Some Pointed Questions for Sam Donaldson

by C. Clark Kissinger

Revolutionary Worker #987, December 20, 1998

Ed Asner got it exactly right: "I just know that the trial stunk." That is the heart of the issue, and the one issue that Sam Donaldson and ABC's 20/20 broadcast on Mumia Abu-Jamal avoided like the plague in their December 9 broadcast. Jamal was framed up in the royal tradition of the Philadelphia police and prosecutors. Witnesses were coerced to change their testimony, evidence was withheld from the defense, and police officers lied under oath. The result is that a talented journalist and critic of the Philadelphia police has sat on death row for 17 years, falsely accused of murder.

This is a case where the judge has sentenced more people to death than any other sitting judge in the United States. The jury was impaneled only after 11 qualified African-Americans were removed by peremptory challenges from the prosecution. The defense attorney testified that he didn't interview a single witness in preparation for the 1982 trial. And the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has orchestrated a national campaign calling for Jamal's execution.

The story of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a case study in prosecutorial and police misconduct. Yet the purpose of the 20/20 program was to portray Mumia's dedicated defense team as duplicitous, to paint his increasingly prominent supporters as dupes, and to signal that anyone who dares to speak out against the ever-expanding use of the death penalty is going to come under heavy attack.

I accuse Sam Donaldson of championing the unjust police campaign for Jamal's execution, and I put these questions to him to answer if he can:

1. Do you think that critics of the government should be sentenced to death on the grounds of their political beliefs?

I ask this question because the prosecution used quotes from Jamal from a decade earlier, when he was a member of the Black Panther Party, as an argument to the jury for sentencing him to death. This type of argumentation was later outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then in response to his publishing a very political book in 1995, Jamal was thrown into punitive confinement and cut off from the world. If a similar political dissident had been punished for writing a book from prison in certain other countries, Madeleine Albright would have denounced this on the floor of the United Nations as a human rights violation. When it happens at home there is stunning silence. Yet many people are mindful of what has happened to other political dissidents in this country ranging from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the 27-year false imprisonment of former Black Panther leader Geronimo ji jaga (Pratt), and do not want to see that tradition continued.

2. Do you think that accused people are entitled to a legal defense?

I ask this question because your attitude toward Jamal's defense attorney was totally adversarial. You did not invite him to present his side of the story. Instead, you challenged his statements and used only selective snippets out of a two-hour interview with him. This was in marked contrast to your chummy visits to the scene of the shooting with prosecutors and police. Thanks to the work of Leonard Weinglass and the rest of the defense team, we now know why the key witnesses Veronica Jones, Cynthia White, and Robert Chobert testified as they did in 1982. Jones, who now testifies in support of Jamal, was threatened with the loss of her children if she did not support the police story. Both Chobert and White received very special treatment, including exemptions from criminal prosecutions. By contrast, when Veronica Jones testified in Jamal's support in 1996, she was arrested in the courtroom when she stepped off the witness stand.

The 1982 jury never heard the testimony of William Singletary at all. Singletary is the only witness besides Cynthia White (who has been "disappeared") who actually saw the shooting, and he says Jamal didn't do it. Singletary testified in 1995 how police in 1982 would not release him until he signed a statement that they had dictated. Prosecutors also withheld the fact that defense witness Dessie Hightower had been given a lie detector test. And it was not until 1995 that the defense learned that the deceased officer had on his person the driver's license application of a third man, showing that another person was involved in the incident. Nor did the 1982 jury know that the written coroner's report stated that Faulkner was shot with a .44 cal weapon. Isn't it the responsibility of defense attorneys to bring this sort of information to light?

3. Do you really find it credible that a group of trained police officers would hear a public confession of guilt for the slaying of a fellow officer, and none of them would report it to anyone for two months?

I raise this question because none of the police officers who subsequently came forward to swear Jamal had confessed told this to anyone prior to a strategy meeting with the District Attorney two months after the incident, and after Jamal had filed police brutality charges. One would think that such a dramatic confession before so many witnesses would have been front-page news the next morning. Also, you state that the hospital guard Priscilla Durham reported the confession to her supervisor the next day. How do you know that? Ms. Durham did not make this claim until two months after the incident, and there is no documentary evidence of this. And if her claim is true, why didn't the supervisor make it public or report it to police at the time? The fact remains that the only contemporaneous record is the report by Officer Wakshul who wrote that Jamal made no statement, and this was confirmed by medical personnel in the emergency room.

4. Are you comfortable with the fact that prosecutors used peremptory challenges to knock almost all the African-Americans off Jamal's jury, a practice that was later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court?

