Spotlight on Death Row

In the storied history of Philadelphia few events match the controversial case of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal for generating creative projects across the globe.

This 26-year-old case is the subject of a new round of projects from feature-length films by Philly-based producers to a bevy of books about Abu-Jamal authored from Chicago to Paris.

This flurry of creative projects coincides with the release of new evidence contradicting core elements of the highly disputed prosecution case that placed Abu-Jamal on death row.

This new evidence is previously unseen crime scene photos from the December 9, 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.

The photos show investigating police tampering with the crime scene, including failing to properly secure key evidence and manipulating other evidence.

These photos, taken by a photojournalist before police crime scene photographers arrived, also graphically highlight inaccuracies in ballistic and eyewitness evidence presented at trial against Abu-Jamal.

These photos, for example, show no bullet holes in the sidewalk where prosecutors told jurors Abu-Jamal stood over Faulkner firing multiple shots before shooting the policeman once between the eyes.

“We are making the point that at minimum, [Abu-Jamal] needs a new trial,” said Hans Bennett, co-founder of Journalists for Mumia, a Philadelphia-based support that sponsored a 12/4/07 press conference publicizing the photos.

A new book presenting the ‘anguish and grief’ of Faulkner’s widow – Maureen –received feature treatment recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that city’s largest daily newspaper.

Beginning on 12/2/07, the Inquirer ran three excerpts from this book presenting Faulkner’s story entitled “Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Pain, Loss and Injustice.”

This book is co-authored by Michael Smerconish, a right-wing talk radio host and media personality in Philadelphia, who also writes a weekly column for the Inquirer.

The three excerpted chapters carried a common theme raised repeatedly by Mrs. Faulkner: Abu-Jamal is a cold-blooded killer and his “misguided supporters…perpetuate the myth that [he] is a victim of a racist justice system…”

Those crime scene photos took center stage during a 12/6/07 NBC Today Show interview with Faulkner and Smerconish that served as the national launch of the “Murdered By” book.

The mere asking of a few probing questions by Today Show co-host Matt Lauer about those photos and other irregularities surrounding the case outraged Faulkner and Smerconish, a source close to this pair said.

Hours after that Today Show interview, a website connected with the conservative Media Research Center blasted Lauer for taking “up the cause of the convicted cop killer [by asking] skeptical questions…about the legitimacy of Abu-Jamal’s guilt…”

But questioning all sides of an issue is what fair-&-balanced journalists are supposed to do, reminded news media expert Dr. Todd Burroughs, who teaches Communications Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“It was good to see Faulkner and Smerconish finally being asked some critical questions about the legitimacy of Abu-Jamal’s trial and all of the evidence that points to a set-up,” said Burroughs, who is writing a journalistic biography on Abu-Jamal.

Mrs. Faulkner questioned why the photos took 26-years to surface when responding to a question from Lauer – inferring an illegitimacy to these photographs.

However, allies of Faulkner are largely responsible for the delay in the photos surfacing.

The photojournalist who took these photos had offered them to Philadelphia prosecutors in 1981 and during a 1995 appeal hearing for Abu-Jamal.

Failure of prosecutors to reply caused the photojournalist to think the photos had no value.

Given the case-challenging nature of these photos, prosecutors had good reason to ignore them, said Dr. Michael Schiffmann, who uncovered the existence of these photographs during his on-going investigations of the case.

“They didn’t want them on account of what they might show: an investigation that was incredibly sloppy and manipulative,” said Schiffmann, a professor at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and author of a 2006 book on the Abu-Jamal case.

Lack of interest in the photos by prosecutors coupled with the failure of prosecutors to notify the defense of their existence as required by fair trial procedures, Schiffmann notes, “might be reason alone for a new trial.”

Schiffmann included the photos in his book – “Race Against Death.”

Those photos are also contained in a critically acclaimed British made film examining the Abu-Jamal case that premiered simultaneously at respected international film festivals in London and Rome at the end of October.

The Mayor of Rome hosted the screening in that Italian city of this film supported by the Noble Prize winning human rights organization, Amnesty International.

“In Prison My Whole Life” – the first film ever publicly backed by AI – also includes other startling evidence indicating Abu-Jamal’s innocence.

This film focuses on a journey across America to understand this contentious case by William Francome, a young Englishman born on the day of Abu-Jamal’s arrest: 12/9/81.

Mrs. Faulkner expressed regret to a reporter recently that the Sundance Film Festival recently selected “In Prison” for its January 2008 screenings.

Francome, in a recent posting to his Myspace page, urged supporters and opponents of Abu-Jamal to not “lose sight of the fact” that Mrs. Faulkner “lost” her husband.

“In the course of making this film, I was honored to come across numerous victim family members who are opposed to the death penalty and fight for its repeal,” Francome stated.

Dr. Schiffmann served as a technical consultant on the “In Prison” film and is featured in the film during a sequence in Philadelphia where he walks Francome through the crime scene.

Another creative project comes from Abu-Jamal himself.

The subject of this sixth book by Abu- Jamal is jailhouse lawyers – inmates who help other inmates prepare legal appeals.

Harold Wilson, released from Pa’s death row in November 2005 after 18-years, credits Abu-Jamal’s assistance in helping him prepare appeals.

