A group of journalists is determined to seek
a fair retrial of death row prisoner, noted journalist and former
Black Panther Mumia
Abu-Jamal, and they point to evidence they say provides
further proof of his innocence: photos from the crime scene
that the jury never had the chance to see.
The group, Journalists for Mumia, was founded
by Hans Bennett, a Philadelphia journalist, and Dr. Michael
Schiffmann, German linguist at the University of Heidelberg,
to challenge what they characterize as "the long history
of media bias against Abu-Jamal's case for a new trial."
Abu-Jamal, formerly known as Wesley Cook, was
arrested and convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police
officer Daniel Faulkner. He has been on Pennsylvania's death
row since then, although a federal judge affirmed his conviction
but vacated his death sentence in 2001. A three-judge, federal
appeals court panel is reconsidering the case for his retrial,
and heard oral arguments on May 17, 2007.
Faulkner was killed on the corner of Locust and
13th Streets in Philadelphia, on the morning of December 9,
1981. Abu-Jamal and his brother, Billy Cook, were found lying
on the sidewalk when police arrived at the scene to find Faulkner
dead. In addition, Abu-Jamal, who also had been shot, was beaten
by police when they came to the scene. And he was arraigned
at his hospital bed while recovering from life-threatening injuries.
This case has been one of the most contentious,
most widely observed and most thoroughly critiqued cases of
our times, as it has put a spotlight on the contagion of police
brutality, racism and corruption in the criminal justice system,
and the capricious application of the death penalty. Amnesty
International has called for a new trial for Abu-Jamal. "It's
shocking that the US justice system has repeatedly failed to
address the appalling violation of Mumia Abu-Jamal's fundamental
fair trial rights," said Amnesty International UK Directo,r
Through prodigious research, Schiffmann has located
a number of photos taken by press photographer Pedro Polakoff.
Polakoff, who arrived on the scene 12 minutes after Faulkner's
killing, produced at least 26 photos before the arrival of the
Philadelphia Police Department's Mobile Crime Unit. Some of
the photos are highlighted in Schiffmann's new book, Race Against
Death. Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Black Revolutionary in White America.
The book — an expansion of Schiffmann's doctoral dissertation
— was recently released in Germany, and has yet to be
published in the United States.
Polakoff told Schiffmann that the crime scene
was poorly managed and unsecured, "the most messed up crime
scene I have ever seen." Polakoff attempted to hand his
photos to the D.A.'s office on two occasions — before
the trial in 1982 and in 1995 during Mumia's post-conviction
relief hearing — but to no avail. Apparently, they weren't
interested in what he had to show them. (And Schiffmann and
Bennett say that Polakoff, who until very recently assumed Mumia
was guilty, and that Mumia was the passenger in his brother's
car, had no interest in contacting Mumia's lawyers regarding
Perhaps this was because his photos presented
some damning truths. In his book, Schiffmann makes a number
of important arguments:
- The police manipulated the evidence that
was provided to the trial court. For example, Polakoff's photo
shows Faulkner's cap resting on the roof of Billy Cook's Volkswagen.
Yet, in a police photo taken 10 minutes later, the cap is
on the sidewalk in front of 1234 Locust.
- Police officer, James Forbes, testified at
trial that he had secured Faulkner's and Abu-Jamal's weapons,
and did not touch the metal parts in order to preserve the
fingerprints. Yet, Polakoff's photos show that Forbes had
touched the metal parts of the weapons, 6
- destroying valuable evidence in the process.
- Polakoff told Schiffmann that officers at
the crime scene said they believed the shooter was sitting
in the passenger seat of Billy Cook's Volkswagen, supporting
the argument that a third person was at the crime scene.
- One of the prosecution's key witnesses, a
cab driver names Robert Chobert, claimed he was sitting in
his cab behind Faulkner's police car during the shooting.
Yet, there is no taxicab in Polakoff's crime scene photos.
- The prosecution asserted that Mumia killed
Faulkner by standing over the already wounded officer and
unloading several shots from a .38 revolver. However, the
Polakoff photos show a clean trickle of blood on the pavement,
not the splatter of blood or cement damage that one would
expect from the firing of such a weapon.
