Abu-Jamal was originally sentenced to death for the 1981 cop killing. After a lengthy fight in court, that sentence was later reduced to life without parole. Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence.
His case became a flash point for debates over the U.S. justice system after advocates argued that his initial conviction was the result of an unfair trial.
The case is still so contentious that it effectively derailed the approval of President Obama’s nominee to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Debo P. Adegbile has in the past represented Abu-Jamal in court; Adegbile previously worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which helped to overturn Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.
It is this ongoing controversy that seems to have prompted the group of undergraduates to select Abu-Jamal as Goddard’s next commencement speaker. Abu-Jamal, who has written prolifically from behind bars, is an alum of the college; he completed a Bachelor of Arts from prison in 1996, the college said.
The school’s interim president Bob Kenny said in a statement that the students’ selection of Abu-Jamal “shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.”
Goddard has nearly two dozen individualized commencement ceremonies each school year “allowing for students in each degree program to personalize their graduation experience,” the college said in a statement.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which houses Abu-Jamal, is not impressed.
“I cannot express my disdain enough about Goddard College’s decision to allow this individual to be a commencement speaker,” Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in an e-mailed statement. “We have a college allowing an individual convicted of murdering a police officer to share his opinions with impressionable students. This fact is very troubling.”
That being said, the department noted that Abu-Jamal has a constitutionally protected right to access a telephone from prison; he recorded his message to Goddard’s students via phone ahead of time, as it is generally not the policy of any corrections department to allow inmates to leave to attend college commencements.
Once a telephone recipient is added to the list for that inmate, the department has little control over what happens in the conversation, including whether it is recorded or not. The department does monitor those phone calls, however.
“While we do not support or endorse this specific type of activity, we cannot prohibit it from happening,” Wetzel said.
In a statement to Fox News, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the officer killed by Abu-Jamal, condemned Goddard’s decision.
“It’s not appropriate,” Faulkner said. “His freedom was taken away when he murdered a police officer in the line of duty. It seems like our justice system allows murderers to continue to have a voice over the public airwaves and at college commencement. It’s despicable.”
The Vermont Troopers Association also condemned the decision. “We are outraged that Goddard College is hosting a man who shot and killed a police officer,” the group said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Goddard College is located in Plainfield, Vermont. Students there — about 600 in all — design their own curriculum. The college places an emphasis on low-residency and adult education degree programs.
As Philly.com reported, this isn’t the first commencement address from Abu-Jamal. In 1999, he addressed the students of Evergreen College. And in 2000, he addressed the graduates of Antioch college.