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12:00 AM, Sep 18, 1995 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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After 29 years as a patrolman with the Philadelphia police department, Jim McDevitt isn't easily shocked. But he sure seems surprised to learn that Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's ice cream is one of the 110 actors, writers, and intellectuals who signed an August ad in the New York Times calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black death row in-mate convicted of shooting a white Philadelphia cop in 1981. "The ice cream guy?" he asks. "Are you kid- ding?" Nope. And if it seems unlikely that the inventor of Chunky Mon-key ice cream would be weighing in on matters of Life, Death, and American Justice, consider this:

Casey Kasem signed the ad, too. So did Alec Baldwin, Oliver Stone, and Sting. From an undisclosed lo-cation, Salman Rushdie fated his signature. Even Norman Mailer chimed in, back in the trenches for yet another convicted murderer.

Not since Jean Harris, the ill-tempered headmistress of the Ma-deira School for girls, emptied her .32 into diet guru Herman Tarnow-er have so many well- known peo-ple worked so hard on behalf of an imprisoned killer. Over the past 14 years, pro-Jamal support groups, solidarity commissions, and emer-gency defense committees have formed in nearly every major American city and across Europe.

Several weekly fanzines and a 20-page quarterly tabloid keep enthu-siasts up to date on the case, while providing plenty of head shots of the dreadlocked hero, smiling toothily at the camera, or looking pensive and revolutionary.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose last regular job was driving a cab, is now a bona fide celebrity. Indeed, with a book in print, regular pub-lic-radio commentaries, at least two Internet sites devoted to his case, and a CD-ROM of his reflections on questions of the day, Jamal has become more famous than many of the Big Names who have worked to get him off death row.

One of those 110 names on the New York Times ad belongs to polit-ical columnist Molly Ivins.

Reached at a hotel on Martha's Vineyard, Ivins sounds like she's been spending her vacation think-ing about the Jamal case. "I'm con-vinced that he did not get a fair tri-al," she says without hesitating. "I thought the circumstances of the trial were so outrageous that it real-ly had to be spoken out about. I felt that even before I knew there was a movement or something." And what, specifically, was so outrageous about the trial? "You know, I cannot right now remem-ber the circumstances. But," she says hopefully, "! think anybody who remembered them would reach the same conclusion." Gloria Steinem, another signer of the $ 56,000 ad, freely admits she knows little about the case, though she does say she saw William Sty-ron " reading something about it on TV." Not one to let lack of knowl-edge dampen her moral outrage, Steinera remains adamantly con-vinced something went wrong at the trial. "Wasn't there some question about his brother? And weren't there no witnesses?" Actually, there were several. "Oh. Well, I don't re-ally know. I don't have the clips in front of me." As an indictment of a corrupt le-gal system, Steinem's comments aren't exactly J'accuse. But then, she isn't the only celebrity Jamal sup-porter who comes up a little light when asked about the specifics of the case. Movie critic Roger Ebert says he didn't even try to learn much about it before giving the case against Jamal a public thumbs down: "Basically, my position is, I'm opposed to capital punishment, so it was a real easy call for me be-cause I didn't even have to think about the merits of the evidence." According to Bob Stein, presi-dent of The Voyager Company, a CD ROM publisher, supporting Ja-mal has been an easy call for a lot of other people, too. Stein, who helped to recruit names for the Times ad, admits that apart from a few well-informed writers, like Sty-ron and E.L. Doctorow (whose op-ed supporting Jamal was reprinted in the ad), many of the celebrities involved in the case know little about it. And that's okay: "If you asked them about the particulars of the case, they might not know enough about them to feel comfortable speaking about it. But people feel like they know enough."

Jamal himself thinks they do. In a recent handwritten letter from prison, the incarcerated "iournalist" expressed gratitude to his supporters, sending " thanks far and wide -- on the winds, like a winged prayer of Love."