An Interview with Hans Bennett
Interview by Clayton Ruley
Editor’s Note: Hans Bennett impressed me with his dedication to a cause. The cause is the freedom of
Clayton Ruley, GeoClan.com (GC): Can you give people a brief summary of Mumia’s case and where it is right now?
Hans Bennett, Journalists for Mumia (HB): Currently, both Mumia and the Philly DA are appealing to the US Supreme Court.
First, Mumia is appealing for a new guilt-phase trial
On March 27, 2008 the US Third Circuit Court’s three-judge panel of Thomas Ambro, Anthony Scirica, and Robert Cowen ruled against three different appeal issues, refusing to grant either a new guilt-phase trial or a preliminary hearing that could have led to a new guilt-phase trial for Mumia. However, on the issue of racist jury selection, also known as the Batson claim, the three judge panel of split 2-1, with Ambro dissenting.
The 1986 Batson v. Kentucky ruling established the right to a new trial if jurors were excluded on the basis of race. At the 1982 trial Prosecutor McGill used 10-11 of his 15 peremptory strikes to remove otherwise acceptable black jurors, yet the court ruled that there was not even the appearance of discrimination. In his dissenting opinion, Ambro wrote that the denial of a preliminary Batson hearing “goes against the grain of our prior actions…I see no reason why we should not afford Abu-Jamal the courtesy of our precedents.”
Mumia will be filing an appeal of this ruling with the US Supreme Court by the deadline of Dec. 19.
Second, The DA is appealing to execute without a new sentencing-phase trial.
On March 27, the three-judge panel unanimously affirmed Federal District Court Judge William Yohn’s 2001 decision “overturning” the death sentence. Citing the 1988 Mills v. Maryland precedent, Yohn had ruled that sentencing forms used by jurors and Judge Sabo’s instructions to the jury were potentially confusing, and jurors could have mistakenly believed that they had to unanimously agree on any mitigating circumstances in order to consider them as weighing against a death sentence.
According to this ruling, if the DA wants to re-instate the death sentence, the DA must call for a new penalty-phase jury trial where new evidence of Mumia’s innocence can be presented. However, the jury can only choose between a sentence of life in prison without parole or a death sentence.
The DA is appealing this ruling to the US Supreme Court, so that if the court rules in their favor, Mumia can then be executed without benefit of the new sentencing trial. However, if the court upholds the 2001 and 2008 rulings, then the DA will either request a new sentencing trial or accept life in prison without the chance of parole.
Notably, at the DA’s request, during the post-2001 appeals, Mumia has never left his death row cell or been given general population “privileges” such as contact visits with family.
GC: What got you interested in Mumia’s case and how long have you been active in the struggle?
HB: In the summer of 1995, after I returned home to the SF Bay Area from my first year in college on the east coast, there were major protests supporting Mumia during his August PCRA hearing that summer. I had been researching the Black Liberation movement of the 1960’s (most notably Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Martin Luther King’s latter years when he spoke out against capitalism and the Vietnam War), and in Mumia’s case I saw all of these important issues of US racism and injustice manifested in this case, which I immediately began to research.
I soon became 100% certain that he needed a new trial, and that he was being discriminated against because of his radical politics, most notably as a former Panther and a public supporter of the MOVE organization. As I read more, I have also come to believe that he did not shoot Officer Faulkner, even in self-defense.
There is major support in the SF area, including his honorary citizenship in SF, and
Upon arrival in Philly, I began taking photos for various activist-oriented publications and websites including AWOL Magazine, The Defenestrator, and The Philadelphia Independent Media Center. In 2006, I began to write even more about the case, and in 2007 I co-founded (with German author Michael Schiffmann) the media-activist group “Journalists for Mumia” with the purpose of (1) Challenging the long history of corporate media bias against Mumia, (2) Promoting the work of other independent journalists covering the case, and (3) Creating professional-quality media to be used as a resource for Mumia’s support movement. We started the Abu-Jamal-News.com website and began publishing our print newspaper.
GC: What do you think Mumia has on his side for advocacy towards his case?
HB: The facts. If people can see past the corporate media bias, both an unfair trial and a frame-up is undeniable.
GC: What are some of the negatives towards it?
