Prof. Fernandez’ acclaimed film, ‘Justice on Trial: The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,’ will be screened Thursday, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m., at Twinspace, 2111 Mission St., Third Floor, San Francisco
by Minister of Information JR
M.O.I. JR: You have been doing a lot of work with political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal’s case. For the people who do not know who he is, can you briefly catch them up to date?
Prof. Johanna: As you know, JR, Mumia is a world famous African-American journalist, a humanist and one of the most important revolutionary voices of our time. He is also a former Black Panther, and he has been on deathrow for almost 30 years.
M.O.I. JR: What is the significance of his case, and why are people all around the world concerned about him being on deathrow?
Prof. Johanna: Part of what we know is that his case was riddled with unconstitutional violations, from beginning to end. And all of the issues surrounding Mumia’s case, all of the violations – like prosecutorial misconduct, racism on the part of the judge, tampering with evidence on the part of the police to obtain a conviction, a jury trial that was not of his peers because it was stacked with white jurors, all of these issues – are also the issues that are responsible for the mass incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos today, making the problem of mass incarceration of people of color the most important civil rights problem of our time.
M.O.I. JR: There was recently some information that came out. It was a ray of good news, or I should say that I am glad that we got a small “w.” We are still fighting for his release, which will be the big “w.” Can you tell the people, what is this small people’s win that we were granted from the courts?
Prof. Johanna: Well, the Supreme Court recently determined – and confirmed what we’ve known for over 30 years – that this case is riddled with constitutional violations, and they essentially refused to hear arguments put forth by the Philadelphia D.A.’s office challenging the Mills issue, which was an issue that Mumia and his attorneys raised in court that argued that the jurors who heard the penalty phase of his death penalty trial were mis-instructed on how to weigh or introduce evidence into the penalty phase of the case that would mitigate against the death penalty.
So the D.A.’s office essentially asked the Supreme Court to hear their arguments challenging Mumia’s Mills claim. And the Supreme Court refused to hear those arguments and therefore upheld the claim put forth by Mumia and his lawyers, that there were unconstitutional violations around how jurors were instructed on their decision to give him a death sentence.
And what this means essentially is that now the D.A.’s office has to either release Mumia to general population to serve a life of imprisonment without parole or call for a re-sentencing trial, which would determine whether he would in fact get a death sentence in the future. So this is a win, because part of what the Supreme Court has acknowledged is that there were constitutional violations in this case and, in my opinion, this is a huge crack in this case. If there were constitutional violations during the penalty phase of this trial, there certainly were constitutional violations during the guilt phase of this trial, and both of those trials were heard by the same jury.
M.O.I. JR: Well, you said that you think of this as a major crack in the case. Now, as a supporter of Mumia, I’m wondering how much does this really matter. I know it matters to the extent that they will not try to stick a needle in his veins, but what does it mean for his ultimate freedom, because myself, having looked at the evidence over the years and met a lot of people who are involved in the campaign, including Mumia Abu Jamal, I believe that he should be free. And in light of what happened to Troy Anthony Davis, is this a win if he stays on the mainline in prison for the rest of his life?
Prof. Johanna: Absolutely not. This is no victory for Mumia Abu Jamal. The fact of having to face imprisonment for life without parole is clearly not what a people’s movement for democracy and freedom would want. But what this would mean for Mumia is that for the first time in 30 years, he would have a completely different life. He would be able to touch and hug his children, his wife, his friends who might visit him.
So no, this is not a clear victory for Mumia, but it is an acknowledgement for the first time on the part of the Supreme Court, and the courts, that there was something wrong with this case, that there was something terribly wrong with this case. And I think that what we need to do as a movement is run with this and argue for a deeper investigation into the case that would eventually lead to his release. So the struggle continues.
We now have to take this partial win into the streets. And we need to essentially bring the Occupy Wall Street movement and the new emerging movement against the New Jim Crow to Philadelphia and raise the problems, the serious problems, with this case. And raise the fact that here you have a man who got a sham of a deal for a trial and who has been sitting on deathrow for 30 years.
Again, this is one of the most important revolutionary voices in America, in the world. He is a humanist and a freedom fighter. And he’s been essentially incarcerated and framed by an injustice system that is doing this to him and millions of others in this country.
M.O.I. JR: I really respect your scholarship on dealing with the Mumia case for a lot of reasons. One, you have done the research. Two, you have a film you helped put together, which we will get to shortly. And three, because you weren’t afraid to face off against opposition, major opposition from some of the main people that are opponents to Mumia in Philadelphia.
