The Mumia Saga Pro and Con
By Stu Bykofsky
Philadelphia Daily News
Daily News Columnist
THE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL cause celebre is a porcupine with 1,000 sharp quills, each one ready to inflict pain on the unwary.
Two documentary-makers last week grabbed some quills - Tigre Hill with "The Barrel of a Gun" and Kouross Esmaeli with "Justice on Trial."
The dueling documentaries - sincere, low-key and basically honest - are molded by each filmmaker's vision. Hill focuses on the murder of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Esmaeli on the trial of Mumia, and "Justice" slowly bleeds into an indictment of the entire criminal-justice system.
Antagonists on both sides complain they have been denied justice. Mumia's people want a new trial, Faulkner's people want Mumia dead, following the sentence of the court.
With better camera work, special effects and sound, "Barrel" is visually superior to the grainy and poorly lit "Justice," which makes its case in about half of "Barrel's" longish two hours. (Disclosure: I have a friendly relationship with Hill, and I appear fleetingly in his film.) Neither film will flip anyone with a closed mind, but each may influence someone not locked in.
Esmaeli engages in emotionalism in the closing segment, with family members and Mumia's most effective advocate, former Daily News reporter Linn Washington, crying that Mumia has never held his grandchildren. That is weak, with no bearing on his guilt, innocence or trial.
Hill's play to emotion comes from the heavy use of Faulkner's steadfast widow, Maureen. She belongs in the film, but she is not central to the case. Neither is Mumia's sister in "Justice," plus some unidentified voices and untitled speakers, who seem to be lawyers or academics.
Many questions still linger and may never be answered. I've rarely sat through a trial in which all questions were answered and in which all witnesses agree. Trials don't unspool like an episode of "Perry Mason," where you get virgin truth and unassailable verdicts in 60 minutes.
As an example of a lingering question: Hill's film has a cop saying he heard Mumia confess while in the emergency room, while Esmaeli has the emergency-room doctor saying he heard no confession. Are they both truthful? Lying? Mistaken? There are too many questions on both sides to recount here.
"Justice" makes a lot of a "contaminated" crime scene, showing a photo of a cop stupidly holding a gun in evidence in his bare hand. I trust the photo, but not the speaker who claims that the gun would have been automatically excluded as evidence. I didn't believe that, nor did the two defense lawyers (not connected with the case) I asked.
For its part, "Barrel" floats an unnecessary and unconvincing theory that Faulkner's murder was a planned assassination. Interestingly, "Justice" accuses no one else of being the killer.
Rational people can debate the even-handedness of the trial and of Judge Albert Sabo, but no rational person can convincingly argue that Mumia didn't shoot Faulkner. The MOVE people argue that, which proves my point.
In scenes guaranteed to bring Hill criticism, he accurately connects Mumia with the MOVE "urban revolutionaries" (as they are termed in "Justice") and with the Black Panthers. He then connects the Black Panthers with violence.
If this is guilt by association, is it warranted? Even "Justice" (courageously) concedes that the Panthers moved from civil disobedience to violence, adding that the Panthers' violence was fomented by police brutality.
Questions about the fairness of the trial - and I have a few - belong in the courts, where the case has ping-ponged for nearly 30 years. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has heard appeals five times, and the case has been sent to the U.S. Supreme Court five times, according to Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns.
A personal observation:
Ex-People Paper reporter Washington - and other supporters - spin an image of Mumia as sweet and grandfatherly. But a different portrait is drawn by another former Daily News reporter, now-retired Kitty Caparella, a tireless advocate for the underdog.
She found herself cornered in an otherwise empty courtroom with 18 MOVE members who surrounded her and started beating her, trying to grab her notebook.
"Get her! Get her! Get her!" shouted Mumia, who was there covering the trial for WHYY radio. He was fired soon after, with Hill's witnesses saying Mumia's adoration of MOVE made him snap.
Does that make him a murderer? No, but not a gentle Pop-Pop either.
Before long, another generation of college kids will be exposed to Mumia's story, and some will be drawn to the narrative of a brilliant, mellifluous, award-winning journalist who was framed in a cop-killing to become the world's No. 1 - with a bullet - death-row inmate.
And the people who can look them in the eye and say, "I know that's a lie because I was there," will all be dead.
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