EACH of the candidates for Philadelphia district attorney recently told Daily News columnist Michael Smerconish that, if elected, they'd pursue the death penalty for Mumia Abu-Jamal in the event of a new sentencing hearing or new trial.
One, Seth Williams, noted that he'd attended hearings and studied court documents and trial notes before making his decision.
Three police reports and a page one Daily News story (Jan. 9, 1982) on preliminary- hearing testimony aren't in the original trial record. Amazingly, in both the reports and the story, police officers, one an inspector, claim to have heard a wounded but talkative Abu-Jamal make two separate admissions of guilt in the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 1981, when authorities say he fatally wounded police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The police reports are mentioned in a 1995 Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing. Abu-Jamal's lawyers brought their subject, Officer Gary Wakshul, to the stand and grilled him about the contents.
But what the police reports say was incorrectly reported by the D.A.'s office in a "proposed finding of fact" prepared by Assistant D.A. Hugh Burns for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Common Pleas Judge Albert Sabo, Abu-Jamal's trial judge, rubber-stamped the mistake in his own fact-finding report. In denying a new trial, the state Supreme Court corrected the technicalities without comment but left the impression that the officer central to the three reports was a credible witness.
In a 1999 interview with the Philadelphia Tribune, Burns said that he and Sabo had made an "error." But they made no effort to put the truth on the record. A correction would make Wakshul an unbelievable witness.
I conducted the 1999 interview with Burns, and have always believed that the distortion was used to bolster Wakshul's credibility and hide an extremely damaging statement he made in the third police report. Joseph McGill, the original prosecutor, kept Wakshul from testifying at the trial. Sabo denied the defense request to have him testify.
Let me explain. Wakshul, a four-year veteran, spoke with investigators at least three times. On Dec. 9, 1981, when Faulkner was killed, Wakshul guarded a seriously wounded Abu-Jamal at the crime scene and the hospital until they took him to surgery. He told investigators "the Negro male made no comments."
In a Dec. 16 interview, Wakshul recalled details about what Abu-Jamal wore and was asked if there was anything he wanted to add. Nothing, he said.
Then, 64 days after the shooting, on Feb. 11, 1982, when police were investigating Abu-Jamal's charges of police brutality, Wakshul suddenly recalled that Abu-Jamal had shouted, "Yeah, I shot the m-----f----- and I hope he dies!" These exact words had surfaced for the first time, just two days before Wakshul "remembered" them, in a security guard's report to police.
Asked why he'd said nothing before, Wakshul amazingly said, "At the time, the statement disgusted me, and I didn't realize it [had] any importance until today."
Flash forward to the 1995 post-conviction hearing, which was an attempt to get Abu-Jamal a new trial.
Wakshul, interrogated repeatedly by Abu-Jamal's lawyers, said the emotional trauma he suffered because of Faulkner's death kept him from remembering the purported Abu-Jamal confession. (Garry Bell, Faulkner's partner, testifying at Abu-Jamal's trial 13 years earlier, had invoked emotional trauma for waiting 78 days before telling authorities he had heard the same confession.)
When preparing their "proposed finding of fact" for the high court, Burns took Wakshul's 1995 testimony and said he'd given the trauma explanation 13 years earlier (instead of his original "lack of importance" reason) for not reporting Abu-Jamal's "confession." Sabo used Burns' language and deemed Wakshul a credible witness.
The state Supreme Court tweaked the paragraph to truthfully note that Wakshul had given three statements (not two) and first made the emotional trauma comment at the 1995 hearing. But no mention was made of his "I didn't realize it had any importance" excuse.
Likewise, no trial documents mention Inspector Al Giordano's preliminary hearing testimony that he heard a separate admission of guilt. The Daily News blared it on page one on Jan. 9, 1982: "Cop: Jamal Admitted Killing Faulkner." Giordano said he asked Abu-Jamal why the shoulder holster he wore that night was empty. Abu-Jamal allegedly told the inspector he'd dropped the gun after shooting Faulkner while lying wounded in the police wagon.
Why, you might ask, wasn't a police inspector called to testify at Abu-Jamal's trial? Well, Giordano's credibility became a problem after it became known that he was the target of a federal probe of a $120,000 scam. He resigned shortly after Abu-Jamal was convicted, and admitted taking $57,000 in bribes.
The candidates can say none of this proves Abu-Jamal's innocence. But it does show authorities were more interested in winning and then denying Abu-Jamal a new trial than they were in providing truthful information.
The "error" covered up information damaging to the state's case, and no one has ever moved to correct the official record.
Other damaging information like this exists and permeates the case against Abu-Jamal. If he is indisputably guilty, a new trial will do nothing to change that. Hiding the official testimony of officers suggests that other information may be hidden, too. This raises questions about the motives of the D.A.'s office, motives that I hope a new D.A. will examine instead of reflexively calling for the death penalty at the behest of the Fraternal Order of Police. *