As Abu-Jamal’s speech opens old wounds, PA lawmakers vow to increase victims’ rights
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Speaking from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal on Sunday delivered the commencement address to about two dozen students at Goddard College, a progressive liberal arts school in Vermont.
The college’s decision troubled Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, but even he admitted inmates have a constitutional right to access phones.
“While we do not support or endorse this specific type of activity, we cannot prohibit it from happening,” he said in a statement issued before the commencement speech.
TILTING THE SCALES: Gov. Tom Corbett, at podium, and state lawmakers want to give victims power to stop offenders from inflicting more anguish after a convicted cop-killer gave a commencement address at a Vermont college.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and state lawmakers hope, in the future, a judge could. They joined district attorneys, police cadets and victim advocates in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday, vowing to pass legislation that could prevent something like Abu-Jamal’s speech from happening again.
Sponsored by state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, the legislation would allow the victim of a crime or prosecutors acting on the victim’s behalf to file a civil action to stop conduct from an offender that causes severe mental anguish. A judge would have the power to grant injunctive relief.
“We hope to never use this law,” Vereb said. “We hope that the actual people that sit in prison recognize that they themselves are there to heal, not tear the scabs off the wounds of our victims some 30 years later.”
The push for the legislation comes amid a particularly emotional time for Corbett and law enforcement officers across Pennsylvania.
State troopers are still scouring the forests of the Poconos for Eric Frein, who ambushed two state troopers, killing one. Monday, police laid to rest another trooper killed accidentally during a training exercise.
Goddard College’s commencement makes even older wounds feel fresh to some.
Abu-Jamal’s path to a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison began during the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 1981, when his brother was stopped by Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. The traffic stop turned violent when Abu-Jamal approached from across the street, shot Faulkner in the back and then unloaded four more bullets into his wounded victim, one into his head.
Faulkner managed to shoot Abu-Jamal, leaving him slumped at the crime scene. A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to die, but he was spared from death row when an appeals court found the jury was improperly instructed.
In the years since the murder, Abu-Jamal has gained substantial notoriety, and he even spoke at Goddard College in 2008, according to Vermont Watchdog, which reported that visit went unnoticed.
This time around, though, the college’s decision to allow a convicted killer to address about two dozen students sparked outrage in Vermont and reverberated more than 750 miles to Pennsylvania’s capital.
“A commencement speaker is to uplift, to motivate, to inspire the young minds to do great things. A premeditated murderer of a police officer does none of that,” said Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s victim advocate.
Storm argued Goddard College was allowing Abu-Jamal to victimize the Faulkner family again and urged lawmakers to quickly pass legislation, which, she said, would give victims a voice and a right to fight back.
The victim advocate also read a letter from Faulkner’s wife, Maureen, who wrote that her family has endured decades of Abu-Jamal’s painful public speaking while courts have repeatedly upheld his conviction.
“The time has come to put an end to the desecration of our free speech laws by Mumia, and anyone else in the Pennsylvania state system who has violently taken the life of another,” she wrote.
Vereb said attorneys vetted the legislation, which doesn’t intend to strip prisoners of their rights to speak with family or reporters. He wants to avoid the commercialization of incarcerations, he said, with the hope a judge might see Abu-Jamal’s 25-minute recording as a “significant expansion of what some of us feel are First Amendment rights of prisoners.”
Vereb believes the legislation will pass by next week. It has Corbett’s support, too.
The governor called Abu-Jamal “a convicted murderer who has conned naïve individuals from Hollywood to Paris into believing that he is somehow a political prisoner for shooting a police officer in the head.”
“We are not questioning the college’s constitutional right to choose their own speaker,” Corbett said. “I am questioning their taste. We are questioning their common decency and the speaker they have chosen.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.