Now hitting the commencement circuit: Mumia

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Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in the 1990s. He is scheduled to give a recorded commencement speech to students at Goddard College in Vermont this weekend. (APRIL SAUL / File Photograph)

Invitations to speak at commencement typically go to prominent politicians, A-list celebrities, or, occasionally, a bureaucrat with a free weekend.

Students at a Vermont college have gone a different route. They've invited a convicted cop killer.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, serving a life term for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, is scheduled to address 20 graduates at Goddard College on Sunday through prerecorded remarks.

His conviction remains divisive. Despite repeated failed appeals, he maintains that he is innocent, and a "Free Mumia" movement has grown around him.

"They chose Mumia because to them, Mumia represents a struggle for freedom of the mind, body, and spirit," said Goddard spokeswoman Samantha Kolber. "Those were values important to this graduating class."

What Goddard grads call inspiring, local law enforcement finds offensive.

"It's an absolute disgrace," said Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police head John McNesby. "It's a slap in the face to Philadelphia law enforcement and all police officers."

The FOP and Faulkner's widow, Maureen, have battled to end Abu-Jamal's public speaking, which issues from a state prison in Frackville, Pa.

Abu-Jamal was found guilty of shooting Faulkner, then shooting him four more times as the officer lay helpless. Abu-Jamal, who himself was shot in the encounter, asserts that he was not the killer.

"Every time this happens," McNesby said, "it opens a wound for Maureen Faulkner."

Goddard, in Plainfield, Vt., has 700 students and offers a curriculum without grades or tests. Students are encouraged to be self-directed and are evaluated on their individual growth. They do coursework from home, Kolber said, and visit the campus just a few weeks a year. The average Goddard student is 35, Kolber said.

Abu-Jamal received a bachelor of arts degree from Goddard in 1996 after completing coursework from prison. His speech will touch on black psychology and movements in history.

"He's going to talk about his personal educational experience, how school has helped him spread his voice," Kolber said.

His audience is to be fall semester students completing their bachelor of arts and bachelor of fine arts degrees and their guests.

Abu-Jamal scored a legal victory in 2011 when the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office dropped its pursuit of his execution. His sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

He has no motions filed in court at this time, said Judith Ritter, a Widener University law professor and, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a part of Abu-Jamal's defense team. She would not comment on whether he was planning further action to fight his conviction.

The graduates know they're courting controversy by inviting him to speak, but the school isn't certain the event will cause much stir.

"We're out in the middle of a rural area," Kolber said. "I'm not quite sure what the outcome will be."

 


Contact Jason Laughlin at 215-854-5823 or jlaughlin@phillynews.com.