I raise this question because this procedure has been so entrenched in Philadelphia that the District Attorney's office even produced a training video for new assistant DA's on how to do this--after the Supreme Court decision mentioned. Today there are 222 people on Pennsylvania's death row, the fourth largest death row in the nation. Of these, 62 percent are African-Americans in a state that is only 10 percent Black. The city of Philadelphia alone has more people on death row than 26 states--of whom 83 percent are Black. The systematic exclusion of Blacks from juries in Philadelphia prohibits those who bear the brunt of police and prosecutorial misconduct in Philadelphia from participating in the process that has condemned so many to death.

5. Do you think that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that has denied Mumia's appeal is capable of ruling fairly on this case?

I ask this question because you have raised the issue of bias on the part of Jamal's supporters, but not on the part of his judges and accusers. Yet the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is a cop court. Five of the seven justices of the court were endorsed for election by the Fraternal Order of Police, the group that has orchestrated the campaign for Jamal's execution. Further, we know that Chief Justice John P. Flaherty received the Justice Award, presented by the Sheriff's Association of Pennsylvania; Justice Ralph J. Cappy (who wrote the decision in Jamal's case) was selected as Man of the Year by Pennsylvania State Police and Man of the Year by Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police; Justice Ronald D. Castille (a former Philadelphia District Attorney) received the Distinguished Public Service Award from the Pennsylvania County and State Detectives Association, the Layman Award of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, Man of the Year from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 (in Philadelphia), and the Profiles in Courage Award from the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation; and Justice Sandra Schultz Newman was honored by the Police Chiefs Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania "For dedicated leadership and outstanding contributions to the community and law enforcement."

6. What do you think is the proper deterrent to prosecutorial misconduct, if not a new trial or outright dismissal of the charges?

As you may know, in the last 20 years, over 70 death row inmates nationally have been released because they have been proven innocent after having been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. A majority of these miscarriages of justice resulted from prosecutorial misconduct. And I am sure you are aware of the current scandals in Philadelphia where dozens of people have been exonerated after being convicted on false testimony and evidence planted by the police. Take the case of your friend, prosecutor McGill. He masterminded the murder conviction of a man named Matthew Connors, claiming that Connors did it with his shotgun, which McGill waved about the court room. Connors was released after 12 years in prison when the coroner's report came to light, establishing that the victim had been stabbed, not shot.

7. Why did you not interview the Fraternal Order of Police directly?

In its national campaign to thwart Jamal's appeal for justice, the Fraternal Order of Police has used everything from major newspaper ads to airplanes towing banners. They have set up "Justice for Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, Inc." and maintain a large web site. They have tried to censor Jamal at every turn, preventing his voice from being heard on National Public Radio and attempting to ban his books. Yet the image they hide behind is that of Officer Faulkner's widow, working alone at her home computer against the powerful forces of Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The campaign to "fry 'em first, ask questions later" comes from the highest offices in the land. The "Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996" which guts the right of habeas corpus, was the pet project of President Clinton, and Maureen Faulkner has been seated on stage in Washington with President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno. At the same time, Jamal has been locked in a solitary cell for 22 hours a day for 17 years for a crime he has always denied committing and as the result of incredibly biased judicial proceedings. He has been denied any physical contact with his family and loved ones. He has grandchildren that he has never been allowed to touch. I am not sure why you feel that Ms. Faulkner should be "emotionally privileged" in this discussion, as though no one else has suffered unjustly.

8. Will 20/20 make available the transcripts of its interviews in order that we can judge the fairness and accuracy of the editing?

I raise this question because a great deal of editorial discretion goes into the preparation of any television production. Hours of interviews must be boiled down into but a few moments on camera, and the editing process is guided by a story line--in this case, one of seeking to vindicate the prosecution. Seeking permission to interview Jamal on camera, your co-worker Phuong Nguyen wrote to the head of the Pennsylvania Prisons, saying that most of the material available to the public was biased in favor of Jamal and that "We are currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of the Police." As expected, that interview request was denied. But then when Jamal's civil suit to force the prison to grant the interview received a favorable reception in Federal District Court on December 7, ABC rushed to air the material it had on December 9, ensuring that Jamal would not be interviewed as part of the program. Instead you substituted old video of Jamal, some of which was used by ABC even though permission to do so was expressly denied because Mumia did not want to undercut the workers locked out at ABC.


All of the issues raised in the 20/20 program about witnesses, ballistics, and the "confession" were dealt with earlier this year in a detailed response to ABC's San Francisco affiliate KGO-TV--which did a pilot for the 20/20 segment (see "The KGO-TV Re-port: A Case Study in Irresponsible Journalism," by C. Clark Kissinger and Leonard Weinglass, which contains exact references to trial testimony).

Sam Donaldson has now assured us that his report was based on four months of investigation. Thus it should not be difficult for him to respond to these questions, some of which can be answered in a single sentence.

People wishing to read Mr. Donaldson's response should contact him in care of 20/20, 147 Columbus Avenue, New York, NY 10023. Phone 212-456-2020, Fax 212-456-6533, e-mail

(December 10, 1998)

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