And there is a dvd of the debate that you and another brother did called “The Great Debate.” Can you speak a little about what went down at this debate? What were some of the points that you fought off, as well as what you and your team presented at this debate that dealt with case of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal?
Prof. Johanna: Well, essentially it was a debate between myself and an attorney in Philadelphia who is well known, Michael Coard, on one side. And on the other side were the D.A. of Philadelphia Seth Williams and a Black filmmaker who recently released a film that was supported by the Fraternal Order of Police and that identifies Mumia Abu Jamal as the killer of Daniel Faulkner.
And part of what we presented and discussed in the debate was the Polakoff photographs. Pedro Polakoff was the first journalist at the scene of the crime. He took photographs which very clearly demonstrate the ways in which the cops in Philadelphia have a long history of corruption, essentially tampered with the evidence and moved things around to convey the picture of what they wanted to convey.
Those photographs also demonstrate that a police officer is photographed holding two guns with bare hands at the scene of the crime. That same police officer testified at trial that he had properly handled those guns. We also discussed the fact that there was a fourth person at the scene of the crime by the name of Kenneth Freeman, who the prosecution concealed from the trial. And, as you probably know, there is a book out written by the crime and investigation journalist Patrick O’Connor entitled “The Framing of Mumia Abu Jamal,” which actually identifies Kenneth Freeman as the shooter and the killer of Daniel Faulkner.
And actually the cops brought him in immediately after the shooting to the police department, and he was identified twice by Cynthia White as the shooter. And Cynthia White was the key witness in the prosecution’s argument at trial, but they had Cynthia White say not what she had said originally, which was that Kenneth Freeman was the shooter. They coerced her to actually say that Mumia Abu Jamal was the shooter.
So the question is what went on here? And why is there so much corruption? Why was there so much concealing of evidence on the part of the prosecution? Why was it that the judge who presided over the case, Judge Albert Sabo, was overheard by a court stenographer say that he was going to “help them fry the nigger,” referring to how he was going to help the jurors make a decision about Mumia Abu Jamal?
Why was it that the judge who presided over the case, Judge Albert Sabo, was overheard by a court stenographer say that he was going to “help them fry the nigger,” referring to how he was going to help the jurors make a decision about Mumia Abu Jamal?
So these were some of the issues that were raised at the debate. What was clear was that the D.A., Seth Williams, was horrifically unprepared for the debate and that he knew very little about the case. So the debate is out there on the internet for people to watch themselves and to see how the city of Philadelphia can actually get away with incarcerating someone for 30 years and continuing this process without its administration like the D.A.’s office really knowing any of the major public facts about the case. And, like I said during the debate, the D.A. is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.
M.O.I. JR: Eloquently said. Can you tell us about the movie that is a work in progress that you have been showing but is not yet available commercially?
Prof. Johanna: Yes, the title of the film is “Justice on Trial: The case of Mumia Abu Jamal,” and essentially what we try to do in this film is go through in a painstaking way the cracks in this case: its unconstitutional violations. We also explore the issue of Kenneth Freeman, the fourth person at the scene of the crime, that was concealed at trial and who many scholars who have studied the case believe to be the shooter of Officer Faulkner.
But very importantly we deal extensively with the problem of police corruption in Philadelphia, the fact that in 1979, Philadelphia was singled out by the Justice Department at the federal level for its conduct and for its homicidal behavior in Philadelphia against African American and Latino defendants. Essentially, that investigation on the part of the Justice Department said that the behavior of the police department in Philadelphia “shocks the conscience.” This is in 1979, and Mumia was convicted in 1982 and arrested in 1981.
The Justice Department said that the homicidal behavior of the police department against African American and Latino defendants in Philadelphia “shocks the conscience.” This is in 1979, and Mumia was convicted in 1982 and arrested in 1981.
And it was those same police officers, whose behavior “shocks the conscience,” that collected evidence in this case. And so the film really flushes that out and discusses the fact that all of these cops, in their majority, who supposedly were honest at trial, were later, literally weeks after the trial ended – not even weeks, days after the trial ended – incarcerated for their activities in Philadelphia.
Dec. 9 marks the 30th year of Mumia’s incarceration. In Philadelphia, we’re going to the National Constitution Center to ask for a new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal and for his release. And joining us will be Cornel West, Arundati Roy by video, Michelle Alexander by video, Immortal Technique, Michael Coard and Vijay Prashad.
So the struggle continues. Let’s take it to Philadelphia. We want everyone’s support. And we want to make this an event that is as big as possible. So we ask that you try to join us and that you continue to educate yourself about this case. And we can’t stop at life in prison without parole for Mumia. We need to fight for his release.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe,” both available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.