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Media Justice on Trial in Philadelphia – the Duel of Two Films About Mumia Abu-Jamal

A new film

A new film, entitled “The Barrel of a Gun” was unveiled in Philadelphia on September 21. The film is officially endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and “Murdered by Mumia” authors Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner, and based on the two trailers that have been released and public statements by the filmmaker, Tigre Hill, that he believes death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal is unequivocally guilty, we can safely expect that the film will be biased against Abu-Jamal, as is the case with the majority of mainstream media coverage about Abu-Jamal, particularly so in Philadelphia.

Supporters of Abu-Jamal mobilized to confront Hill’s film. This film can be particularly dangerous now because of Abu-Jamal’s current legal situation, where the death penalty may be reinstated by the US Third Circuit Court. In response, Journalists for Mumia has just published the latest issue of our newspaper (viewable here), where we confront Hill by laying out evidence of innocence and why Mumia’s trial was unfair.

In our newspaper, we feature an updated version of the 2009 San Francisco Bay View Newspaper article about the campaign seeking a civil rights investigation for Abu-Jamal, which focused on five pieces of evidence that the 1982 jury never saw, including 1) evidence of another person, named Kenneth Freeman, in the car with Abu-Jamal’s brother, Billy Cook – there was a driver’s license application in the front shirt pocket of Officer Faulkner at the time of the shooting, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office withheld this crucial piece of information from the defense; 2) newly discovered crime scene photos that show police manipulation of evidence were taken by press photographer Pedro Polakoff, who states that he was completely ignored by the DA’s Office when he tried to give his photos to them for evidence in 1981, 1982 and 1995. Accompanying this is a special section focusing on the ballistics evidence, showing exactly why the shooting scenario presented by the prosecution is physically impossible. This includes the observation already made in defense filings in 2001 based on police photographs and now resoundingly corroborated by the Polakoff photos, that there are no bullet marks in the pavement where Abu-Jamal allegedly shot downward and missed Officer Faulkner several times.

There was another powerful media project unveiled that will certainly challenge the FOP-endorsed film by Hill. Another film, in production for over four years, entitled “Justice On Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” premiered Tuesday, September 21, the same day that Hill’s film was unveiled. The 2:00 PM showing was held at the prestigious historical building, The National Constitution Center, where Barack Obama gave his famous “race speech.”

JUSTICE ON TRIAL – The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal from bignoisetactical on Vimeo.

On learning about the presentation of the Hill film and its probably biased character, the production team decided to accelerate the completion of their own documentary. Producer Johanna Fernandez, a professor of history at Baruch College/CUNY, says that the filmmakers “decided to confront Tigre’s film with a more thoughtful exploration of the case after we saw the series of initial trailers that he released six months ago. Contrary to his claim of having found ‘rare new insight’ into the case, the trailers pointed to a rehashing of the basic arguments put forth by ADA Joe McGill, who wanted to win a death sentence by any means necessary. We wanted to elevate the dialogue at a time when reasoned voices are needed.”

The film’s trailer, just released this week, features interviews with press photographer Polakoff and David A. Love, whose October 24, 2007, article in the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper was the first in the US to publish one of Polakoff’s photos. Another interview is with J. Patrick O’Connor, the author of “The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” who argues that Cook’s business partner and friend, Kenneth Freeman, was the actual shooter of Officer Faulkner. Also notable is an interview Jack McMahon, featured in the infamous 1986 official training video of the Philadelphia DA’s office that specifically trained new prosecutors how to unlawfully exclude African-American jurors without appearing to do so.

A Tradition of Corporate Media Bias

When covering the Abu-Jamal/Faulkner case, the mainstream media has almost always presented it as “open and shut,” with overwhelming evidence of Abu-Jamal’s guilt. Accordingly, this narrative says there is no evidence of an unfair trial and Abu-Jamal’s worldwide supporters (including Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the European Parliament, Japanese Diet, and many more) must, therefore, be ignorant fanatics. Or, in the words of Sam Donaldson of ABC’s news show, “20/20,” who in 1999 produced an infamous anti-Mumia hit piece (critiqued in the film “Framing An Execution“): “The people who support his release don’t do so from a position of knowledge … They either oppose the death penalty, or they’re campus rebels, or they’re African-American activists who believe that a black man was railroaded, and will continue to believe it, no matter what’s presented to them.”

While certainly disgusting, the overt racism in Donaldson’s comment about black activists is not unusual for big media coverage of Abu-Jamal.

