By Daniel Kelley
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A former death row inmate, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, will deliver a graduation speech at a liberal arts college in Vermont at the request of students there.
At a Oct. 5 ceremony, Goddard College in Plainfield will play a speech recorded by Mumia Abu-Jamal at the Pennsylvania prison where he is incarcerated.
Abu-Jamal, a former black nationalist convicted of first-degree murder after a trial that has been criticized by Amnesty International and others, has become a well-known commentator on the American justice system while in prison.
He was initially sentenced to death after his conviction in the 1981 killing of Officer Daniel Faulkner, but the sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2011.
Goddard, known for its flexible academic programs that are often designed by students, holds dozens of graduation ceremonies each year. The 23 students receiving their degrees on Oct. 5 chose Mumia to serve as speaker.
"Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, 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," said Bob Kenny, the president of Goddard.
The school, which has about 700 students enrolled, awarded Abu-Jamal a bachelor's degree in 1996.
Abu-Jamal's jailhouse writings about the justice system have made him a celebrity around the world. His case has attracted the support of death penalty opponents, foreign political leaders and Hollywood stars.
Abu-Jamal has served as a speaker at the graduation ceremonies of other schools in the past, and not without controversy.
His recorded voice was played at the 1999 commencement address at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Some students walked out in protest, while others turned their back.
An address the next year at Ohio's Antioch College drew widespread protest.
(Reporting by Daniel Kelley; Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Beech)