(CNN) — “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Maureen Faulkner learned Tuesday that her husband’s convicted killer was selected as the commencement speaker for a graduating class at the Goddard College in Vermont.
Thirty-two years ago Mumia Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, was convicted of shooting and killing Faulkner’s husband, Daniel Faulkner, a five-year veteran with the Philadelphia Police Department.
“It’s a disgrace that you have to even hear his voice. My husband has been dead for 32 years and his voice was taken from him by Abu-Jamal,” Faulkner told CNN over a phone interview.
Since his trial, conviction and imprisonment, Abu-Jamal, now 60, has been a divisive figure. He had made a reputation in Philadelphia as an outspoken radical and radio journalist before Faulkner’s killing. He was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life without parole. He has maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and multiple appeals for a new trial, all of which have been denied. Supporters and activists have claimed he is a political prisoner. Human rights groups have questioned whether he received a fair trial.
Abu-Jamal resides at Mahanoy state prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, where he is a correspondent for PrisonRadio.org, which can be heard in more than 100 radio stations each week. He has written seven books and numerous essays, and has been the subject of films and documentaries.
This is the second speech Abu-Jamal has given for Goddard students. The first was in 2008. He also recorded commencement speeches for Evergreen State College in Washington state in 1999 and for Antioch College in Ohio in 2000.
Goddard spokesperson Samantha Kolber told CNN, “We spoke with Mrs. Faulkner and expressed our deep sympathies, and while he felt for her loss we also felt the students had the freedom to listen to Mumia.”
Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech was recorded via telephone from prison by PrisonRadio.org director Noelle Hanrahan.
“He called in to our studio,” Hanrahan told CNN. “We will release it after the students hear it. It’s a reflection of his experience on campus at Goddard. He went to Goddard in the late ’70s as an undergraduate. He talks about being able to experience an intellectual life.”
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policy allows general population inmates, such as Abu-Jamal, to make phone calls to an approved phone list. And as long as he is not breaking any rules, there is nothing corrections officers can do.
“We have tried to intervene but we have been told by the court that we can’t,” said the Department of Corrections press secretary, Susan McNaughton.
“We are disappointed that a college would choose to have a convicted murderer, especially a cop killer, be their commencement speaker,” McNaughton said.
Goddard is a small liberal arts college of about 600 students. The median student age is 35 years old.
A graduating class of 23 students met with their faculty adviser and a professor and chose Abu-Jamal as their speaker.
“He is a warm, gracious guy who is very articulate and on top of issues,” said Hanrahan.
“They are adults making their own decisions,” said Kolber. “It is important to note that the students of the graduating class have selected Mumia to speak to them because of their belief that: ‘The history of Mumia’s case has been rooted in the struggles for freedom of mind, body, and spirit…’ which are values that are important to these graduates, said a student to me over email.”
For Faulkner, this is a “tragedy.”
“He (Abu-Jamal) is a despicable, callous, dangerous man and people try to put him on a pedestal and make him into something he is not,” said Faulkner. “What can Abu-Jamal offer anyone after he so violently took my husband’s life?”
The college defended the student’s decision by posting a statement of support on its website.
“Every individual has an inherent worth and dignity and deserves to have their perspective heard even if it is unpopular. There is academic merit in what Mumia has to say and it is important that we at Goddard College support our students’ right to choose and freedom of speech,” read a statement sent to CNN.
But Faulkner believes Abu-Jamal lost his freedom when he killed her husband.
“He stepped out of society when he put a bullet between my husband’s eyes. Just as he took my husband’s freedom and life, he lost his rights. Why does he have constitutional rights? My husband doesn’t have any. He is 6 feet underground,” said Faulkner.
Abu-Jamal’s speech is expected to be heard Saturday. The recorded remarks will be played alongside a short documentary on his life.