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This same mainstream narrative is now to be expected with the new film by Hill, “Barrel of a Gun,” which has already been touted with great fanfare in the Philadelphia media. Indeed, Hill appears to take the anti-Abu-Jamal bias to an even more fanatical level with the argument, first presented with the release of the 2007 book “Murdered By Mumia,” that the shooting of Faulkner was a pre-planned hit, with Abu-Jamal and his brother Cook out that night seeking to shoot and kill a police officer simply for the sake of killing a cop.

A Pre-Planned Hit?

Granted, we have not yet seen the full-feature film, but the two trailers already released tell us a great deal about the film’s perspectives.

The first trailer strongly implies that the killing of Officer Faulkner was the direct result of a long-harbored hatred of the police on Mumia’s part and maybe even had been a pre-planned hit engineered by Mumia and his brother Cook.

As noted above, this argument was first presented when the book “Murdered by Mumia. A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain, and Injustice” by Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner was released in December 2007. At that time, Smerconish presented prosecutor McGill as a guest on his radio show, and there, Smerconish and McGill jointly promoted this new “hit” theory for the first time.

The new film seems largely based on this argument presented on that show, and upon inspection, we see that many of the facts presented by McGill and Smerconish to support this are plainly false.

For example, McGill argued on the 2007 show that Cook may have deliberately gotten pulled over by Faulkner by driving the wrong direction on 13th Street, so as to create a situation where Abu-Jamal could then sneak up from behind and shoot a distracted police officer in the back. McGill said: “It was awfully coincidental, that his brother is stopped going the wrong way on 13th Street … and then he stops and he’s getting out. And again, Mr. Jamal, the coward he was, would wait until his back was to him, and then he ran across, and it almost happened simultaneously, and it just seemed to me, although I couldn’t prove it, that it was AWFULLY coincidental.”

In reality, there is no evidence at all that Cook was driving the wrong way on 13th street, and McGill never introduced any evidence suggesting this at either Abu-Jamal’s trial or Cook’s preceding trial for aggravated assault in March 1982, where McGill was also the prosecutor.

The contention is even squarely contradicted by prosecution witness Albert Magilton’s testimony at Abu-Jamal’s trial, according to which Cook approached the later shooting scene from Locust and not 13th Street. To this day, nobody knows why Officer Faulkner stopped Cook, but McGill dishonestly presents this as the first part of a sinister scheme to lure a police officer into a situation where his back is unprotected.

“The Barrel of a Gun”

At the sentencing phase of Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial, McGill cited a statement that Abu-Jamal made as the 15-year-old lieutenant of information of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), where Abu-Jamal, following the infamous assassination of BPP leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the FBI and Chicago police, quoted the works of Mao Zedong, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” in order to characterize the rule-by-force approach of police in the US. (Our newspaper features an article detailing the murders of Hampton and Clark, here.)

This statement has been repeatedly taken out of context by Abu-Jamal’s detractors in an effort to depict him as a crazed and out of control cop hater, who wanted to make a political statement by killing Officer Faulkner. By choosing “the barrel of a gun” for the title of his film, Hill appears to be following this same path of distortion, and it is very unlikely that his film will fairly contextualize the said statement.

It is important to understand the climate of police repression at the time. On December 8, 1969, (just days after the December 4, 1969, murders of Hampton and Clark), the Los Angeles Police Department mounted a chillingly similar early morning attack on the Los Angeles offices of the BPP, including the party’s main office on Central Avenue. This time, the Panthers were able to fight back against the police, until they finally surrendered, with six occupants of their headquarters wounded and 13 arrested.

A similar attack on Panther premises in Seattle, Washington, planned for January 1970 by federal agencies, was canceled only after Seattle’s Democratic Mayor Wes Uhlman blocked it, expressing concern over “Gestapo-type tactics” that could lead to a time when every citizen would have to fear “the knock on the door at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

This was the situation when a young Abu-Jamal was assigned to report on the state terror directed against the BPP. In this function, he flew to Chicago, personally inspected Fred Hampton’s blood-soaked bed, reported on it for the BPP newspaper and gave the keynote speech at Hampton’s memorial service in Philadelphia.

It was in this function that he talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s reporter, Acel Moore, for a front-page article published on January 4, 1970. Moore wrote: “‘Since the murders,’ says West [for Wesley] Cook, Chapter Communication Secretary, ‘Black brothers and sisters and organizations which wouldn’t commit themselves before are relating to us. Black people are facing the reality that the Black Panther Party has been facing: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Murders, a calculated design of genocide, and a national plot to destroy the party leadership is what the Panthers and their supporters call a bloody two year history of police raids and shootouts.”