HB: The opposition is very powerful and they play dirty. Around the world, but particularly in
Perhaps worst of all is the media bias, wherein supporters of a new trial are treated with derision, and the evidence supporting Mumia is not fairly presented. Most recently, the mainstream media has almost uniformly ignored the newly discovered crime scene photos (the exception being NBC’s Today Show), the new book The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Judge Ambro’s dissent supporting Mumia’s Batson claim.
So, this really is a “David v. Goliath” battle against some very powerful people, including Governor Ed Rendell, who was the DA in 1982 at the time of Mumia’s trial. Simply to protect himself, he will obviously do everything he can to suppress evidence of the unfair trial and frame-up.
GC: Do you think race is the major factor in this case? If not and even if so what are other factors?
HB: If I had to cite one major factor, I would say Racism, Yes. That said, it is not all about racism. There’s police brutality and corruption. Then there’s classism and the fundamental unfairness of the criminal justice system for poor people that do not have the resources for an adequate defense. There is also the issue of political repression, and the ugly legacy of the FBI’s COINTELPRO war against the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, Young Lords (all militant organizations resisting institutionalized white supremacy), and the rest of the US left.
However, racism is inherently tied into those other issues, so let’s look at that more. Regarding those who advocate Mumia’s execution and claim he had a fair trial, they show a disturbing lack of concern about the undeniable problems of racism (and all documented police/DA/judicial misconduct) at so many levels. At the most fundamental level, the “Fry Mumia” campaign’s lack of concern is racist. The campaign is fundamentally appealing to the same racist lynch mob mentality that has long infected the
There was racism from the very beginning. As I’m sure readers in
In the new British documentary In Prison My Whole Life, which premieres this week on Sundance TV, Cook says that after pulling him over, Faulkner approached him, called him a “nigger” and began to beat his head bloody with the police flashlight. In the movie, Cook shows the scar still on his head today from the beating. The beating of Cook is not in dispute, but the police and DA claimed Faulkner responded to Cook punching him first, which Cook vehemently denies in this new interview.
It was at this point that Mumia approached the scene. What happened next is disputed, but it is not disputed that afterwards Mumia was found on the ground, after a near fatal gunshot in his chest. Faulkner was shot in the back and in the forehead, which killed him.
When police arrived, before Mumia was given a fair trial, they apparently decided he was “guilty” and viciously beat him at the scene—arguably with the intent to kill. Police claim the first kick to the face was in response to Mumia allegedly reaching for his gun, and then that they “accidentally” rammed his head into a pole and dropped him from several feet in the air. Once in the police wagon, Mumia says he was repeatedly hit in the head and called a “nigger” and a “black motherfucker” by the police.
It took over a half hour before Mumia was finally taken to the hospital, where according to witnesses, he was again beaten by a mob of angry cops. This demonstrates well how racism, police brutality, and the denial of a fair trial worked together from the beginning.
Then, you have the so-called “trial.” In 2001, court stenographer Terri Mauer-Carter came forward and stated in an affidavit that at the beginning of the trial, she heard presiding judge Albert Sabo say outside the courtroom that he was going to help the prosecution “Fry the Nigger”. Notably, the courts have denied the attempt to enter this in as new evidence. Judge Patricia Dembe argued that even if Maurer-Carter is correct about Sabo’s stated intent to use his position as Judge to throw the trial and help the prosecution "fry the nigger," it doesn’t matter. According to Dembe, since it "was a jury trial, as long as the presiding Judge’s rulings were legally correct, claims as to what might have motivated or animated those rulings are not relevant."
Another one of the most racist aspects of the trial was the way in which the prosecutor used 10-11 of his 15 peremptory challenges to strike otherwise acceptable black jurors. As I explained earlier, this is “Batson” issue is central in Mumia’s appeal to the US Supreme Court, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has written a brief in support of Mumia’s claim on this issue.
Racism also plays a key role among those supporting his execution. Recently, in April, 2007, in the weeks leading up to the April 24 demonstration supporting Mumia, Sgt. Delacey Davis of “Black Cops Against Police Brutality” (who was scheduled to appear at the April 24 protest) received several death threats from callers identifying themselves as police. Also, venues in NYC and Philadelphia that month, both caved into threats from police, and did not host the events. Comments posted by police officers on the infamous NYPD “RANT” blog website detailed this intimidation campaign. One post stated, “This fucker should be dead, we should ruin this event and make life miserable for every fucking
After the NYC event was forced to relocate, an April 15 thread on the “RANT” site was titled “NY Mumia Hip Hop Benefit Rally Gets Bitch Slapped.” One post on this thread used imagery that explicitly drew the connection to the brutal history of U.S. lynchings, where Black victims of racist white mobs were literally burned alive, stating that “I’m waiting for Mumia to be well done on the rotisserie.” Yet another post used the racist “Sambo” dialect attributed to African Americans for so many years in mainstream culture: “OH SNAP!!! da venue be changed? i hopez publik transpotation be making itz way ova dere fo me!”
