorneys Rachel Wolkenstein and Jon Piper off the
stand during the PCRA hearing, fearing that their testimony was
unbelievable and would tarnish other more credible witnesses. Those
witnesses ended up testifying, only to be easily dismantled under
the withering cross examination of prosecution attorneys who had
the support of the openly pro-prosecution Judge Sabo.
Later, after the PCRA hearing was over, Williams says Wolkenstein
and Piper tried to convince him and Weinglass they had found a new
witness who could show that Faulkner had actually been a stoolie
for the FBI, which was investigating corruption in the Center City
Police District, and that he had been the victim of a police-arranged
mob hit designed to look like Abu-Jamal's doing.
Recalling a meeting at Weinglass' loft where this witness was first
discussed, Williams says he was "enraged, convinced that bona fide
lunacy had set in." Staying behind to talk with Weinglass after
the session, he asked his one-time mentor, "Are you seriously considering
this?" When Weinglass and Williams rejected the witness and did
not include the mob-hit story in their habeas corpus appeal, Williams
says the two PDC lawyers quit the case in protest. (In These
Times' efforts to talk with Wolkenstein and Piper about their
departure from the case were unsuccessful.)
Explaining his reasons for going public with such controversial
material, just as Abu-Jamal is awaiting word on his critical habeas
appeal, Williams says he was driven to write the book to prevent
the case from drifting again in what he is convinced is the wrong
direction. "This case had and still has the promise and potential
to be a powerful referendum on what is wrong with capital punishment
and the criminal justice system," he says bitterly. "But it hasn't
lived up to that potential because a small fringe element has taken
control over the movement, and that has resulted in Mumia's case
being, in many people's view, an oddity on the fringe of the extreme
left-wing of our society. In essence it's been marginalized."
Weinglass, who says he first saw the manuscript of Executing
Justice on February 20, and who notified Abu-Jamal of it on
February 22 as soon as he had finished reading it, isn't buying
that argument, though. The veteran political attorney, who with
William Kunstler defended the Chicago Seven, has harsh words for
his erstwhile colleague. "I don't think this book does any legal
damage to the case," Weinglass says. "But I do think that it's done
political damage to the unity of the support organization. I don't
agree with Dan's analysis that Mumia's case has been marginalized,
and I don't think that it's the place for a lawyer in a political
case to be criticizing and evaluating the value of a support network.
He should have shown the manuscript to me and to Mumia before he
sent it to the publisher."
Others in the "Free Mumia" movement,
which in recent years has become a global affair, are even harsher
in criticizing Williams. "We think it was a serious mistake for
Dan Williams to publish such a book, even if written with the best
of intentions, without consulting Mumia," says a statement released
by the executive committee of Refuse
and Resist!, a New York-based organization that has helped organize
international support for Abu-Jamal.
"Dan Williams was absolutely wrong in writing that book," says
Pam Africa, a spokeswoman for MOVE. As to the decision by Abu-Jamal
to dump Weinglass and the rest of the legal team as well as Williams
over the book, Africa says, "We support what Mumia is doing. If
he wants the whole team gone, he's the one who's on Death Row."
The fiercest attack on Williams comes from the PDC, which in a
statement calls his book a "malicious act" and adds, "Even within
the loose 'ethics' of the legal profession, publication of such
a book by an attorney involved in an active case, much less one
in which the client's life hangs in the balance, is an abomination."
Although Weinglass has criticized Williams for writing the book,
and has made it clear he does not want to be fired as lead attorney,
the PDC statement goes on to accuse both Williams and Weinglass
of trying to exit the case. "Williams' unconscionable act ... is
now serving as a ticket for the two longstanding lead attorneys
on the defense team to bail out."
"The PDC's suggestion that Len and I were part of some grand conspiracy
is symptomatic of what I have been trying to fight against," Williams
Whatever Abu-Jamal's reasons for getting rid of his legal team,
the decision is seen as a risky move by some legal experts. "I think
the book is a jewel," says noted defense attorney Martin Garbus.
"It answers a lot of questions people have had about this case,
and it has convinced me of Mumia's innocence. And the firing of
Williams and the defense team is unfortunate. But the firing of
Len Weinglass, who had nothing to do with the book, is tragic. Weinglass
is one of the best lawyers in the country, and by firing him, Mumia
is doing himself a terrible disservice."
Meanwhile, advocates of Abu-Jamal's execution, including the Fraternal
Order of Police and the slain officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner,
have been trying to get mileage out of the discord in pro-Mumia
ranks over Williams' book. In a statement last week, Faulkner said
Abu-Jamal's decision to fire his attorneys was "making a charade
out of the legal process." She called the move "just another in
a long line of transparent, offbeat legal ploys employed by a guilty
man who hopes to disrupt and prolong the appeals process."
"We're optimistic that this is a sign the deck chairs are being
rearranged on the Titanic," says Michael Smerconish, a Philadelphia
attorney who represents an organization called Justice for Police
Officer Daniel Faulkner.
It remains possible that Weinglass could stay on as Abu-Jamal's
attorney. Aside from the PDC, critics of Williams in the Free Mumia
movement at large, and Abu-Jamal himself, have avoided any criticism
of Weinglass, who says he remains available. "Of course I'm willing
to do anything and everything that's asked of me for Mumia," he
At this point, it is up to Judge Yohn, an appointee of former President
George Bush, to decide how to respond to Abu-Jamal's request.
Dave Lindorff is writing a book about the Abu-Jamal case
for Common Courage Press. This article was researched with the help
of the Fund for Constitutional