Sometimes it seems that Daniel Williams ’86 is still on the case. When he talks about a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal and the defense strategy and the public relations campaign and the possibility that a client he represented for nearly ten years could be executed, Williams speaks like an advocate girded to continue the fight of his career.
But Williams is not on the case anymore. He is not because the man known worldwide as simply Mumia, political prisoner to some, cold-blooded cop killer to others, fired Williams earlier this year after the defense attorney wrote a book, Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (St. Martin’s Press), which details why Mumia should receive a new trial. That may not sound like a basis for dismissal, but the reality–like everything else surrounding a case that has spawned a movement–is not so clear-cut.
Now an attorney with the Capital Defender Office in New York, which handles all death penalty cases in the state, Williams became involved with Mumia’s appeal in 1992, when his mentor and Chicago Seven attorney Leonard Weinglass recruited him as part of the defense team. He wrote the book during an ongoing case (now before a federal judge) to sway the court of public opinion in addition to the court of law.
“I felt it would do no good for Mumia to have a book written after his case was resolved, which could be with him lying six feet under,” said Williams.
In the book, Williams examines Mumia’s trial in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, who was gunned down after stopping a car driven by Mumia’s brother, William Cook. The prosecution contended that Mumia, who was driving a taxi in the same neighborhood, saw a confrontation on the street between his brother and the officer, ran to the scene, shot Faulkner, and then was shot himself. Police found Mumia slumped over and a gun on the ground near him with five empty shells–the same number as the bullets fired at Faulkner. It appeared to be, as Williams titles one of his chapters, an open-and-shut case. But, in a blistering critique of the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, Williams points to a biased judge, an ill-prepared defense attorney, police coercion of witnesses, and manipulation of evidence in his argument for a new trial.
He disavows, however, the gospel of the “Free Mumia movement” that the police conspired against Mumia in order to silence the journalist and ex-Black Panther aligned with the antigovernment organization MOVE. Indeed, he criticizes the “fringe element” for making Mumia a symbol of revolutionary politics. Williams does believe that Mumia is innocent; based on the evidence, he theorizes that a passenger in the car shot Faulkner after the officer wounded the onrushing Mumia. But he acknowledges that Mumia may have done it, and could be a guilty man who nevertheless was a victim of injustice.
“There’s no question that the prosecution put together a compelling case. Mumia was found under very damning circumstances,” Williams said. “Now that’s taboo within the political movement. If you say anything close to that, you’ll be pilloried. They’ll burn you at the stake. The only legitimate thing to say about Mumia within the hard-core pro-Mumia movement is that he walks on water.”
Thus, the book damned Williams within the movement and, indeed, with Mumia himself. Although the firing shocked and hurt Williams, it did not surprise him. For the past year, according to Williams, interlopers had been urging Mumia to change the direction of the appeal. Shortly after Williams was fired, Mumia’s new legal team introduced a statement from an alleged hit man, who said the mob hired him to kill Faulkner.
Williams says the statement plays to conspiracy theorists but fears it will hurt the cause. “I love Mumia, and I still want the best for him,” he said.
Weinglass, who was also fired, backed Williams’ legal strategy but contended that the book harmed the political movement. Weinglass now refuses to speak to Williams. Yet even with the ramifications of writing the book, Williams maintains a steadfast belief that he did the right thing for his client.
“I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” he said. “I’m proud of what I’ve written. I’m proud of what the book says about Mumia’s case. It’s the first and only public document other than court findings that lays out Mumia’s case for a general audience, and I think it’s a story worth telling.”