After all this racist intimidation from the cops, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Monica Yant-Kinney wrote a disgusting article actually praising this campaign of intimidation.
More recently, a coalition of racist neo-Nazi groups showed up at the April 19, 2008 protest for Mumia. Some were holding signs that said “Fry Mumia and His Supporters.” Another one of their signs was a tamed-down version of a poster that the neo-Nazi Keystone State Skinheads (KSS) have been wheat-pasting around the city that says “Guns Don’t Kill People, Dangerous Minorities Do”. On their website, the KSS proudly displays a photo of KSS member Keith Carney getting his copy of the book Murdered By Mumia signed by Maureen Faulkner, at Geno’s “Speak English” Steaks, a longtime stronghold of those who want Mumia dead. (see photos here)
Regarding, racism, I could go on and on.
GC: Why do you think the Philadelphia Police Department and other powers are against Mumia and his case?
HB: Just as the movement supporting Mumia sees his case embodying so many important issues and problems in the
But also, the longer the railroading of Mumia continues, the more incentive there is to continue the cover-up. If the unfair trial and frame-up are exposed, all of these fanatics will be exposed as liars and criminals, as in the case of former-DA Ed Rendell, prosecutor Joseph McGill, and the many cops who played a role in the frame-up.
GC: What don’t people ignorant to the case and Mumia, in particular, know?
HB: Most people believe the lie that the case against Mumia was "open and shut" and that he got a fair trial. Whole books have been written that challenge this assertion, but in the interest of space, I will cite a few key points that challenge the DA’s case, which was essentially based on ballistics, eyewitness testimony, and an alleged "hospital confession".
Many believe that the bullet in Faulkner was matched to Mumia’s gun. They don’t know that officially police did not perform routine “smell” and “wipe” tests to see if Mumia had actually shot his legally registered .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver, the absence of which Amnesty International found “deeply troubling.” Most likely, police did perform the tests, but hid this when the results did not implicate Mumia.
Even if we accept the DA’s assertions about ballistics and look past many other contradictions, at the very best, police expert Anthony Paul testified in 1982 that the bullet could only be tied to "multiples of millions" of guns, including those not made by Charter Arms.
The DA’s official version of events has been thoroughly discredited. The DA asserted that (1) Mumia approached from across the street and shot Faulkner in the back (2) As Faulkner fell in response, he turned around and shot Mumia in the chest (3) Mumia then shot down at Faulkner at close range and missed 2-3 times before the fatal shot in his forehead.
In contradiction, Mumia was shot in the chest at a downward trajectory, so it would have been impossible for Faulkner have shot him from below. Much more likely, Mumia was shot on approach while slightly bent forward from running, with Faulkner standing above him on the curb. This supports the contention that Faulkner fired the first shot, almost killing Mumia.
Another important observation has recently emerged with the recently discovered crime scene photos, and is emphasized by Michael Schifffmann in the new film In Prison My Whole Life. On the sidewalk, where Faulkner was found, there are no large bullet divots, or destroyed chunks of cement, which should be visible in the pavement if the prosecution scenario was accurate, according to which Abu-Jamal shot down at Faulkner – and allegedly missed several times – while Faulkner was on his back. Schiffmann writes: "It is thus no question any more whether the scenario presented by the prosecution at Abu-Jamal’s trial is true. It is clearly not, because it is physically and ballistically impossible." The validity of this observation has also been strongly supported by
I personally agree with authors J. Patrick O’Connor and Michael Schiffmann that this is the most likely scenario: Faulkner first shot Mumia, and Faulkner was then shot in response by Kenneth Freeman (Cook’s business partner and a passenger in his car) in the back, and then killed with the gunshot to his head. Freeman then ran away before police arrived. Likely murdered by police in an act of vengance, Freeman was found dead in a Northeast lot (reportedly naked, gagged, hand-cuffed, and with a drug needle in his arm) the day after the infamous May 13, 1985 police bombing of MOVE.
