Nearly 30 years after the death of a police officer and the conviction of his alleged killer, the question is still being asked.
Did Mumia Abu-Jamal do it?
And yet another attempt to answer that question has failed. Last week, two documentaries featuring vastly different views on the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner premiered in the city. While compelling, they were not without inconsistencies.
Justice On Trial, by Kouross Esmaeli and Baruch College professor Johanna Fernandez, paints a picture in which a sloppy crime-scene investigation, tampered evidence and rampant corruption within the Philadelphia Police Department, coupled with the stigma of being a cop killer, contributed to Abu-Jamal’s guilty verdict. The film attempts to humanize Mumia, portraying him as a family man, dedicated journalist and righteous freedom fighter.
“We live in a society that throws people away, locks the door, throws away the key and doesn’t care about humanity,” Fernandez says. “Our objective was to explore the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, but [also] to raise the broader crisis of incarceration in America.”
While the film was not nearly as broad as Fernandez may have hoped, it does make a solid case that Abu-Jamal should get a new trial. Photographs taken at the scene of the crime by Pedro Polakoff (author of The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal) show officers handling the supposed murder weapon, which would indicate tampered evidence. An interview with one witness, Veronica Jones, indicates that the police coerced her—with promises of wiping her criminal record clean— to identify Abu-Jamal as the shooter despite her original assertion that she saw two men running from the scene of the crime after Faulkner was shot. The film also discusses the curious case of the other man at the scene of the crime, Kenneth Freeman, who was a passenger in the car pulled over by Faulkner at 13th and Locust. Freeman was never mentioned once the June 1982 trial.
In Barrel of a Gun, noted documentary filmmaker Tigre Hill uses his access–his film includes court transcripts, police tapes and interviews with Gov. Rendell, Maureen Faulkner and prosecutor Joe McGill—to paint an entirely different picture of what happened on Dec. 9, 1981. If anything, the interviews and documents give the film a sense of legitimacy.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Rendell says in the film. “He executed Faulkner in cold blood.”
The film went off on a tangent, focusing on the militancy of the Black Panther Party (of which Mumia was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter) and MOVE, the “back to Earth” organization Mumia was heavily involved with in the years leading up to the murder. It appeared that Hill was going out of his way to portray Mumia as a radical with violent aspirations. Justice On Trial mentions MOVE and the Black Panthers only in passing, as if these affiliations were more a sign of character and conviction rather than a man predisposed to violence.
And where Justice On Trial hardly mentions William Cook, Mumia’s brother and the driver of the car that Faulkner pulled over, Barrel of a Gun uses his unwillingness to testify in Mumia’s defense as further proof of Mumia’s guilt. On the other hand, Veronica Jones and Kenneth Freeman are practically ignored in Barrel of a Gun, but are focal points in Justice On Trial.
Mumia himself was a surprise guest at the premiere of Justice On Trial. Via conference call, Mumia was asked whether he thought that the media gave him a fair shake during his trial.
“No, it was just like the courtroom; you had two sides, black and white,” he said before being cut off.
Interestingly, the Justice On Trial audience seemed more inclined to hear both sides of the story than the Barrel of a Gun crowd.
David Faison, a Southwest Philadelphia activist, hoped that this film would spark productive debate on both sides.
“It should open the door for discussion. I just hope people can be open-minded enough to listen to the other side,” he said.
Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who was in attendance at the Barrel of a Gun premiere, says there is no other side.
“No, I’m not interested in seeing [Justice on Trial],” said Abraham. “ I know the evidence and I know the facts. The truth is the truth, and that’s the end of that as far as I’m concerned.”
After viewing both films, it is still hard to know what the truth is. Hill, who is black, showed enormous courage in taking on an issue that is near and dear to the heart of those in the black community and flipping it on its head. Esmaeli and Fernandez deftly portray Mumia as a martyr of our criminal-justice system, who deserves a fair trial. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but one can’t help but wonder if these films can be viewed from outside of the black-and-white prism that dominates the discussion.