Notably, McGill’s reference to Abu-Jamal’s prior membership in the BPP was blatantly unconstitutional. When Abu-Jamal challenged this constitutional violation, the courts rejected his claim, literally ignoring legal precedents that have granted new trials in other similar cases. Veteran journalist Linn Washington writes that in the early 1990s, the US Supreme Court twice refused “to consider Abu-Jamal’s claim that prosecutors violated his First Amendment association rights with inflammatory references to his teenaged membership in the BPP. The US Supreme Court, months after rejecting Abu-Jamal’s first appeal, granted a new hearing to a murderer who challenged prosecutorial reference to his current membership in a violent white racist prison gang. Following the favorable ruling for the racist, Abu-Jamal unsuccessfully sought Supreme Court reconsideration of his association right claim citing that Court’s ruling in the white racist’s case.”

“Months after spurning Abu-Jamal a second time, the Supreme Court granted a new hearing to a white murderer challenging prosecutorial reference of his membership in a devil worshipping cult. When giving relief to the devil worshipper, the Supreme Court cited the precedence of its ruling in the racist’s case,” writes Washington, concluding, “equal protection of laws seemingly should have provided an ex-Black Panther with the same protection of laws as a white racist and white devil worshipper given the similarities of their appeal circumstances.”

Superior Knowledge?

The second trailer of Hill’s film focuses on Officer Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, and carries a purely emotional message: Neither Danny Faulkner nor his widow Maureen will ever find peace unless Abu-Jamal is executed.

The first premise of this trailer’s message is that, for some reason, Mrs. Faulkner has more knowledge of the events that led to the death of her husband than other people do, even though she, too, was not present at the scene. Thus, in her book “Murdered by Mumia,” co-authored with the Philadelphia talk show host Smerconish, Mrs. Faulkner claims to know the exact facts of the case and how Abu-Jamal allegedly killed Officer Faulkner.

Unfortunately, Maureen Faulkner’s claim to superior knowledge of the facts collapses on even the most superficial inspection of her book, a telling fact given the enormous resources in terms of access to the files of the DA’s office that she and her co-author Smerconish could rely on while writing it.

Illustrative of the book’s overall quality, are two grave factual inaccuracies from the very short chapter entitled “The Facts.”

One is the assertion that key prosecution witnesses Cynthia White and Robert Chobert both “testified that they saw Abu-Jamal run across the street and fire at Danny.” This is untrue in the case of Chobert, who actually only claimed to have seen the final, deadly shots at Faulkner. He never testified to having seen the beginning of the events, much less the alleged first shot from Abu-Jamal. This is an important distinction: If Abu-Jamal had indeed fired first and then also fired the deadly shots, this would, in any case, indicate first degree murder and, thus, eligibility for the death penalty.

Their second glaring inaccuracy is writing that Officer Faulkner shot Mumia in the stomach. He was actually shot in the chest, and this an important distinction because a shot in the stomach (which is lower than the chest) corresponds better with the prosecution’s theory that Faulkner fired at Abu-Jamal from below, as he fell, after being shot in the back. Since the bullet entered Abu-Jamal’s chest at a downward trajectory, it means that he was actually shot from above – a shot from below being all but impossible. This contradiction is a major hole in the prosecution’s theory, and Abu-Jamal’s detractors have long sought to conceal this fact from the public, as they are unable to honestly address it.

Statements made by Maureen Faulkner since she appeared on the public scene to campaign for Abu-Jamal’s execution, make clear that she is not interested in the truth about the horrible event that the death of her husband certainly was. Rather, she wants a revenge that takes precedence over truth.

Mrs. Faulkner’s indifference toward the facts of the case was again demonstrated during the December 6, 2007, “Today Show” segment on the day of her book’s release. When she was confronted with the newly discovered photos by press photographer Pedro P. Polakoff that show mishandling, manipulation and misinterpretation of the crime scene, she quickly dismissed their significance, even though the authenticity of Polakoff’s photos is not in doubt.

At the show’s end, host Matt Lauer asked her, “Maureen, when you’re alone with your thoughts at night, when you even see pictures of the protests like the one we have across the street, does it ever cross your mind that perhaps they’re right? Do you ever allow yourself to consider the fact that perhaps he didn’t do it?” Faulkner’s response? “He murdered my husband in cold blood and there is no doubt in my mind.”

The Irreproachable Grieving Victim

The second premise is that as a crime victim, Maureen Faulkner is in a privileged position to demand punishment, “closure” and even the death of the purported perpetrator since only such measures can get her the “peace” to which she is entitled.