Regarding the DA’s two most important "witnesses" Amnesty International has documented that Cynthia White (a prostitute facing multiple charges) and Robert Chobert (an arsonist on probation, driving his cab without a license, which he had lost twice due to DWI) were extremely vulnerable to police coercion, and “altered their descriptions of what they saw, in ways that supported the prosecution’s version of events.” Suspiciously, no official eyewitness reported seeing White at the scene, and White is the only “witness” to report seeing Chobert’s taxi parked behind Officer Faulkner’s police car, where he claimed to have observed the shooting!
Regarding White, in her original statement to the police she said Mumia fired “four or five shots” at Faulkner, from as far away as 10-yards. Later, she changed her statement to say that Faulkner was actually shot at close range. Both Veronica Jones (in 1996) and another ex-prostitute, Pamela Jenkins (in 1997) testified that she was blackmailed into her testimony by the police, who had the power to pursue or drop prostitution charges against her, and in January 2002, yet another witness, Yvette Williams, testified that White’s trial testimony against Mumia was the result of her fearing for her life because of threats by the police.
When Veronica Jones testified in 1982, she began to say that police "were trying to get me to say something that the other girl [Cynthia White] said. I couldn’t do that.” Jones reported that police offered to let her and White “work the area if we tell them.” Calling her testimony “absolutely irrelevant,” the DA moved to block the line of questioning and strike the previous statements. Because Sabo happily complied, the jury was ordered to disregard Jones’ statement regarding White and a police offer of freedom to “work the area” in return for testimony that Mumia shot Faulkner.
Regarding Chobert, he first told police that the shooter ran away 30-35 feet, but at trial he changed this to 10 feet to more closely support the undisputed fact that Mumia was found on the ground just a few feet from Faulkner. Now, the newly discovered Polakoff crime scene photos show that the space behind Faulkner’s car, where Chobert claimed he was parked when he allegedly viewed the altercation, is totally empty. If he was not parked where he said he was, one must ask whether he saw anything at all.
Now, get this! At prosecutor McGill’s request, Judge Sabo blocked the jury from knowing that Chobert was on probation. Sabo justified this by ruling that it was not crimen falsi, ie. a crime of deception. Subsequently the jury never heard about this, or that Chobert was illegally driving on a suspended license. This probation violation could have given him up to 30 years in prison, so he was extremely vulnerable to pressure from the police.
The Alleged Hospital Confession
The alleged “hospital confession,” where Abu-Jamal reportedly declared, “I shot the motherfucker and I hope the motherfucker dies,” was first officially reported to police over two months later, by hospital guards Priscilla Durham and James LeGrand (Feb. 9, 1982), P.O. Gary Wakshul (Feb.11), P.O. Gary Bell (Feb.25), and P.O. Thomas M. Bray (March 1). Only 2 of these five witnesses were called by the DA: Gary Bell (Faulkner’s partner and “best friend”) and Priscilla Durham.
At Mumia’s trial, Gary Bell testified that the 2 month lapse resulted from him being so upset over the death of Faulkner. Priscilla Durham testified, and added for the first time, that she had reported the confession to her supervisor the next day. Neither her supervisor, nor the alleged handwritten statement were presented in court. The DA sent an officer to the hospital, returning with a suspicious typed version. Sabo accepted the unsigned paper despite both
Gary Wakshul was not a prosecution witness, and on the final day of testimony in 1982, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer discovered Wakshul’s statement from Dec. 9 (Abu-Jamal’s supporters cite this late discovery as one of many examples of incompetent representation–to which defense attorney Anthony Jackson testified about at the 1995 PCRA hearings). After riding with Abu-Jamal to the hospital and guarding him until his treatment, Wakshul reported: “the negro male made no comment.” When the defense immediately sought to call Wakshul as a witness, the DA reported that he was on vacation. On grounds that it was too late in the trial, Sabo denied the defense request to locate him for testimony. Subsequently, the jury never heard from Wakshul or about his written report. When an outraged Abu-Jamal protested, Sabo cruelly declared: “You and your attorney goofed.” TALK ABOUT AN UNFAIR TRIAL!
As Amnesty International concluded: “The likelihood of two police officers and a security guard forgetting or neglecting to report the confession of a suspect in the killing of another police officer for more than two months strains credulity.”
GC: Why do you think people have gravitated to this person and case on a local, national and international scale?
