Philadelphia: The McMahon Video

Training Tape for Racist DAs

Revolutionary Worker #909, June 1, 1997

"The Philly DA tapes are as much a revelation as were the Rodney King tapes for they provide an indisputable insight into the government at work. They illustrate to us in clear, concrete ways how a government gets around a constitutional command at the very beginning of a trial--at jury selection...In the real world, of course, `justice' means conviction, and in the eyes of most prosecutors that means getting that conviction by any means possible."

Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal,
in a recent essay from death row


Lynne Abraham is currently District Attorney in Philadelphia. Jack McMahon will be her Republican opponent in November's election. Both of these lawyers have been responsible for framing up, imprisoning and sending to death row, many, many people, particularly Black people. Now, the fighting between these two figures has given the people a rare "inside" look at how the system really works.

Earlier this year, Lynne Abraham released a videotape made by Jack McMahon when he was an Assistant District Attorney. The tape was made in 1986 or 1987 by McMahon to train new lawyers in the DA's office on how to select a jury. In it, McMahon uses outrageous racist stereotypes of Black people. He openly argues that most Black people, especially those from low income areas, should be excluded from juries. He instructs rookie prosecutors that the point of jury selection is not to get a "competent, fair and impartial jury," but to get one that will convict. He targets people who should not be chosen for juries, such as teachers, doctors, liberals, social workers or anyone who is "smart." And he repeatedly affirms that he is articulating the policy of fellow prosecutors.

Authorities in Philadelphia are trying to claim the tape did not and does not reflect the official policy of the DA's office. Abraham, hoping to cover her own ugly record, said, "The sentiments and practices discussed on that videotape are repugnant to me, and they are in direct contradiction to my beliefs and to the policies of this office." She claims that McMahon, who is now a defense lawyer, was a "rogue assistant district attorney who violated the law."

But the real truth is, the McMahon video accurately reflects the racist attitude, outlook and practices of not only McMahon and Abraham, but the whole Philadelphia DA's office. And it confirms what many Black people throughout this country know from their own experience: That in this system's courtrooms, there is no justice for the masses of Black people and that on a daily and hourly basis, young Black men are being framed up, railroaded and unjustly plea-bargained into prison and onto death row.

In Philadelphia, a disproportionate number of Black people are sent to prison as a result of the racist policies and practices of the DA's office. Philadelphia is 40% Black, but 64% of the people arrested are Black and 85% of those sent to prison are Black. Last year Abraham was asked if she believed that Blacks commit 85% of the crime in Philadelphia and she answered: "Yes, I do. I really do." Then when the statistic turned out to be wrong, Abraham was forced to apologize for this outrageous statement.

And two years ago, a widespread corruption scandal hit the 39th Police District, exposing how the police routinely fabricate evidence and lie in order to frame up and railroad people. As a result of this exposure, Abraham's office has been forced to throw out over 300 convictions in which innocent people were framed by police! The city has already been forced to pay out about $4 million to people wrongly arrested in the 39th District. And now, with the release of the McMahon video, several defense lawyers have already said that the tape might provide grounds for seeking new trials for people unjustly convicted.

After bringing the McMahon tape to light Abraham said, "Our duties are to seek justice, not get convictions." But Abraham is known as the "Death Queen" because under her leadership the Philly DA's office seeks the death penalty in more cases than any other prosecutor in the entire country. In fact, they seek the death penalty against everyone who is charged with homicide in Philadelphia. Over half the prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania come from Philadelphia and 80% are Black people.

Before she became DA, Abraham served as a Philadelphia judge for 17 years and was considered openly "prosecution-oriented." In 1993 the head of the Public Defender's Office in Philadelphia said: "My view of Judge Abraham is that she is so prosecution-oriented in most criminal cases that trying a case in her courtroom is like going against two district attorneys, one of whom is sitting on the bench and wearing a robe... She is absolutely shameless in what she does... She tries cases to do whatever she can to prejudice the jury against the defendant... She'll do whatever the prosecution asks her to do in terms of motions or scheduling a case. She will take over the examination of a witness if the DA isn't getting the right evidence out. She's nasty to the lawyers from our office. She belittles them and humiliates them."

Also, Abraham and the DA's office she's worked for have a long history of targeting radical Black organizations for political persecution. Abraham served in the DA's office from 1967 to 1972, a time when the FBI and local authorities spied on, harassed and arrested members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, including Mumia Abu-Jamal. It was Judge Abraham who signed arrest warrants for MOVE members in both 1977 and 1985, setting the stage for vicious police assaults on the MOVE houses. And it was Abraham's office who led the prosecution against Mumia Abu-Jamal at his 1995 PCRA hearing and opposed every motion to turn over secret material from the DA's office relating to Mumia's case.

Abraham was hand-picked by District Attorney Ronald Castille to replace him in 1991 when he ran for mayor. And McMahon's video was made between 1986 and 1988 when Ronald Castille was district attorney. Castille was elected district attorney just after the authorities bombed the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in May 1985. He helped cover up the authorities' crimes, made sure no officials did any jail time for the mass murders, and made sure that Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the bombing, was sent to jail. Castille was the Philadelphia DA during Mumia's original appeal of his murder conviction to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and is now a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which means he will be one of the judges who will decide on Mumia's pending appeal.

In April 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling barring prosecutors from striking Black people from juries solely on the basis of race. But the McMahon tape provides a peek into how the system's judicial setup continues to be stacked against the masses of people and full of blatantly racist policies.

McMahon successfully prosecuted 36 murder defendants in jury trials before leaving the DA's office in 1990. He now says he doesn't recall details of the video, but that he was instructed to explain on the tape "how it's really done." He says that's what he did and that "every lawyer in the world uses these techniques."

After McMahon's video was made public, three Common Pleas Court judges, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the press that the techniques described by McMahon are routinely employed by the District Attorney's office. And John Ackerman, a former dean of the National College of Criminal Defense said, "What [McMahon] is saying to those people who he is training is contrary to what they are ethically required to do and in many places what they are legally required to do..." but, "If you looked at the training tapes of virtually every prosecutor's office in America, you'd find roughly the same type of thing."

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