Ironically, legal elements leading to a new trial for Wilson – prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance from his trial lawyer – are key failings in the Abu-Jamal case.

Abu-Jamal’s creative output of books and commentaries (print & audio) while confined in death row cells the size of a small bathroom recently resulted in his membership into the prestigious PEN, a worldwide human-rights organization of prominent writers.

“In two decades of knowing each other, I have not seen Mumia so happy,” said Robert R. Bryan, Abu-Jamal’s lead attorney about the PEN membership.

Bryan credits support of famed writers like E.L. Doctorow and Alice Walker for the PEN membership.

Further Bryan is “especially grateful to the kindness” of former PEN President Salman Rushdie.

“In a quarter of a century of being locked up…Mumia’s literary output has been prodigious,” Bryan noted. “He has written five outstanding books that are published in various languages, and also writes weekly commentaries that are published and broadcast internationally.”

The San Francisco based Bryan described the “In Prison” film as a “superb movie which does much to expose the many wrongs including racism and politics that have infected the case from the outset…”

The focus of the latest project of Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ted Passon is the very thing that drives many death penalty proponents crazy: the phenomenon of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case.

Death penalty proponents bristle at the fact that Philadelphia born Abu-Jamal garners international support, including many opposed to the death penalty.

Death penalty proponents castigate demands that Abu-Jamal receive a new trial from Hollywood celebrities and dignitaries of foreign countries.

South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu visited Abu-Jamal in late October, later issuing a statement saying, “I oppose the death penalty on principle in every case and I support the pleas for a retrial for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

The under-examined worldwide movement responsible for securing much of the support of celebrities and dignitaries critical of this death row journalist’s conviction is the subject of Ted Passon’s film project.

“Most [projects] focus on the ‘whodunit’ aspects of the Abu-Jamal case but there is too little attention to the wider phenomenon, the 25-year People’s Movement surrounding this case,” Passon said during a recent interview.

Often overlooked is Philadelphia’s home base for a pivotal group in this movement – The International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal led by local activist Pam Africa.

“On paper, the Mumia Movement should not have happened,” said Passon, who grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and first became aware of the case when he attended a pro-Abu-Jamal rally in the late 90s.

The Movement, Passon said, “had no money, no access to powerful politicians or the media. The miracle of this Movement is that it has lasted so long.”

Maureen Faulkner regularly receives fawning coverage in Philly area media in contrast to the Mumia Movement that is regularly maligned in Philadelphia.

During the days before the Today Show book launch, Philly media devoted much coverage to Faulkner while not a single Philadelphia media outlet attended that Journalist for Mumia press conference presenting the crime scene photographs.

Only an out of town reporter from the Reuters news service covered that press event.

Further, Faulkner has the support of prominent politicians (local, state and federal) and the active backing of police organizations nationwide.

Late last year the US Congress approved a factually flawed Resolution demanding that the French city of St. Denis rescind its naming of a block-long street in honor of Abu-Jamal, a measure initiated through the FOP with the support of Mrs. Faulkner.

Another muscle move for Maureen Faulkner took place in 1994 when Philadelphia’s police union the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) gained the support of then US Senator Bob Dole who stopped NPR from broadcasting death row commentaries by Abu-Jamal.

Passon is one of two Philadelphians working on films about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case.

The other Philly film project now in-production comes from Tigre Hill, maker of the well received film on Philadelphia’s 2003 mayoral race “The Shame of a City.”

Hill declined comment on his project beyond saying that “this is a topic with a lot of passion on both sides.”

Interestingly, while publicity about Smerconish’s book credits this lawyer for thoroughly scrutinizing the 1982 trial transcripts to bolster his conviction of Abu-Jamal’s guilt, a book awaiting publication utilizes those same transcripts to reach a different conclusion.

The author of “The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal” – J. Patrick O’Connor – once served as an associate editor for TV Guide when it was headquartered in suburban Philadelphia.

“As I read and reread the available material…I could see that Abu-Jamal’s trial was a monumental miscarriage of justice,” states the introduction of this book by O’Conner, now living in Chicago where he is editor of an internet-based crime magazine.

Proceeds from the Faulkner-Smerconish book will be dedicated to a charity founded by Mrs. Faulkner while French professor Dr. Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol intends to donate proceeds from her September-published biography to Abu-Jamal defense work.

Guillaumand-Pujol says her short biography “emphasizes both the humanity and universality” of Abu-Jamal. She emphasizes that her book is “not anti-American… it shows that we were not born free but that we must fight for freedom all our life.”

While Abu-Jamal detractors demean authors like Dr. Guillaumaud-Pujol as pathetically uninformed about the facts of this case, she is an expert on the US justice system as is German author Schiffmann.

Schiffmann’s doctoral thesis is the basis of his book – which presents a chilling examination of court procedures and physical evidence in the case plus exploring American law enforcement assaults on the Black Panther Party.

The thesis of Dr. Guillaumaud-Pujol’s centered on police brutality and unfair justice in Philadelphia – a city she has repeatedly visited for over the past decade.

Dave Lindorff, Philly-based author of the seminal 2003 Abu-Jamal book “Killing Time” said the continuing creative interest in this case arises from a “sore” unique to Philadelphia: deep racism in the justice system and city at-large.

Lindorff, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch, feels this case is “emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Philadelphia.”

Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.