June 10, 1999
Long Reach to Death Row for a Graduation Speaker
By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK
SEATTLE -- The graduation speaker is on death row in Pennsylvania, so he will not actually be there when Evergreen State College holds its commencement exercises on Friday.
But plans by the college to play a 13-minute tape-recorded speech by the inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer 18 years ago, have provoked a range of protests, including Gov. Gary Locke's cancellation of his own scheduled address to the graduating students and plans by the slain officer's wife to show up at the event to register her dismay.
In addition, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority whip, whose security guard was shot and killed in the United States Capitol last summer, said he planned to take the floor of the House of Representatives on Friday to ask for a moment of silence in protest of the graduation speech.
But the state-run college in Olympia, the state capital, has defended a decision by its students to solicit Abu-Jamal's participation with his address, which he recently telephoned to the institution. Abu-Jamal's supporters, including nearly 10,000 people who attended a demonstration in Philadelphia in April demanding a new trial for him, say he is the victim of an unfair trial, poor legal representation and witness coercion by prosecutors.
From prison, both as a book writer and a commentator on the Pacifica Radio Network, Abu-Jamal has emerged as a spokesman against the death penalty, and college officials explained today, without taking a stance on his guilt or innocence, that they welcomed the decision to include him as a speaker with two students and two faculty members.
The college president, Jane L. Jervis, in a statement released to reporters, said Abu-Jamal deserved inclusion because he had used his free-speech rights "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system." Abu-Jamal is black, and the officer he was convicted of killing was white.
The planned speech has become both an emotional and political football, illustrated by the announcement by Maureen Faulkner, the wife of the slain police officer, Daniel Faulkner, who was 25 when he was killed, that she was likely to attend the graduation in silent protest. She has said she would bring a photograph of her husband and hold it aloft as Abu-Jamal's speech is played over loudspeakers.
DeLay, in a statement released in Washington this week, said it was "socially irresponsible" to allow Abu-Jamal to take part in the ceremony. "I am shocked that Evergreen State College would invite convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to speak," he said.
Evergreen, a four-year, liberal arts college has long prided itself on both its independent and quirky streaks, the latter reflected in the students' selection several years ago of the geoduck, a freakish-looking clam that can grow as big as five feet long, as its athletic mascot.
Earlier this year, Governor Locke received the highest number of votes when students at the school were asked whom they wanted to speak at graduation. But after Abu-Jamal was included and many police groups complained, Locke, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year, withdrew.
Locke did so with a statement that he wished to "applaud and respect the students' efforts to develop a graduation program that includes a diversity of views." But the Governor, a former prosecutor who supports the death penalty, said he would bow out to show respect for law-enforcement officers.
Abu-Jamal, a former reporter at a public-radio station who was known as Wesley Cook, was convicted in 1982 of killing Officer Faulkner, shot while arresting Abu-Jamal's brother. Abu-Jamal was shot at the scene by Faulkner, and neither he nor his brother testified at trial. He has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and has asked for a new trial, but his conviction has been twice upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company