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Still More Keystone Kops Antics
By LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.
Whether the fundamental errors riddling recent actions by opponents of Pennsylvania death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal constitute mere mistakes or malicious misrepresentations, these errors resemble sequels to the Keystone Kops silent film-era comedy series.
These error filled antics occur as Abu-Jamal approaches the 25th Anniversary of his December 9, 1981 arrest for fatally shooting a Philadelphia policeman and as a pivotal legal action moves forward in federal appeals court revolving around whether Abu-Jamal received a fair trial in 1982.
The latest faux pas by Abu-Jamal opponents regards errors in an October letter sent to officials in Paris requesting that they rescind the honorary citizenship granted three years ago to the death row inmate viewed globally as a victim of injustice in America.
This letter states that a delegation of Philadelphia City officials, including the Police Commissioner, planned a late-November trip to Paris to negotiate rescinding the honorary citizenship in exchange for these officials getting Abu-Jamal's death sentence cancelled.
However, the four Philadelphia officials listed as delegation members all deny knowing anything about either the trip or the deal.
Further, these officials have no power to cancel Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
Peter J. Wirs, the Philadelphia figure behind the delegation/deal, says he is surprised by the errors in that letter prepared on his behalf by a lawyer in Paris.
"I haven't done anything yet to formalize the delegation or the planned trip. We haven't raised any money," Wirs said recently, adding that he "hasn't seen" the letter sent on his behalf.
Wirs also distanced himself from the deal proposed in that letter.
"An offer to pull the death penalty is so ridiculous. We have no authority to take the death penalty off the table," said Wirs, a minor figure in Philadelphia's Republican Party, a party that represents only sixteen percent of the city's registered voters.
Wirs dismissed errors in that letter as minor mistakes probably resulting from "translations from English to French too many chefs' hands in this soup"
That October letter also contains the erroneous claim that Abu-Jamal shot Officer Daniel Faulkner five times in the face, a claim contradicted by police, prosecutors and judicial findings throughout the quarter-century tenure of this case.
That October letter prompted a written response to Parisian officials from Abu-Jamal attorney, Robert R. Bryan.
Bryan wrote that the letter is "appalling since it contains material misrepresentations and errors."
Ironically, errors by police, prosecutors, jurists and other authorities during the arrest, conviction and state court appeals of Abu-Jamal fuel the worldwide belief that Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial and is thus unjustly convicted.
These errors include police failing to give Abu-Jamal the standard hand test after his arrest to determine if he actually fired a gun, prosecutors failing to provide Abu-Jamal's trial attorney with compelling evidence indicating his innocence and the notoriously pro-prosecution trial judge making racist remarks.
"Only in America could a trial judge say"I'll help them fry the Nigger," and be considered fair," Abu-Jamal stated in a letter to Parisian officials.
"The trial featured lies, just as the threatening letter to you did," Abu-Jamal's letter stated. "If the trial was truly fair, why would the Philadelphia letter propose a deal?"
Prior to that error-filled October letter, Philadelphia area legislative leaders mounted equally error-filled actions against the Paris suburb of St. Denis for naming a street in honor of Abu-Jamal.
The anti-St. Denis Resolution approved by Philadelphia's City Council at the end of May, for example, contains the erroneous declaration that "Mumia Abu-Jamal has exhausted all legal appeals."
Since the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in Philadelphia, approved Abu-Jamal's request for an appeal in late 2005, it is factually incorrect to contend that Abu-Jamal "has exhausted" all of his appeals.
Not only did the 3rd Circuit agree to hear the appeal claim that prosecutors used racial discrimination while selecting the jury for Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial, the Circuit Court also took an unusual step in granting appeal on other items like allegations of judicial bias during a 1995 appeals hearing for Abu-Jamal.
The intensity of the bias exhibited by Judge Albert Sabo during that 1995 hearing offended even Philly's normally anti-Mumia mainstream news media to the point of their publishing editorials condemning Sabo for both making a mockery of justice and providing Abu-Jamal supporters with additional ammunition to back their claims of gross injustice.
Interestingly, Peter Wirs does not dispute that Sabo made the racist pre-trial remark and Wirs readily admits that police did not follow proper forensic standards while investigating the murder.
Yet, Wirs contends Abu-Jamal is guilty as charged, despite seeming violations of his constitutional rights.
"When you look at Sabo's statements and his rulings in the trial, they are not perfect but they are fair," Wirs claims. "The errors and problems with the criminal justice system in this case do not mitigate against the fact that Abu-Jamal's gun was found at the scene. That is the heart of this case."
The fact that police could not conclusively match bullet fragments removed from the slain officer to Abu-Jamal's gun is immaterial according to Wirs.