HB: People are outraged because of the obviously unfair trial, and the numerous unfair rulings over the years where courts have reversed precedent in order to deny him a new trial. The overt racism and intimidation of the FOP campaign to kill him is very disturbing to many people.
Long known as the “voice of the voiceless,” many see Mumia as a hero, because of his pre-arrest and post-conviction activism and journalism. While under the torturous, soul-crushing environment of death row, he has stayed strong and kept his humanity. He really is a beautiful person, and tough as nails to survive death row as he has.
His journalism never focuses on his own case, but rather on all the other injustices plaguing the world. Because his case receives more attention than others, he consciously uses this attention to spotlight others’ plight.
GC: What can people do to support Mumia’s cause?
HB: The International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal is the organization spearheaded by Pam Africa of the MOVE Organization, and works directly with Mumia. Check out their website, FreeMumia.com for the latest updates on the different campaigns going on. I also recommend the Educators for Mumia site. Prison Radio records Mumia’s radio-essays and has a complete archive.
Because the corporate media isn’t going to help, we all need to “become the media” and spread the word in every venue we can think of. Readers should encourage websites, print publications, and radio stations to feature his essays, as well as journalists and activists that support a new trial for him. At the minimum, we need to ensure that media accurately presents Mumia’s side next to that of the DA and FOP.
GC: Give the people some places they can go for truthful information on the case?
HB: At our website, Abu-Jamal-News.com, we feature a wide variety of different journalistic projects, including several of my own, like the DVD video just released last week titled “Fighting For Mumia’s Freedom: a report from Philadelphia,” which is currently featured at our You Tube page.
To start with writing, a few shorter pieces are noteworthy. I recommend the Amnesty International report from 2000, where AI unequivocally calls for a new trial. Also, in 1995, after covering the PCRA hearings, conservative lawyer/journalist Stuart Taylor wrote an article called “Guilty and Framed.” While I do not agree with Taylor’s argument that Mumia is "probably guilty," he does call for a new trial (with the acknowledgement that because all of the police/DA/judicial misconduct has sabotaged the case against Mumia, a new trial will almost certainly free him) and provides honest and thorough coverage of the massive evidence of a frame-up that emerged during the PCRA hearings. Then, in his follow-up article on testimony from Veronica Jones, he takes a stronger stance that Mumia could be innocent.
There have been several excellent books written. First, there’s the 2001 biography of Mumia, written by Terry Bisson, titled Ona Move, which provides an excellent story of Mumia’s life before his arrest, but does not go into the facts of the case.
In contrast, the two more recent books go much further in their well-grounded arguments for Mumia’s actual innocence, and both conclude (for somewhat different reasons) that the actual shooter of Faulkner was Kenneth Freeman. The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, by J. Patrick O’Connor was published this May, but has yet to be even acknowledged by Philly’s mainstream media (talk about a corporate media blackout!). Michael Schiffmann’s new book Race Against Death was published in German in late 2006, but does not have a
There have also been many excellent videos made. Most well known is the 1996 HBO special, Mumia Abu-Jamal: Case For Reasonable Doubt, but there are several other videos from the 90s which can be viewed online: Justice Denied, Behind These Walls, and From Death Row: Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Now, we have the new British film In Prison My Whole Life, which just premiered this week on the Sundance Channel, after an impressive tour at many of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Endorsed by Amnesty International, “In Prison” features the first video interview ever with Billy Cook, as well as the newly discovered crime scene photos alongside an interview with press photographer Pedro Polakoff and German author Michael Schiffmann. I just watched it myself for the first time, and it is highly recommended.
GC: What do you think of Change (thinking of GeoClan.com’s slogan of Uploading Change)?
HB: Geoclan.com’s work is a great example of using alternative media to build true community and challenge the injustices that the corporate media won’t. We absolutely need to change the world and challenge the root causes of so much unnecessary suffering, not just because it’s morally right, but also for the survival of the planet: environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear annihilation are a serious threat! We can learn a lot from Martin Luther King’s last year when he was viciously attacked by President Johnson and civil rights groups like the NAACP and Urban League. King accurately called the
To create fundamental change, it is important that activists use every tool available, and I think the internet’s potential for contributing to democracy, justice, and the de-centralization of power, is just beginning to be realized. As expected, the corporate world is already trying to squash the revolutionary potential, and we need to fight that “tooth and nail”.