By Linn Washington, Jr.
September 11, 2008
In presenting a compelling examination of the plight of death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal the documentary “In Prison My Whole Life” also probes one of the deeper contradictions of America: persistent suppression of dissent.
For a nation that extols the provisions of the First Amendment, politicians and police have histories of running roughshod over the rights of citizens to exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly and presenting grievances to government.
The recent actions against peaceful demonstrators and non-mainstream journalists by federal and local law enforcement personnel during the Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota is yet another example of suppression of dissent.
Amnesty International is among the organizations condemning the assaults and arrests at the Republican Convention, terming that use of force and mass arrests excessive.
Amnesty International has officially endorsed “In Prison My Whole Life” – the first time this respected human rights organization ever placed its imprimatur on a film.
This well received documentary that premiered simultaneously last October 25th at the London and Rome Film Festivals focuses on the journey of one young man – William Francome – to discover more about the death row inmate arrested on the day he was born.
Francome’s birthday is December 9, 1981 – the day Abu-Jamal was arrested for murdering of a Philadelphia policeman. Francome’s American-born mother followed the Abu-Jamal case, reminding her son on each of his birthdays about the man languishing on death-row for a conviction based on what the AI report determined was a grossly unfair trial.
The film follows Francome across America from New York City to California’s Bay Area in his journey to discover more about the Abu-Jamal case and related issues like racism, class prejudice and suppression of dissent.
“In Prison My Whole Life” will have two screening in New York City at the Urbanworld Film Festival – on Thursday 9/11 and Saturday 9/13. Additionally, a screening is set for 9/26 at the CR10 Conference in Oakland, California.
The only previous US screening of this documentary occurred this past January during the Sundance Film Festival.
In 2000, Amnesty International authored the comprehensive yet concise report on the Abu-Jamal case that presented a unique examination of unethical and suspect conduct by the Pa Supreme Court in this controversial case – newsworthy material that the US news media buried.
Only two American daily newspapers carried articles on that news-laden AI report according to the NEXUS newspaper database and both of those articles were ‘news briefs.’ The news brief on the AI report published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in Abu-Jamal’s hometown was the fifth of six items in the B Section, listed below reporting on two non-fatal shootings, a small nightclub fire and a proposal to ban cell phone use while driving.
The Abu-Jamal case is fraught with suppression of dissent.
Incidents of suppression include the well publicized 1994 action by police and politicians forcing NPR to cancel airing prison commentaries by the award-winning journalist, the little known 2000 federal imprisonment of a leading Abu-Jamal activist for speaking at an anti-death penalty rally during the GOP national convention held that year in Philadelphia and 2007 strong-arming by Philadelphia’s police union to block a pro-Abu-Jamal program.
Francome’s “In Prison My Whole Life” interviews include Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Mos Def, Snoop Dog and Alice Walker – famed persons who’ve endured violations of their First Amendment rights.
This documentary also presents the first film interview with Abu-Jamal’s brother, Billy Cook. The slain officer’s beating of Cook during a traffic stop allegedly triggered the shooting. Cook shows a head scar he still carries from that beating. Cook also confirms the presence of his close friend long suspected by some as the person who fatally shot the officer.
Producers for the documentary are acclaimed British actor Colin Firth and his wife Livia Giuggioli who enlisted renowned director Marc Evans.
Producer Livia Giuggioli, during a recent interview with Hans Bennett, said intense passions displayed by advocates and enemies of Abu-Jamal is one of the things that interested them about pursuing this project.
“This is what really fascinated us all when we started to approach the subject and research,” said Giuggioli who lives in London.
“If you detach everything from this “figure” you just find a man who has been a victim of politics more than anything else,” Giuggioli noted echoing a conclusion of the 2000 AI report that politics had polluted judicial rulings in the Abu-Jamal case.
“In Prison” presents extraordinary evidence pointing to Abu-Jamal’s innocence inclusive of crime scene photographs discovered in 2006 that contradict core elements of the prosecution’s case against the man whose written five books while on death row.
The photos, for example, show no bullet marks in the sidewalk where prosecutors declared Abu-Jamal shot into the sidewalk around the fallen officer three times before shooting him once in the face. The photos show no cab behind the officer’s squad car where prosecutors told jurors a cab driver observed the murder. Additionally, the photos show police tampering with evidence at the crime scene.
A consultant for the documentary, German professor Dr. Michael Schiffmann, located these photos shot by a Philadelphia news photographer who arrived at the shooting scene minutes after the crime.
Schiffmann published the 2006 book “Race Against Death” one of the two most thorough examinations of the Abu-Jamal case. The other book is “Killing Time” by Philadelphia-area investigative reporter Dave Lindorff. Both Schiffmann and Lindorff have “In Prison” appearances, walking Francome through various aspects of the Abu-Jamal case in Philadelphia.
“Hopefully the film will help people to think and realize that maybe there is more to the story,” Giuggioli said. “Until there is a proper new trial – Mumia is just a man who has been sitting in solitary confinement for 27-years and it is a disgrace.”
The Abu-Jamal case is presently heading for an appeal to the US Supreme Court after the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year rejected a request for a new hearing, principally on the issue of racial discrimination during the selection of the jury at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial.
That Third Circuit ruling created new standards for jury discrimination appeals that are more stringent than standards established by the US Supreme Court. That 2000 Amnesty International report faulted courts for improperly creating new legal standards to deny justice to Abu-Jamal.
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia journalist who’s followed the Abu-Jamal case since 1981. Washington appears briefly in the “In Prison” documentary talking about police brutality in Philadelphia.