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Relax Rev Jeremiah Wright.
The Fox News cable channel crew has discovered a new all-purpose black boogey-man to rile latent racial animosity in America: Mumia Abu-Jamal, the internationally acclaimed death row journalist.
Abu-Jamal is now a regular reference in the weapons of mass deception arsenal employed by Fox and its friends to demonize their enemies de jour.
A few weeks ago, the campaign mounted by two Fox ideological allies that successfully sacked Fox liberal commentator Dr. Marc Lamont Hill highlighted Hill’s backing of a fair trial for Abu-Jamal as an objectionable offense.
Far-right agitators David Horowitz and Cliff Kincaid saw sinful scandal in FOX simply employing Columbia University Professor Hill for what the scholar was: a liberal hired by Fox to question postures conservatives proclaim sacrosanct.
Kincaid, in an October 19th posting on his Accuracy in Media site, scored Hill for calling Abu-Jamal a “freedom fighter and political prisoner.”
Earlier this summer Fox’s onslaught against now former White House ‘Green Jobs Czar’ Van Jones frequently cited Jones’ support for Abu-Jamal who is on Pennsylvania’s death row due to a controversy mired conviction for killing a Philadelphia policeman.
For weeks, Fox’s popular Glenn Beck bashed Jones for supporting efforts to free “a communist cop killer” – irrespective of the fact that Abu-Jamal is not a communist and card carrying communists never reference Abu-Jamal as a member of their movement.
Frequent emphasis by advocates of Abu-Jamal’s execution, including Fox hosts, that courts have repeatedly held-up Abu-Jamal’s conviction ignore an improbability embedded in that accurate statement about this case.
The same Philadelphia and Pennsylvania courts that have found major flaws in 86 Philadelphia death penalty convictions between Abu-Jamal’s December 1981 arrest and October 2009 declare that not a single error exists in America’s most publicly contentious murder case.
Pa courts, for example, find no foul in prosecutors improperly excluding blacks from Abu-Jamal’s trial jury, manipulating evidence and making secret deals with alleged eyewitnesses – all fundamental fair trial violations producing favorable actions by those courts for defendants in numerous cases.
Another example is Pa State and federal courts voiding 22 death penalties because of failures by defense lawyers to present any mitigating evidence for their clients during death penalty phase hearings following guilty verdicts.
However, those same courts found no fault in the failure of Abu-Jamal’s trial counsel to present any mitigating evidence during the penalty phase hearing.
A problem more troubling than the penchant of Fox and friends to fudge facts is the fact that too much of the mainstream media uncritically embraces rhetoric oozing from the far right, rarely subjecting that rhetoric to full and fair reporting that is supposed to be the cornerstone of journalism.
This lack of full and fair reportage polluted coverage of the onslaught against Van Jones and has long corrupted coverage of the controversial Abu-Jamal conviction.
A September 6, 2009 New York Times article on the resignation of Van Jones from his White House post listed Jones’ public support of Abu-Jamal as one of Jones’ alleged liabilities.
However, that Times article lacked any reference to the fact that Jones, as an Ivy League trained lawyer involved with social justice issues, could legitimately have concerns about the disturbing evidence of fair trial rights violations enmeshed in Abu-Jamal’s conviction.
“Human rights organizations have pointed to egregious procedural mistakes in Abu-Jamal’s original trial, which were obviously rooted in a background of prevalent racism,” stated a resolution approved on October 28th by the City Council of Munich, Germany. Elected leaders in over twenty-five cities from San Francisco to Copenhagen have approved resolutions demanding a new trial for Abu-Jamal.
The seminal February 2000 Amnesty International report on the Abu-Jamal case concluded that “numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.”
Yet, the New York Times and other major American newspapers deemed Amnesty International’s Abu-Jamal report not worthy of coverage despite major papers carrying nearly thirty articles referencing other AI actions during a ten-day time period surrounding release of that Abu-Jamal report.
Philadelphia’s largest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran a 53-word News Brief on page 2 of its B-section on that thirty-five page AI report.
Although the AI report was the first from a major organization to thoroughly document egregious shenanigans by the Pa Supreme Court in the Abu-Jamal case, – the Inquirer did not consider that report significant enough for full article coverage despite having published 67 articles mentioning Abu-Jamal in 1999 alone
The mainstream news media’s mile-wide-but-inch-thick coverage of Abu-Jamal aids the ability of Fox, its friends and others to exploit public misunderstandings about this case.
Fair trial proceedings are a fundamental tenant of American democracy.
Yet, the judge presiding during Abu-Jamal’s trial displayed unfair bias by proclaiming before jury selection that he was going to help prosecutors “fry the nigger.”
While such an overtly racist remark generally constitutes a judicial error requiring reversal of a conviction, a Philadelphia judge ruled no error existed because the jury not the judge convicted Abu-Jamal.
That ruling contradicts the reality that judges control what evidence a jury hears.
That Amnesty International report noted that “the jury was left unaware of much of the crucial information regarding” the policeman’s death due in part to “the overt hostility of the trial judge.”
Surprisingly, a mainstream media usually quick to prick racially inflammatory remarks exhibits little interest in numerous instances of racism infecting the Abu-Jamal case.
Evidence of outrageous errors underlying Abu-Jamal’s conviction literally hides in plain sight.
One glaring example is photos of the December 1981 crime scene taken by police investigators that do not show a critical element of the prosecution’s case against Abu-Jamal.
The eyewitness testimony of cab driver Robert Chobert was a central pillar of the prosecution’s case against Abu-Jamal but police crime scene photos do not show Chobert’s cab behind the slain officer’s patrol car where prosecutors claimed it was parked when Abu-Jamal killed Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Four police photos capturing different angles of the crime scene contained in the trailer for a forthcoming film about Abu-Jamal’s case do not show Chobert’s cab.
There are only two possible scenarios for the missing cab in those crime scene photos: either police tampered with the crime scene by removing the cab or the cab was never there. Either scenario is a major legal violation warranting a new trial.
Curiously, inconsistencies in crime scene evidence and irregularities in court rulings rarely elicit attention in mainstream media coverage of the Abu-Jamal case that takes a guilty-as-charged tact.
Yet these inconsistencies and irregularities are what fuel the vast international movement supporting a new trial for Abu-Jamal.
On Thursday, November 12th, Abu-Jamal supporters have scheduled a rally at the US Justice Department headquarters in Washington, DC urging Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a civil rights investigation into violations rampant in this contentious case.
One major civil rights violation often overlooked by Abu-Jamal supporters and ignored by his opponents occurred during a critical 1995 appeal hearing.
Pa’s then Governor Tom Ridge sabotaged that proceeding by improperly issuing a death warrant based on confidential information Ridge’s aides obtained from state prison personnel who were illegally intercepting mail sent to Abu-Jamal by his defense lawyers.
Ridge’s warrant enabled biased trial Judge Albert Sabo to rush that appeal hearing where Sabo denied defense lawyers standard opportunities to adequately gather and present evidence.
While a federal appeals court faulted prison personnel for illegally opening Abu-Jamal’s legal mail neither federal nor state courts have found any fault in the damage to fair trial proceedings done by Ridge’s malicious action.
One problem with mainstream media coverage of the Abu-Jamal case and other instances of racial related injustices from the criminal justice system to other sectors of society like education or employment is that coverage presents racial inequities as isolated instead of endemic.
Failure to present inequities in context deprives the public of proper understanding. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report on race relations in America faulted the news media for this failure.
As noted in the Kerner Report, “If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American.”
LINN WASHINGTON JR. is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. He writes regularly on the Abu-Jamal case, inequities in the justice system and racism in the news media.