Journalists for Mumia are providing a valuable
public service in the honored tradition of the First Amendment.
Linn Washington, Jr., veteran journalist who worked for the
Philadelphia Tribune at the time of Mumia's arrest, was on the
case at a time when most of the Philadelphia press corps were
asleep on the issues of race and criminal justice. Washington
recently reflected on the role of the press in the U.S. Constitution:
"One of the reasons why we have this First Amendment is
[the framers] said, they knew that power corrupts absolutely.
So they had this check and balance, you know, where the executive
had a check on the legislative, and the legislative and a check
on the courts, and the courts had a check on both of them. But
who is going to check the checkers? Well that was supposed to
be the press. So, the press had a watchdog role to look at what
government is doing, and more specifically, look at what the
government is doing wrong to who? We the people."
And the Philadelphia of 1981, on the heels of
the brutal reign of police-chief-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo, was
a time of rampant official corruption and misconduct, racism,
and police brutality. Washington noted that during the year
of Mumia's arrest, five men were framed by the Philadelphia
police for murder and exonerated years later. Two of the innocent
men spent as much as 20 years in prison before their release,
and one man spent 1,375 days on death row before he became a
free man. This legacy of police corruption haunts the city to
this day, at a time when better police-community relations are
needed to stem a tide of gun homicides.
There is much in Mumia's case that is troubling,
and points to a dysfunctional system in dire need of repair.
- The prosecutor had a history of excluding
African American jurors, and struck 10 of 14 Black potential
jurors, but only 5 of 25 whites.
- In a sworn statement, a court stenographer
said she overheard the trial judge, Albert Sabo, saying he
would help the prosecution "fry the nigger."
- For twelve years, prosecutors withheld evidence
that the driver's license of a third man was found in Faulkner's
pocket at the crime scene.
- Defense witnesses who testified that someone
other than Abu-Jamal killed Faulkner were intimidated.
- Five of the seven members of the Pennsylvania
Supreme Court, which denied his appeal, received campaign
contributions from the Fraternal Order of Police, the primary
group that has advocated for the execution of Mumia, who they
regard as an unrepentant cop killer.
All of this is about Mumia, yet far more than
just Mumia, for Mumia's case marks a part of the continuum that
represents the tortured, tragically consistent narrative of
people of color in America's justice system. Decades before
Abu-Jamal, there were the Scottsboro boys. In 1931, nine black
teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama — ranging in age from
thirteen to nineteen — were accused of raping two white
women. Tried without adequate representation, they were sentenced
to death by all-white juries, despite a lack of evidence. And
one of the women later recanted.
In more recent years, there were the Central
Park Five, the five Black and Latino men convicted of raping
and beating a female jogger in Central Park, N.Y., in 1989,
and later found to be railroaded. Donald Trump had spent $85,000
on full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for
the five youths, who were characterized as a wolf pack. And
of course, today we have the Jena Six, arrested and prosecuted
in a Louisiana town for fighting against nooses dangling under
their high school's "White tree," while the White
students who planted the nooses and committed other acts of
violence were given a pass.
We will never know how many innocent people in
this country — those who could not afford to buy justice
— were sent to their deaths or forced to languish in prison
for the rest of their lives, all on a lack of evidence or doctored
and cooked-up evidence, served up by police officers who wanted
to make a name for themselves, and prosecutors who aspired to
higher office on a tough-on-crime stance.
Society cannot help those who were victimized
by kangaroo justice, but no longer live among us and are now
but a fleeting memory. But we can still help Mumia Abu-Jamal,
and in doing so we begin to repair this system of "justice"
and save ourselves in the process.
Love is an attorney based in Philadelphia, and a contributor
to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
He contributed to the book, States of Confinement:
Policing, Detention and Prisons
(St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former spokesperson for
the Amnesty International UK National Speakers Tour, and organized
the first national police brutality conference as a staff member
with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He
served as a law clerk to two black federal judges.
here to contact Mr. Love.