‘This Is America. That’s the Kind of Trial Mumia Abu-Jamal Had.’

Janine Jackson interviewed Prison Radio‘s Noelle Hanrahan for a Mumia Abu-Jamal update for the October 28, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: TV snake oil salesman and Republican Pennsylvania candidate Mehmet Oz began a recent debate with opponent John Fetterman with reference to Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Fetterman, Oz claimed,

has been trying to get as many murderers convicted and sentenced to life in prison out of jail as possible, including people who are similar to the man who murdered her husband.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, 2019

Mumia Abu-Jamal

You could live in a cave and understand what Oz was trying to do there, but not everyone may recognize the particular dog whistle that is the reference to Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of fatally shooting Daniel Faulkner in 1983. (That was the conviction.)

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s conviction turned importantly on unreliable and conflicting testimony. It was significant that in taking up the case, elite news media went along for the ride, and sometimes drove the car—encouraging acceptance, for instance, of the fact that, though the guard assigned to Mumia immediately after his arrest reported “the negro male made no statements,” more to be believed was the other officer who subsequently came forward to say that, actually, from his hospital bed, Mumia had declared, “I shot the motherfucker  and I hope he dies.”

Neither witness recantations or shifting accounts or evidence of jury-purging in Mumia’s case, nor the ever-expanding evidence of the terrible harms and injustices of the US prison system generally, seem to be enough to shake some media from their investment in the narrative of the “convicted cop killer,” and the need to keep him not just behind bars, but also to keep him and people “similar to” him quiet, to keep their voices and their lives out of public conversation and consideration.

Noelle Hanrahan is legal director at Prison Radio, where Mumia Abu-Jamal is lead correspondent. She joins us now by phone from Pennsylvania. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Noelle Hanrahan.

Noelle Hanrahan: Thank you for having me.

JJ: We can fill in context as we go, but please go ahead and start with what’s uppermost. What is the latest legal development here?

 Ex-Black Panther asks for fresh trial amid new evidence

Guardian (10/26/22)

NH: When a defendant is trying to overturn their conviction—and Mumia has been in for 42 years—when they protest their innocence, they have to go to the local trial court. That, in Philadelphia, is the Common Pleas court. Mumia had fantastic new critical evidence that was just discovered two years ago.

There was a note in the prosecutor’s files that said, “Where was my money?” from one of the key [witnesses], and this happened right after the trial, implying that he was paid for his testimony.

There were also notes saying that the other key witness, their cases were being tracked, and that none of the outstanding charges pending against this witness were ever prosecuted.

The most dramatic evidence was evidence of taking Blacks off of the jury, and marks on the prosecutor’s notes about the racial composition of the jury, and also what was good and bad about which juror was selected, a white or a Black juror.

These were critical documents that many other people have gotten relief on. The jury notes are called Batson claims, the US constitutional claim. The suppression of evidence by the prosecution, burying evidence for 40 years, is called a Brady claim. These have gotten relief for many other defendants.

So now 42 years later, Mumia Abu-Jamal was before Judge Lucretia Clemons in the Common Pleas court, and yesterday she denied all of his claims.

She denied them procedurally. She refused to look at the merits of the body of evidence, and specifically this new evidence, and she denied it based on time bar waiver, due diligence.

And it’s just the Post-Conviction Relief Act, which is there only to deny inmates access to the court.

So I was Mumia’s producer. I’ve worked on Mumia with many of his books, including his latest trilogy, Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide and Manifest Destiny. We published those materials.

About five years ago, I went to law school. I passed the bar in Pennsylvania, and it’s unbelievable to see the level of stiff-arming accountability to the Frank Rizzo, Ed Rendell, Ron Castille era of literal torture of defendants and witnesses—literally torture, not figuratively. Literally. Think Jon Burge in Chicago. Think of the types of torture that have happened. That is typically what happened in the cases that I now investigate. Innocence cases, prosecutorial misconduct cases, cases where this kind of information is available to these judges.

I’ll give you one clear example. One of the key witnesses, Robert Chobert, was a cab driver who was driving without a license. He was on probation. He had thrown a Molotov cocktail into a school for pay. None of that material was before the jury.

There were pictures. He said he was right behind the police car and saw—yesterday, the district attorney in this case, Grady Gervino, on the other side, said, “Robert Chobert looked up from his cab and saw Mumia shoot the officer.”

Photo showing an empty space where the witness's cab was supposed to be.

Photo © Pedro P. Polakoff III.

There are pictures that just came out a few years ago from the Philadelphia Bulletin, that were taken 10 minutes after the shooting, that prove that Robert Chobert wasn’t there. His cab was not behind the police car.

