FRACKVILLE, Pa. ― A man serving life in prison for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 has been selected as a commencement speaker at his Vermont alma mater.
Goddard College, a liberal arts college in Plainfield with 600 students, says on its website that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s recorded remarks will be played Sunday at a commencement, along with a video about him.
Bob Kenny, the school’s interim president, is quoted on the website as saying the graduates’ selection of Abu-Jamal reflects “their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.”
Abu-Jamal was originally sentenced to death for killing Officer Daniel Faulkner on Dec. 9, 1981, but he was resentenced to life in 2012. He graduated from Goddard in 1996.
His claims that he’s been victimized by a racist justice system have attracted international support, and a radio show, documentaries and books have helped publicize his case. Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther; the officer was White.
The Vermont Troopers’ Association said Tuesday that including Abu-Jamal in the commencement shows “an absolute disregard” for Faulkner’s family.
“While our nation is searching for solutions to gun violence in our schools and communities, we are outraged that Goddard College is hosting a man who shot and killed a police officer,” the group in a written statement.
Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said he’s “disdainful” of Goddard’s decision to choose Abu-Jamal, who is housed at the Mahanoy state prison in Frackville.
“Police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect society and now 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,” he said.
“Inmates do have a constitutional right to access telephones,” Wetzel said. “While we do not support or endorse this specific type of activity, we cannot prohibit it from happening.”
Goddard holds 20 commencement ceremonies every year, so students in each degree program can individualize their graduations and choose their speaker. Students who are receiving Bachelor of Arts or fine arts degrees Sunday chose Abu-Jamal, who received a bachelor’s degree from Goddard in 1996.
Twenty of the 23 students who are receiving arts degrees are expected to attend the ceremony.
Goddard students design their own curriculums with faculty advisers and do not take tests or receive grades, said college spokesman Dustin Byerly.