One of Pennsylvania’s most renowned death row cases will be retried in the court of public opinion on Tuesday, Sept. 21 when two new films with clashing views on the guilt or innocence of Mumia Abu-Jamal debut simultaneously.
History professor Johanna Fernandez and filmmaker Kouross Esmaeli deliver a primer on the nearly 30-year-old case in the thoughtful Justice on Trial. Raising fundamental questions about the workings of the criminal justice system and the Abu-Jamal case – from sentencing to subsequent appeals – Justice frames the legal and factual arguments for reasonable doubt about the fairness of the guilty verdict.
The screening of Justice occurs the same day that local filmmaker Tigre Hill premieres The Barrel of a Gun, a narrative that revisits the contentions of the police and prosecution that paint Abu-Jamal, a one-time radio reporter, as a cold-blooded cop killer.
“We 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,” said Fernandez, Justice producer and a Baruch College professor. “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 want to elevate the dialogue at a time when reasoned voices are needed.”
Esmaeli and Fernandez expedited completion of their four-year project so it could add to revived conversations surrounding Abu-Jamal’s 1982 conviction in the murder of Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer.
Justice is offered as a challenge to the Hill account through painstaking review of 29 years of judicial records and facts, historical insight and new, potentially exculpatory evidence– just as the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court prepares for a new hearing on the case. That hearing is expected between this fall and spring 2011.
Justice reviews the actions that led to the tragic shooting of Officer Faulkner on December 9, 1981. It features lawyers and criminal justice experts; young Mumia supporters; citizens across the racial spectrum; and both police officers who defend and those who doubt the official trial records.
“We have the utmost respect and sympathy for Officer Faulkner’s widow and family. Clearly, the shooting of any police officer is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions,” said Esmaeli, Justice director and member of Big Noise Films. “But do we know enough about what happened that night to put a man to death? In this case, there are simply too many discrepancies and judicial errors to ignore.”
The documentary stands as an unflinching examination of the issues of racism and the flaws in the American criminal justice system: judicial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, discrimination in jury selection, as well as police corruption and tampering with evidence to obtain a conviction.
The crisis of the American judicial system remains one of the most pressing civil rights problems of our time, a concern captured in this film. Perspectives featured include that of former prosecutor Jack McMahon, whose training tape instructed the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office on how to exclude black people from certain juries in the 1970s.
The result of actions such as these has helped lead to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos in the United States, weakening faith in our society, according to Dr. Tameka Cage, an independent scholar and writer based in Pittsburgh.
“Effectively addressing this fundamental question of fairness is in the best interests of every American citizen-black white, Latino or Asian,” said theologian and ethicist Mark Lewis Taylor of Princeton Theological Seminary. “The dispensing of justice and the creation of a sense of justice among the public is the moral bedrock of American democratic society.”
Justice will have two screenings on Sept. 21. A press preview begins at 2 p.m. at the National Constitution Center, amid Philadelphia’s international symbols of liberty and justice – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the streets walked by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. That screening will be followed by “In the Interest of Justice,” a public panel discussion of the constitutional questions central to the worldwide controversy surrounding the Abu-Jamal death sentence. Both events are free but public seating is limited.
A second public screening will take place at the Ritz East Theater at 8 p.m.