Those photographs, the Polakoff photos, were denied into evidence. They were prevented from being put into the record.

So we have Robert Chobert being presumed to be this amazing witness with no problems… Literally the photos prove he wasn’t there, and nobody was able to be told in the jury that he was on probation for throwing a Molotov cocktail into a school for pay.

He came back to [county prosecutor Joseph] McGill, and asked, could he get his cab driver’s license reinstated? No promise—McGill said there was “no promise” of favoritism.

Then we discovered, two years ago, his note in the prosecutor’s files: “Where is my money for testifying?”

So the context, right? So that’s zooming in right now on what happened in court. The context, the things that haven’t been given to the court before, that haven’t been considered today?

We have a court reporter, Terri Maurer-Carter, saying, in front of another judge, Richard Klein, that [Judge] Albert Sabo said, “I’m gonna help them fry the N-word.” He said this in the first week of the trial.

JJ: Yeah.

NH: So this is America. That’s the kind of trial that Mumia Abu-Jamal had, where his original trial judge Albert “I’m gonna help them fry the N-word” Sabo presided.

And so we have a judge now who is saying none of this matters. He doesn’t get relief.

JJ: And you have to wonder what would be lost, on the part of journalists, to reexamine that, including reexamining their own role. What is it that they feel they’re going to lose?

There were many voices at the time calling out corporate media’s dereliction of duty; FAIR was one of them. But it was really remarkable.

 Sabo Must Go

Philadelphia Daily News (7/19/95)

NH: When Albert Sabo was presiding over the 1995 evidentiary hearing, the Philadelphia [Daily News]’ headline was, “Sabo Must Go.” He’s going to let Mumia off because he’s so blatantly racist. The headline was “Sabo Must Go.”

People know it. People know it. The daily news people know it. The courts know it. I interviewed Barbara McDermott, a criminal judge in the homicide division. She said Judge Sabo was the most racist, sexist and homophobic judge she’d ever met.

Everyone knows. It’s not unclear. They all know. They are preserving the system.

So [Philadelphia DA] Larry Krasner, in an appeal four years ago, said if they undid all of Ron Castille, a racist DA’s, opinions and judgments, it would question the entire system.

So they wanted to narrow it to a class of individuals, smaller class, that Mumia wasn’t included in.

Now this is a system, you have to remember, this is a system that is built on Black bodies. There’s an assembly line of Black bodies, through the Juanita Kidd Injustice Center, that is paying for the Fraternal Order of Police overtime.

Larry Krasner said it in an Atlantic article: It’s the linchpin. The majority white police force of 6,500 police officers, 6,500 retired officers, it is their pensions and it is their overtime to pay their Jersey mortgages.

This is not me saying “Jersey mortgages.” This is the legal director of Kenyatta Johnson’s office telling me, “Oh yeah, we know why we can’t do that. We know why we can’t fix the potholes, because the police overtime is out of control. But you know, they have to pay their Jersey mortgages.”

And really, at the last bump, when they need to go for their pension, that’s when all the overtime racks up, $50 million of overtime each year. That’s the linchpin, that’s the dynamic. It’s commodifying poor people of color for the service of the white, marginally working-class, middle-class police officers.

 Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal rally on his 67th birthday for his release

WHYY (4/24/21)

JJ: And let me ask you about part of how they sell that narrative, which does have to do with news media. Folks who remember coverage of Mumia’s original trial will remember how hard elite media went in on the idea, not just of accepting all of the malfeasance and problems and craziness around his case, but also there was a big overarching storyline about the idea that anybody who was incarcerated who was deemed political, anybody who was incarcerated who people on the outside were taking an interest in, was to be silenced, right?

And so even a sympathetic piece from Philly’s public TV station WHYY last year, around protests around Mumia, they led with the idea that the case “pitted…supporters, including a long list of national and international celebrities…against police and their supporters, who resent the attention” to the case.

So media have tried to turn it into not the particular information about this case, which, as you’ve said, the kind of information that has come out would lead to freedom, or to overturning of convictions, in other cases, they’ve made it a kind of litmus test about celebrity interest in incarcerated people, or about incarcerated people as issue, rather than as human beings.

NH: Let me just say, that’s like Inquirer-lite. The real issue here, and I live in Philadelphia, is fear. Fear of the police. William Marinmow knows better. The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists who live in this city, who have covered this city, they know and they are afraid. They are literally afraid.

People don’t realize that we have a classical radio station, WRTI, in Philadelphia, associated with Temple, for one reason: because overnight, they switched the switch and took off general public interest programming, led by Democracy Now!, one day, overnight, changed it to a classical radio station. That’s why we have classical radio here in Philadelphia.

