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."
Even those to whom he should offer his most ardent thanks on the winds seldom claim Jamal is in- nocent. "We're not taking a stand on his guilt," said David Goehring of Addison-Wesley, the publishing house that paid Jamal $ 30,000 for his stupendously banal memoirs, Live From Death Row. Likewise, former M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell, who recently appeared on Larry King Live to plead Jamal's case, admitted to People magazine, "I don't know if he's innocent." The non-committal language is not accidental. From time to time, death row inmates make claims of innocence that sound plausible, or at least deserving of another look.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is not one of them. Actually, it's hard to see how the facts arrayed against him could be any stronger than they are: At least four other people were present when Jamal shot Offxcer Dan Faulkner; three of them testified against him at trial. His gun, from which five bullets had been fired, was found at the scene. And if Jamal has always maintained his innocence, he has never explained it.
Neither he, nor his brother, who was present at the murder, has ever testified on the matter. In fact, Jamal's first public statement on the subject, yelled in front of two witnesses on the night he was arrested, hardly qualifies as exculpatory: "I shot that m -- f -- ," he said, "and I hope he dies." As the New York Times put it, "The case for his innocence is not unimpeachable." Don't those who sign ads claiming "there is strong reason to believe . . . Mumia Abu-Jamal has been sentenced to death for his political beliefs" have an obligation to know what they're talking about?
Not really, says Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU. She cites herself as an example: "I'm very, very careful about this myself. Because I don't pretend to and don't have knowledge of the actual facts, I made very, very sure that [the ad] read in a way that would not be committing the signers to a particular view of the facts."
The Reverend James Parks Morton, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, doesn't have the "actual facts" at his fingertips, either, but like other signers of the Jamal ad, he doesn't let that slow him down. "It sounds like the man is innocent, from what I've seen," Morton says with clerical gravity. But, he admits, "I haven't been privileged to go deeply into the stuff." How does somebody who hasn't gone " deeply into the stuff" end up making a judgment about something as complex as a murder trial?
Well, for one thing, says Morton, "I was very moved by some of the people who had signed [the advertise- ment]. I mean, there were a lot of black scholars, which to me was very important. I mean, Skip [Henry Louis] Gates ! find a very heavy person. I consider him a very serious scholar of the black scene -- and as a black man, the black scene from the inside."
As if the endorsement of Harvard's own Skip Gates weren't enough, Parks has other reasons to think Jamal got railroaded: "It's the reality of black people in America. There is still a huge reality of institutional racism that determines the way a whole lot of people act." As an example he cites "the way we're moving nationally, I mean the strong forces against, uh -- oh, I can't even think of its name. What's the phrase, the doctrine of giving people, you know, a special chance?" Affrmative action? "Yeah. I think the way that's moving is a racist direction." Morton may come off as a little confused, but he's a beacon of clarity compared to Ben Cohen, the ice cream mogul, whose mind is also made up on the Jamal case. "His trial was unjust," says Cohen flatly.
And when did he first come to this conclusion? "I think I might have been at some conference and I saw something on a table. And I think I might have been, you know, maybe at some festival and, you know, signed a petition." But that's not all; there were other epiphanies as well: "I think I saw something about how he and his lawyer didn't get along." But, says Cohen, "The biggest infiuencer was that both Amnesty [International] and Human Rights Watch consider him to be a political prisoner, and his trial was unjust." Actually, neither group has ever described Jamal as a political prisoner, nor has either taken a position on his guilt. Not that such de- tails would likely have much effect on Ben Cohen. Asked if he feels a responsibility to know something about the case before lending his name to Jamal's defense, the maker of Peace Pops pauses. "I have a responsibility to convince myself," he says, with the sound of someone who has done just that.
Jamal's celebrity supporters may approach the case with a certain nonchalance, but to the true believers who congregate on the sidewalk outside of Philadelphia's City Hall each day, Jamal's innocence is a matter of religious conviction. This is ground zero in the Jamal defense, and Sean O'Neill, a 38-year-old salesman from South Jersey who is passing out flyers on his lunch break, clearly has been affected by the blast. "During the day I come out to do what I can to save Mumia, an innocent man," he says.
Several feet away, members of MOVE, the black nationalist cult best known for getting blown up by the Philly police in 1985, man a table crowded with Jamal-related trinkets: buttons, posters, cassettes, T-shirts. Loudspeakers blare an address by Jamal. Someone has turned the amplifier up to full capacity, giving the words a re-education-camp sound. Jamal is saying something about the System and the "Jewish intelligentsia." It's hard to hear, but O'Neill presses on, oblivious. "Even if someone thought he was guilty," says O'Neill in an intense, unblinking manner, "just what the judge is doing shows that Mumia is innocent." O'Neill is a long way from Hollywood, but his reasoning isn't.
One hears the same refrain from Jamal's celebrity supporters: The judge -- - or the cops, or the press, or the country generally -- was (or were, or are) racist. Therefore Mumia Abu-Jamal did not shoot a policeman in 1981. There are a number of advantages to using this line of argument, the main one being that it requires only feelings.
Gloria Steinem has plenty of those. A few years back, Steinem recalls, William Styron came to the defense of "some guy in Connecticut who killed his mother." Did she sign an advertisement in that case?
"I really don't know. You know, you go through life signing things you think you should sign."
By Tucker Carlson