Docurama // 1997 // 74 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 10th, 2008
For those not in the know, Mumia Abu-Jamal was a former Black Panther and award-winning journalist in Philadelphia. Sometime in the early morning of December 9, 1981, in Philadelphia's red-light district, a police officer (Daniel Faulkner) was shot and killed while stopping a motorist (Mumia's brother). Mumia was also at the scene and received a gunshot wound. He was tried and convicted for Faulkner's murder and given a death sentence.
So why is there a documentary about him? On the surface the case looks pretty open and shut. Mumia was at the scene, his gun was on the ground next to the dead officer, and several witnesses named him as the shooter. However, when we look deeper (as this documentary does), a number of inconsistencies, difficulties, and miscarriages of justice are revealed.
Mumia was denied the right to defend himself during his murder trial, and he has since claimed that his representation was inadequate. Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? proceeds in the manner of a competent defense attorney. Although neither the film nor Mumia presents us with a definitive account of what happened on December 9th, the entire film pokes holes in the prosecution's case, opening the way for reasonable doubt. By combining interviews with witnesses, the attorneys for both the prosecution and defense, and various experts, the film presents the case as it was made to the jury. However, through narration and discussions with Mumia and other witnesses, the film demonstrates the failures of the prosecution's case.
The first major fact that the documentary reveals is the budget of Mumia's defense. He was working with a court-appointed attorney and had limited funds to secure expert testimony and conduct his own forensic and laboratory work. Consequently, a number of points that should have been challenged during the trial were left to bolster the prosecution's case. But that isn't the only damning aspect of Mumia's trial. The film also presents a number of suspect elements in Mumia's conviction:
* The "confession." Part of the prosecution's case was Mumia's supposed profanity-laced confession in the hospital. It sounds pretty bad until we're told that the officers who claim to have heard this confession didn't mention it for over two months after the incident. One of the officers who supposedly heard this confession wrote in his notes for the evening that Mumia had said nothing in the hospital. Furthermore, the attending physician in the ER spent a significant amount of time with Mumia and heard nothing from him.
* The gun. Certainly, it was Mumia's (legal and licensed) gun that was found next to Faulkner's dead body. This, too, looks bad until we're told that the gun was in no way connected to Faulkner's shooting. No tests were run to determine if the gun had been fired; no tests were run to determine if Mumia had recently fired a gun. Furthermore, there is some discrepancy between the possible caliber of the bullet recovered from Faulkner's body and the caliber of Mumia's gun.
* The witnesses. The witnesses in the film changed their stories so often (and told such differing accounts), it makes your head spin. Some of them claim police coercion. Some were not able to be called during Mumia's original trial. Others have since changed their story. Part of the prosecution's case rests on the eyewitness accounts of two women at the scene, both of whom finger Mumia as the shooter. Since then, their stories have changed, making the prosecution's case look even thinner. It also doesn't help that a number of witnesses claim to have seen someone running from the scene, another possible shooter. Because of the coerced witnesses, Mumia was unable to bring this fact up during his defense.
I don't know what happened on the morning of December 9th, and I suspect the events of that day will never be definitively established. It's entirely possible that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Daniel Faulkner. However, the American justice system is based on more than guilt. To achieve a conviction due process must occur, and reasonable doubt must be overcome. Because of the gross inconsistencies in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, I have a hard time believing he was given due process, and this film does an excellent job of poking enough holes in the prosecution's case to establish reasonable doubt. After viewing this film, I am left with the conclusion that even if Mumia did commit the crime he is convicted of, a miscarriage of justice has still been perpetrated.
Although I found Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? an effective documentary, it did have one glaring hole. That hole is approximately the size of Mumia's brother, the supposed reason for Mumia's altercation with Officer Faulkner. No one mentions him (except in passing), he isn't interviewed, and I'm left to wonder about his absence. If he can corroborate Mumia's story, then there's no harm in his coming forward. If he can't, it looks pretty bad for Mumia. In any case, it left me wondering about the state of Mumia's defense, as well as the integrity of the filmmakers after their failure to mention him.
The film's other failing is not its fault. Eleven years after it was made, some changes were bound to occur in Mumia's case. Since this film was made his conviction has been upheld but his sentence overturned. Consequently, Mumia is still in jail but not on death row. I can't fault the film for not discussing this, but an update in the special features would have been nice.
On the technical side, we get a slightly soft full-frame transfer. Nothing special, but it doesn't interfere with the movie. The audio is a little difficult to make out at times, but overall it gets the message across. The main supplement is an extended interview with Mumia, running 36 minutes. He is surprisingly hopeful. We also get a biography of the filmmaker and some trailers.
This film (and Mumia) may not be innocent, but they are certainly not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Prison Interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal
* Filmmaker Biography
* Theatrical Trailer