In Prison My Whole Life: An interview with William Francome
by William Francome and Hans Bennett; October 26, 2007
The trailer for the new British documentary about US death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, titled "In Prison My Whole Life," begins with the film's central character, William Francome, explaining that he's "been aware of Mumia for as long as I can remember. That’s because he was arrested on the night I was born, for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. As my mom would often remind me, every birthday I had, has been another year that Mumia has spent in prison.... I am going on a journey to find out about the man who has been in prison my whole life."
The 90-minute film premieres on October 25 at both The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival and Rome's International Film Festival. With the acclaimed British actor Colin Firth as an executive producer, "In Prison My Whole Life" is directed by Marc Evans and produced by Livia Firth and Nick Goodwin Self. The film has interviews with such figures as Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Ramona Africa, and musicians Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Steve Earle. Amnesty International, who concluded in a previous report that Abu-Jamal's original 1982 trial was unfair, is supporting "In Prison" as part as part of its international campaign to abolish the death penalty. Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen says: "It's shocking that the US justice system has repeatedly failed to address the appalling violation of Mumia Abu-Jamal's fundamental fair trial rights."
In this exclusive interview on the eve of the film's premiere, Francome discloses for the very first time, one of the movies biggest surprises: The film will prominently feature the startling Dec. 9, 1981 crime scene photos that were recently discovered by German author Michael Schiffmann, and are published in his new book. Never presented to the 1982 jury, these new photos (taken by press-photographer Pedro Polakoff) "bolster claims of Mumia's innocence and unfair trial," according to Black Commentator columnist David A. Love.
Polakoff's photos have been shown on the Journalists for Mumia website since Dr. Schiffmann unveiled the photos in May, the same week that The US Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments regarding the fairness of Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial (listen to courtroom audio). While waiting for this important court ruling (expected any week), Abu-Jamal's international support network has initiated a media-activist campaign demanding that the major media outlets acknowledge the new crime scene photos. One of Polakoff's photos will be published for the first time in the US, in this week's issue of The San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, which has previously reported on Abu-Jamal's case.
Francome cannot reveal any more of the film's big surprises, but he does say that "the film interviews people who have never told their story of the events of that night for the first time ever and offers new insight and theories as to what happened on Locust Street in 1981. To learn more about this, people ought to go and watch the film."
Hans Bennett: What can you tell us about the new crime scene photos discovered by German author Michael Schiffmann, and how they appear in your film?
William Francome: The photos of press photographer Pedro Polakoff feature in the film as well as an interview with him and Michael Schiffmann, the German author who found them.
We had been in contact with Michael from the beginning of this project as he is one of the most knowledgeable people on the case. He had been working on his book 'Race Against Death' when he found a photo online that he realized was not taken by the police at the scene. Somehow (Michael is an amazing investigator) he found Pedro who was a press photographer at the time of the shootings in December of 1981. Pedro had arrived on the scene within minutes and captured much of the initial chaos of the scene.
They are quite amazing photographs as they show the complete lack of professionalism by the police who were faced with the task of preserving the crime scene and any forensic evidence that might be inherent within it. There are pictures of a police officer holding both of the weapons at the scene in one hand without gloves, which would therefore completely contaminate any fingerprints or gun powder residue. They also show the police walking in and out of the scene and show that Officer Faulkner’s hat was moved from photo to photo. I may just be a layman in terms of crime scene maintenance but it seems to me that these are grave and almost criminally negligent mistakes to make. There is also the issue of bullet holes or the lack thereof in the pavement. The photos should show where bullet fragments would have been found in the surrounding cement according to the prosecution witnesses’ account, but this is not the case.
Whether or not these acts were made on purpose remains to be seen, but the photos could have helped clear this case up from the very beginning. Now we are 25 years down the line and we are still asking basic questions of the initial evidence that should not have been left for so long unanswered. Meanwhile, a man is on death row who claims he's innocent and it's been a quarter of a century since a policeman was killed and many feel the killing hasn't been sufficiently solved.
What makes the issue of the photos even more important is that they were purposefully ignored by the prosecution and the District Attorney's Office. Pedro says that he rang them and told them of his photographs and offered them for use in the trial, but that the office never got back to him. It is obvious that the prosecution knew that the photographs of the crime scene could have done their case some damage in court and therefore outright ignored them.
HB: Where does the movie go from here? When can people in the US view it?
WF: The film is about to premiere at the London and Rome film festivals and I'm very happy to say that it's sold out all of its screenings. We are still at the early stages and we have to wait and see if and when it gets taken on by a distributor, what happens next. I'm sure at some point in the near future we'll be screening the film in the US. The film was shot in America and mostly deals with American issues so I look forward to seeing the reaction it gets there. I myself am half American, and spent my teenage years in New York, so I have enjoyed making a film about the country I grew up in as well as having been able to look at it as an outsider.
HB: Why is Mumia's case still so important after 25 years?
WF: I think the fact that Mumia's case is still being debated after twenty five years is an issue in itself. It seems unbelievable to me that you could keep someone in solitary confinement for a quarter of a century as well as having a death sentence hanging over him that whole time. The starting point of this film is that it's been my whole life, and considering all the things that I have done and all the memories I have really helps to put the whole thing in perspective. Try thinking back to what you were doing in 1981 and it might have the same effect. In that time, there have been hundreds of people executed and there are still over 3,000 currently sitting on death row in America. However, despite evidence that people innocent of the crimes they were convicted for have been executed and over 100 people who have been exonerated and released from death row because of new evidence, the death penalty system in America still grinds forward.
After 25 years, the questions of race, cost and inadequate legal representation have yet to be fully and honestly addressed and the issues that caused it to be declared unconstitutional in the 70's persist. In short, as long as there is a death penalty in the United States, Mumia's case and the case of all death row inmates will remain vital and important. People should see this movie because they too seek for answers and honesty from the criminal justice system, and they too, want to gain a greater understanding of the inherent flaws in the death penalty system in the U.S.
Even if people can't relate to the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal or are not affected by it, they might still be able to relate to my story. I think for many people, the journey that I'm going on is enough on its own. This is the story of two lives coming together in a sense, and hopefully it will allow many who have previously been uninterested in the issues surrounding the case to sit up, take notice and find out more on their own. In a ninety minute film, it is hard to comprehensively look into any subject, but you hope that it gives the audience enough to go away and delve further.
Hans Bennett is an independent journalist and co-founder (with German author Michael Schiffmann) of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal (Abu-Jamal-News.com).