Mumia’s Race Against Death
German book reveals new evidence in death-row case
by Hans Bennett
“The history of the criminal case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is by now almost 25 years old, has been characterized by bias right from the start: against a black man whom the court denied a jury of his peers, against a member of the economic underclass who did not have a real claim to a qualified defense, and against a radical, whose allegedly dangerous militancy obliged the state to eliminate him from the ranks of society.”
So writes German author Michael Schiffmann in his new book Race Against Death. Mumia Abu-Jamal: a Black Revolutionary in White America (an expansion of Schiffmann’s PhD dissertation at the University of Heidelberg), just released in Germany this past month.
In 1982, Abu-Jamal he was convicted of killing white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and sentenced to death in a trial that Amnesty International has declared a “violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty.”
Schiffmann writes that a third person (besides Abu-Jamal and his brother Billy Cook) most likely shot and killed police officer Daniel Faulkner on the morning of December 9, 1981. This third person was Kenneth Freeman (Billy Cook’s friend and business partner), who – according to the available evidence – was a passenger in Cook’s car. Freeman likely shot him in response to Faulkner shooting Abu-Jamal in the chest, and was therefore the black male that six eyewitnesses reported to see fleeing the scene moments before other police arrived.
Race Against Death asserts that ballistics almost certainly rule out Abu-Jamal firing the first shot (into Faulkner’s back), and that much evidence shows that he also didn’t fire the lethal bullet to Faulkner's head. However, in the very unlikely scenario that Abu-Jamal did shoot Faulkner, it would have been a response to being shot himself and would therefore be justified self-defense.
MIT professor Noam Chomsky (a long-time supporter of Abu-Jamal) writes that Schiffmann’s “careful and scrupulous inquiry into the events and the available evidence brings to light much that is new or was obscured,” and “raises understanding of this painful and critically important case to a new level. Not only his comprehensive research, but also his penetrating evaluation of the background and import, should be the basis for further engagement in the case itself and the intricate array of issues in which it is embedded.”
Building upon evidence presented in the other two books written about Abu-Jamal’s case (Dan Williams’ 2001 Executing Justice and Dave Lindorff’s 2003 Killing Time), Schiffmann boldly presents both new evidence and an entirely original analysis of previous ballistics evidence.
A New Witness: Photographer Pedro Polakoff
In May, 2006, Schiffmann discovered two photographs on the Internet that were taken by the only press photographer immediately present at the 1981 crime scene – Pedro Polakoff. The photographer arrived within 12 minutes of hearing about the shooting on the police radio and about ten minutes before the Mobile Crime Unit (responsible for forensics and photographs) arrived. This unit had still not taken any photos when Polakoff left after 30-45 minutes at the scene.
Upon contacting Polakoff, Schiffmann learned that three of his 31 original shots were published in Philly newspapers at the time, and five others were lost. Schiffmann told me that in his book he “published five of the 26 remaining photos to show the following three points:
“The cops manipulated evidence and supplied the trial court with stuff that was simply stage-managed. On Polakoff’s photos, P.O. Faulkner’s police hat at first is clearly on the roof of Billy Cook’s VW, and only later on the sidewalk in front of 1234 Locust where it was photographed by the police photographer who arrived 10 minutes after Polakoff!
“In court Police Officer James Forbes claimed that he had ‘secured’ the weapons of both Faulkner and Mumia without touching them on their metal parts in order to not destroy potential fingerprints. However, in the single photo reprinted in the book you can see that Forbes is touching the weapons on their metal parts, and quite a few of Polakoff’s other photos make it clear that Forbes touched and smudged these weapons all over, destroying any potential fingerprint evidence that may have been on them.
“The second-most important prosecution witness, cab driver Robert Chobert, simply was not parked in the spot, allegedly right behind Officer Faulkner’s police squad car, where he claimed to have been and from where he claimed to have observed Mumia fire the shot that killed the officer. Polakoff says that even before he photographed the spot, the cab had not been there. Since the place was teeming with police only minutes after the shooting (the first officers arrived only 40 seconds after the events), Chobert also wasn’t able to move his cab – it was simply never there, but was parked in a quite different spot, namely to the North on 13th Street, as Chobert himself told a defense investigator in 1995.”