PHILADELPHIA -- In California last Tuesday, Maureen Faulkner's telephone began ringing at 6:30 a.m. When she looked down and saw the instant onslaught of calls from the 215 and 610 area codes, she knew they would bring bad news. After 30 years, she's grown accustomed to getting bad news by phone.
Hugh Burns, a good friend and tireless advocate from the appellate division of the District Attorney's Office, was the one to finally tell her that the U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for the man who killed Police Officer Daniel Faulkner to receive a new sentencing trial. Prosecutors can take on another sentencing hearing in the hopes of again winning a death sentence against Mumia Abu-Jamal, or close the case and allow him to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
While the decision will technically be made by District Attorney Seth Williams, he has always promised to be deferential to Maureen's wishes. No one can deny that she's earned that right -- the right to put an end to the jarring early-morning interruptions, the first of which she answered at 6236 Harley St., at 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981.
After Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for Faulkner's murder, there was relative peace for a few years. Maureen moved west, while her husband's killer became a cause celebre.
A turning point came in 1991, when the phone rang with the news that the Yale Law Journal had printed an essay written by Abu-Jamal. The following year, it rang again, this time bringing word of Pacifica Radio Network's decision to air his social commentaries. In the spring of 1995, more bad news by phone: Addison Wesley was publishing the first of Abu-Jamal's many books.
Maureen took none of these insults lying down. In '95, she hired an airplane -- like those she'd often seen passing over the Shore -- to fly a banner around the publisher announcing that they were supporting a cop killer.
When her phone rang Aug. 9, 1995, it was to alert her to a full-page ad in the New York Times, wherein a group of celebrities -- including Alec Baldwin, Danny Glover, Molly Ivins, Spike Lee, Michael Stipe, Joanne Woodward, and dozens more -- lent their support to her husband's killer.
The calls were constant in 1995, 1996, and 1997, when Abu-Jamal was given Post-Conviction Relief Act hearings, each of which Maureen attended.
She still recalls learning of the December 1995 publication of a biased piece in support of Abu-Jamal in the American Lawyer, as well as the July 1996 airing of a slanted HBO documentary.
In January 1999, the ringing was to alert her to a "teach-in" supportive of her husband's killer to be held in Oakland, Calif., public schools. On Jan. 14, 1999, she was awakened to the news that a benefit concert for Abu-Jamal, headlined by Rage Against the Machine, had sold out. Yet another notification in October 2003 brought news that Paris had named Abu-Jamal an honorary citizen.
Perhaps the worst call came a few days before Christmas in 2001, when Burns relayed the news that U.S. District Judge William Yohn had ruled that Abu-Jamal was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. Though Abu-Jamal's guilt was not in question, a new sentencing hearing would essentially entail revisiting all the evidence supporting the original conviction for first-degree murder -- and thus, the details of Officer Faulkner's death.
Truth is, Maureen Faulkner's phone hasn't stopped ringing for 30 years. And she would be pleased to let it keep ringing for the rest of her life if her efforts didn't appear so fruitless.
But now she knows she's been victimized twice. Once by Abu-Jamal and once by the legal process.
Pennsylvania's death penalty exists in name only. It is a sham and a fiction. We have it and don't use it -- not even when the wrongdoer has killed a cop.
Indeed, Maureen Faulkner is far from the only widow dreading yet another bad-news call. Pennsylvania alone has 208 death-row inmates. Ed Rendell, who was the district attorney when Officer Faulkner was killed, signed 119 death warrants during his eight years in Harrisburg. No one was executed.
Among those festering on death row is a cadre of Philadelphia cop killers, including several who have been there for the better part of two decades. Abu-Jamal may have been around long enough to earn the moniker "Pops," but he isn't alone.
In fact, the only death-row inmates who actually meet their prescribed fate are those who give up their seemingly endless appeals -- in other words, the ones who ask for death.
So goes the empty implementation of what passes for capital punishment here. The most heinous criminals need not worry about actually facing the punishment a jury of their peers selected.
Victims, widows, and loved ones, meanwhile, are destined for a lifetime of thinking twice each time the phone rings.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.