This is based largely on assuming for herself and her family a monopoly of suffering. It’s as if Abu-Jamal’s years on death row have been one big party, and as if Abu-Jamal did not have family and friends who are being put through hell together with him – a fact that Faulkner, the FOP and big media outlets rarely, if ever, mention.

Since nobody else apart from her family and friends deserves empathy or sympathy here, this becomes the singular cause of “A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain, and Injustice,” the subtitle of her book, and as a result of this now decade-long stance of Maureen Faulkner (and of the artistic and moral decisions of filmmaker Hill), the entirely widow-focused second trailer for “Barrel of a Gun” can be reduced to one sentence: “On account of my unique suffering, I need and deserve to have Mumia Abu-Jamal executed.”

This premise is also at the root of the long-held assertion by Abu-Jamal’s detractors that, when the movement supporting him seeks a new trial and rightfully argues that he was framed, this is somehow the ultimate insult to the grieving widow Maureen Faulkner. This logic is similar to the common assertion that if you support Abu-Jamal’s right to a fair trial, you must also support the killing of police officers. Accordingly, Abu-Jamal’s supporters are accused of being somehow opposed to “justice for Officer Faulkner,” when, in fact, most supporters think Mumia is innocent and didn’t kill Officer Faulkner.

While this narrative is patently absurd to any open-minded person, it has been a powerful tool for Abu-Jamal’s self-declared enemies in seeking to obscure the irrefutable evidence of an unfair trial and a frame-up. Out of respect and a fear of offending the “grieving widow,” most journalists are afraid to ask Mrs. Faulkner challenging questions about the facts of the case, even though she is presenting herself as an authority on the case, and calling for Mumia’s execution based on her alleged knowledge of these facts.

When, for once, “The Today Show’s” Matt Lauer asked her challenging, but fair questions, both Smerconish and Faulkner would later publicly express outrage, arguing that it was an insult to both the memory of Officer Faulkner and to Mrs. Faulkner.

Questions for Hill: The Crime Scene Photos

Along with many other events organized by Mumia supporters to which he was welcomed, filmmaker Hill filmed the Journalists for Mumia press conference on December 4, 2007, featuring Pam Africa, Love, Linn Washington Jr. and Dave Lindorff, where they focused on the newly discovered crime scene photos taken by press photographer Polakoff. Hill’s film crew also came to our December 8 slideshow presentation of the photos later that week. Therefore, we know, at minimum, that he is aware of the information we presented. If he chooses to not even acknowledge the Polakoff photos (as the mainstream media has almost uniformly done), this will be a deliberate choice on his part.

Big Noise Films’ “Justice on Trial” trailer features several of Polakoff’s photos alongside their interview with him, including the two-photo sequence showing that Officer Faulkner’s hat was moved from the top of Cook’s car and then placed on the sidewalk for the official police photo. In contrast, Hill’s first trailer shows many of the official police photos of the crime scene, but there is no mention of the Polakoff photos in the trailer or any other statements released by Hill. In light of this, we have some questions for him:

  1. You feature the close-up police photo of Officer Faulkner’s hat lying on the sidewalk. In your film, will you at least acknowledge that the newly discovered Polakoff crime scene photos show that the hat began on the top of Cook’s VW and was later moved to the ground for the police photos? Does this evidence tampering concern you?
  2. None of the police photos you featured show prosecution witness Robert Chobert’s taxi parked behind Officer Faulkner’s car, where Chobert testified that he was parked when he allegedly witnessed Mumia shoot Officer Faulkner. Polakoff’s photos also reveal that Chobert’s taxi is missing, and this has been a key point we’ve made about Polakoff’s photos in our campaign challenging the mainstream media to fairly report about them. There are many other problems with Chobert’s trial testimony, like his contradictory initial statement to police that the shooter of Officer Faulkner had simply “ran away” Will you fairly present this point we’ve made at two public presentations that you videotaped? What importance do you think this photo evidence has when evaluating Chobert’s integrity as a witness?
  3. Do you think the jury should have seen Polakoff’s photos? What do you think is the significance of Polakoff’s statement that he approached the Philadelphia DA’s office to offer his photos as evidence and was ignored by them?
  4. Testimony by the three core prosecution eyewitnesses Cynthia White, Robert Chobert, and Michael Scanlan, necessarily implies that bullets must have been fired into the sidewalk where Officer Faulkner came to lie. Since you have seen the Polakoff photos, as well as official police photos, you know that there are no bullet marks visible in the pavement. What, if anything, do you have to say about the implications of this?

Showdown in Philadelphia

The biggest question is whether or not the local media give “Justice on Trial” fair coverage and in an amount equal to that received by Hill’s “The Barrel of a Gun.”

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