So they do it, and they punish us. They punish the producers, they punish the journalists.

Linn Washington can tell you. Everyone knows. That’s the thing, is the courts know. The journalists know. They know that this is a scandal, a scheme. They know that the police threats of violence are exactly what keeps people in line. They threaten your job and they threaten your life.

Imagine if I had a news van and I painted it “Free Mumia” and I parked it on the streets of Philadelphia. It would be like a cop magnet to get destroyed, blown up, torched. All my tires would be slashed.

You could just prove it and do it. It would happen. Everyone knows it. They are terrified. People here are terrified of the police, and people who have jobs, who have comfortable livings, will not push the envelope. And that includes the editors of our major newspapers, and the staff at WHYY.

They will not challenge the status quo. They will not air Mumia’s voice, because there will be direct, both physical and economic penalties.

JJ: And let me just spell out for listeners who don’t remember: In 1994, NPR had plans to run a series of commentaries from Mumia, who was, after all, a journalist, a former head of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.

They canceled that series. They said it was because he was so controversial and such a big story, such a big story that they then proceeded to do zero coverage for the following year.

And then, as you’ve just said, when Democracy Now! was going to air those commentaries, Philadelphia’s KRTI canceled not just Democracy Now!, but all of Pacifica News, with the person in charge saying, “What’s good enough for NPR is good enough for me.”

NH: I was in Ellen Weiss’s office, the executive director of All Things Considered, when she looked out the window, and you could see the capitol, because her NPR office was right there, and she said, “I never thought I would look to the capitol and be censored. Yesterday, Bob Dole got up on the Senate floor and threatened our entire budget if we dared air this commentary.” And she then turned to me and said, “Can you bring me a more acceptable commentator?”

JJ: You know, folks don’t know what happens behind the scenes, and I’m really appreciating this exposure. Some folks, I imagine, think that journalists make a decision, who do we want to air? They put that person on, and then they deal with it. And it’s not at all how it happens.

But I want to bring us, for the final part of our conversation, to the other piece of that, because the efforts to silence, not just Mumia, the efforts to silence and close off all of the perspectives of people who are incarcerated speak to the power of those perspectives, right? It speaks to why we emphatically need to hear them.

And I just want to say, despite the name, Prison Radio is a multimedia production studio. And the whole point is to add the voices of people most impacted by the prison industrial complex to our public conversation.

And Mumia’s case is an especially emphatic example of the lengths that powers that be— legal, political and media—will go to to squelch those voices.

But we have work resisting that and countering that, and Prison Radio is part of that. And I just wonder if you’d like to talk a little bit about the project and why you do it.

Noelle Hanrahan

Noelle Hanrahan: “The culture of imprisonment tells a deeper story about America. We’re not going to get it if we don’t go to the prisons and get those voices out.”

NH: I first began recording Mumia, and I first heard a scratchy tape of his voice, when we were covering the Robert Alton Harris execution in 1992 in California. And we were trying to get people on death row—there were 600 at the time—trying to get their voices into the mix.

Look, if you can hear their last words stated by the warden, you can interview them. If we’re going to kill them, they have to be part of the story.

And so I went and tried to get somebody from San Quentin, and I couldn’t. But I had heard Mumia, he was in Pennsylvania. I went and I got him.

Now, Mumia is especially difficult for the mainstream media to grasp. He’s incredibly fluent in the king’s English. He’s actually fluent in French and German, and conversational in Spanish. He’s an incredible intellect and he was trained in the Black newsroom.

If America is going to incarcerate 2.3 million—one out of every 100 US citizens is in prison—that needs to be part of the story.

And I have dedicated Prison Radio’s work to bringing those voices, on every topic, into the public debate and dialogue, and we feel like it’s critical that those voices are heard.

As a journalist, if you’re covering prisons, you really can’t cover the story without that first person, without talking to the people that it directly impacts.

A lot of times, even my own stations at Pacifica would say, “No, we’re not going to touch that. No, we’re not going to talk to homeless people.” You’ve got to talk to prisoners. You have to give them agency. Because a lot of the prisoners, and a lot of the culture of imprisonment, tells a deeper story about America.

We’re not going to get it if we don’t go to the prisons and get those voices out. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I became a lawyer and an investigator because it’s not enough to just broadcast people’s voices. We have to bring them home.

JJ: I’m going end on that human note. We’ve been speaking with Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio. You can find their work online at PrisonRadio.org. Noelle Hanrahan, thank you very much for joining us this week on CountersSpin.

NH: You’re welcome.