"This is a circumstantial evidence case," said Wirs, acknowledging that he is working with Philadelphia's police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the prime group pushing for Abu-Jamal's execution.
That Philadelphia City Council Resolution supported a congressional Resolution introduced in mid-May by two Philly area Congresspersons, Republican Michael Fitzpatrick and Democrat Allyson Schwartz.
This congressional Resolution contains fundamental errors.
The Fitzpatrick/Schwartz Resolution, in recounting facts of the case, makes the erroneous claim that "Mumia Abu-Jamal struck Officer Faulkner four times in the back with his gun."
This claim contradicts the scenario presented at trial by the prosecutor and this claim contradicts the version of events on the official Justice for Daniel Faulkner Web site. This site, according to its founders, exists to provide "an accurate source of information."
Pa Republican U.S. Senator Rich Santorum also introduced an anti-St. Denis resolution in the Senate mimicking the congressional resolution.
"No one ever claimed Mumia struck Faulkner's back four times.
While this may evoke the image of a heroic officer striking back against all odds, it is sheer fantasy," noted Dr. Michael Schiffmann, the German author of a new book on the Abu-Jamal case, "Race Against Death. Mumia Abu-Jamal: a Black Revolutionary in White America."
According to Schiffmann, "One might say such "details" are unimportant, but if they are so unimportant, why bring them up?"
Answering his rhetorical question, Schiffmann says this erroneous information makes "something these law and order representatives know nothing about seem more real."
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, states Keystone Kops is a term used to criticize any group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happen after a great deal of energy and activity, or if there is a lack of coordination among members of the group.
Dr. Schiffmann's book presents new, startling information on this controversial case.
Schiffmann provides information blowing big holes in the ballistics evidence presented by prosecutors and police.
Further, Schiffmann's book presents previously unpublished pictures taken by a press photographer who arrived at the 1981 crime scene before police photographers that show police personnel tampering with evidence and manipulating the crime scene.
Peter Wirs recently filed a lawsuit in France, asserting that officials' in Paris and its St. Denis suburb violated French criminal law by respectively issuing the citizenship to a convicted murderer and placing his name on a street.
St. Denis officials did not complain in 2001 when local and state officials renamed most of Philadelphia's Roosevelt Blvd. "Daniel Faulkner Memorial Highway."
The intense reaction in Philadelphia to the street naming in far off St. Denis stuns former St. Denis Mayor, Patrick Braouezec, who sees the reaction as surreal.
"By doing this, we are just contributing to the possibility of Mumia having a new and fair trial and put the issue of the death penalty on the table," Braouezec said during an interview while visiting Philadelphia in September where the city's mayor refused to meet with Braouezec about the street naming.
"There was no intention on our part to provoke or offend the memory of the slain officer or his family," said Braouezec, currently a member of the French National Assembly, the Congress of France.
Patrick Braouezec finds it difficult "to conceive that with the problems in the American criminal justice system and issues in the Abu-Jamal case that the level of resistance to this man receiving a fair trial is so intense."
The intense resistance, Braouezec said, "is political. There have been lesser cases with lesser doubts that received new trials."
Few either opposed to or supportive of Abu-Jamal remember the case of Neil Ferber; a Philadelphia man arrested six months before Abu-Jamal's December 1981 arrest.
Philadelphia police and prosecutors framed Ferber for a mob related murder, sending him to death row for 1,375-days before his release.
A court ruling in lawsuit Ferber filed over his false imprisonment declared that "this case presents a Kafkaesque nightmare of the sort which we normally would characterize as being representative of the so-called justice system of a totalitarian state unfortunately it happened here in Philadelphia."
This ruling noted that a "variety of Philadelphia police" engaged in a litany of misconduct "for the singular purpose of obtaining Ferber's arrest and subsequent conviction on first degree murder charges.
Evidence also showed that the jail-house snitch whose testimony sealed Ferber's conviction had flunked a lie-detector test ordered by prosecutors but prosecutors withheld this information from Ferber's trial attorney.
Philadelphia officials bitterly opposed Ferber's lawsuit for compensation.
Ferber eventually received a million dollar-plus settlement for his false incarceration, however, authorities penalized no police officer or prosecutor involved in the framing of Ferber.
Didier Paillard, St. Denis' current mayor, declared during the street naming ceremony this spring that the Abu-Jamal case is not just a "symbol" in the struggle for justice.
Paillard said Abu-Jamal's struggle symbolizes "resistance against a system which has the arrogance to reign over the world in the name of those same human rights that it tramples with complete impunity on its own soil."
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia journalist who has reported on the Abu-Jamal case since December 1981. Washington is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune newspaper.