Days slip away for Black Panther on Death Row

FOR the Philadelphia courts, the city's police force and the victim's widow, he is no more than a cop-killer. For countless sympathisers and enemies of the death penalty across three continents however, he is a modern day martyr, about to be lynched on the altar of America's racial prejudice and its thirst for capital punishment.

One fact however is beyond dispute. If current efforts to secure a retrial fail, and no stay is granted, Abu-Jamal will die by lethal injection on August 17 at Huntingdon prison in the of south central Pennsylvania, where for 13 years he has been on Death Row for shooting to death a Philadelphia police officer called Daniel Faulkner.

The event would hardly be noteworthy - just one among possibly 50 executions this year, the most since the US resumed capital punishment in the late 1970s. But now protests here, in Europe and Latin America threaten to turn it into an international cause celebre unmatched since the Rosenbergs.

Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook 41 years ago in Philadelphia, was an early member of the local Black Panther movement and a supporter of the radical Move group. He went on to make his name as the "Voice of the voiceless," a crusading radio reporter and president of the city's black journalists association.

But in the early hours of December 9, 1981, everything changed. Driving a car in central Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal saw his brother being arrested by a police officer for a traffic offence. In the version accepted by the jury which convicted him of first degree murder, he leapt from the vehicle, pulled out a gun and in an exchange of fire fatally shot Mr Faulkner.

For his lawyers however, Abu-Jamal was simply framed for his political views by one of the most racist big city police departments in the country. Key witnesses were not heard, the ballistics evidence was dubious, while the defence was given neither time nor money to assemble a proper case.

In many respects, and for all the hullabaloo, little has changed over 13 years. Now, as in the first trial, Albert Sabo, a notorious hardliner who has sent more people (31 in all) to Death Row than any other judge in America, is presiding over proceedings and does not hide his sympathies.

Neither, contrary to claims by Abu-Jamal's lawyers, has this week seen new testimony. Two eyewitnesses not called in 1982 provided only hazy recollections of a third man running from the scene of the crime. Nor could the defence shake police evidence that five used shells in his gun were "consistent" with fragments of a hollow-nosed bullet found in Mr Faulkner's body.

"I've been sitting in this court for six days and haven't heard a shred of evidence that changes the facts," Faulkner's widow Maureen complained, taking bitter issue with Abu-Jamal's international supporters. "If they really wanted to promote - support - this man, why aren't they sitting in court too, listening to the facts ?"

But with his dreadlocked hair a la Ruud Gullit, and an anthology of wrenching essays, Live from Death Row published on both sides of the Atlantic, Abu-Jamal has captured imaginations worldwide. In the US, Jesse Jackson and the actress Whoopi Goldberg plead his cause. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel has personally appealed to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, while 100,000 Italians have signed a petition demanding clemency.

Only in Britain has public reaction been muted: perhaps because the huge clamour surrounding the death of British subject Nicholas Ingram in Georgia's electric chair last April sapped the energies of death penalty opponents. But with Harold Pinter joining the fray, alongside Gunter Grass and other European literati, that may soon change.

Given the meanderings of the US appeals process, the execution will probably be stayed whatever the outcome of the retrial hearings. But the prospects for Abu-Jamal are not encouraging. Mr Ridge, who earlier this year went ahead with the first execution in Pennsylvania since 1963, is unmoved by the protests, while the state and US Supreme Courts have both refused to hear the case.

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