Jamal Journal: How did you become interested in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case and ultimately decide to co-direct your 2009 film Justice on Trial?
Johanna Fernández: Although I was not a filmmaker, a moment in the classroom inspired the project. In 2005, I’d started visiting Mumia on death row at SCI Greene in Western, PA’s the Supermax prison, an hour away from Pittsburgh. I was teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, and I started visiting him on the suggestion of Professor Emeritus David Demarest.
In 2009, my work on the film Justice on Trial, accelerated. It was at Carnegie Mellon in 2009 that Mumia first spoke live from Death Row to my civil rights movement seminar. Waiting for the call was a nail-biting experience. And this was Mumia’s second attempt to call into a college classroom, ever. A few weeks earlier, the first scheduled conversation coincided with an unannounced shutdown of the prison’s telephone system. But this time the call came through.
The students’ exchange with Mumia was chilling. And his answer to the final question one of them posed hit us all in the gut. The students asked Mumia to reflect on the significance of his political impact from death row, in light of the travesty of his case. Mumia responded by saying “I don’t believe in Martyrdom.” This statement still lingers with me today and it strongly influenced the movie we went on to make.
Mumia has been unrelentingly demonized and persecuted by the state as “cop killer” and iconized by many as the Che Guevara of our time, but in that moment in the classroom, Mumia reclaimed his humanity. That day we learned that given the choice between icon and father, Mumia would have chosen to enjoy life at home.
Before long, we learned that a black filmmaker from Philadelphia, Tigre Hill, would soon release his film on Abu-Jamal’s case, The Barrel of a Gun. That movie was supported by the Philadelphia PD and its union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). I had envisioned a film about Mumia’s political and intellectual trajectory, but we pivoted to make a film about the case that would challenge The Barrel of a Gun in the public sphere. Eventually we screened the film in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center to much attention and acclaim on the same day that The Barrel of a Gun premiered.
We talked to the police and politicians who staked their careers on Law-and-Order policies that brought us the demonization in the public sphere of Mumia and other sixties-era political prisoners; militarized policing; and mass incarceration. But we were also interested in talking to Mumia’s family to learn about the case through the lens of familial intimacy.
JJ: Can you please tell us about your interview with Mumia’s sister, where among other things, she discusses her family’s long held suspicion that Kenneth Freeman was the actual shooter of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner?
JF: We were fortunate to have interviewed Lydia Barashango, Mumia’s beloved sister who was battling late-stage cancer. As I sat before this powerhouse of a truth teller, I was shaken to my core. At the last minute, Lydia decided to do the interview without a headdress to cover her fallen hair—the evidence of cancer.
She had borne everything, and she would bare everything.
The world has heard little from the Black women in Mumia’s life.
Lydia described the rich and beautiful family history and life from which Mumia was torn at the time of his incarceration when he was twenty eight and half years—the exact number of years he spent on death row.
She told the film crew of Justice on Trial that having her beloved brother ripped from her had affected her at the cellular level. To illustrate Mumia’s character, she told us a story about Edith, their mother. Edith was orphaned as a child and didn’t easily welcome physical displays of affection. But that was no barrier for Mumia. Of all her children, Lydia explained, it was he who brought affection to Edith’s life. Mumia would “grab her up and kiss her,” while the slight, 90-pound Edith fruitlessly shooed him away with “Boy, whatcha doin?.”
Mumia also had a doting father who worked to nurture in him a love of books. Lydia also told of Mumia’s children, his own and adopted, with whom he played, piled onto his bike, and on whom he doted like his father had doted on him. That was life before Mumia’s nightmare began on December 9, 1981.
JJ: Why do you feel the story of Mumia’s family life is important to tell?
JF: As Lydia continued to share with us intimate details of her brother’s warmth and affection. I couldn’t stop thinking of Mumia’s remarks in the classroom. Those who discover Mumia’s case come to see him as an icon. As Lydia continued to tell stories of intimacy, I came to understand more deeply that the United States has gotten away with imprisoning so many black and brown people because the media, politicians, and police have depicted us as lone actors—a menace to society— disconnected from home, community, and a network of family and friends.
As I listened, Lydia had already become the heartbeat of a movie that had not yet come into being. And she did.
Lydia told us, also, that the Fraternal Order of Police needed Maureen Faulkner to play the “grieving white widow piece” because otherwise “they wouldn’t have a stone to stand on.”
Although Maureen is much older now, and remarried as Maureen Popovitch, she has been carefully and consistently depicted in the media as a young, vulnerable and distressed, white widow who fell prey to Black radical violence.
Absent from public discourse, however is the anguish suffered by Mumia’s wife, Wadiya Abu-Jamal, who from the moment of Mumia’s arrest began to release press statements challenging the pre-trial demonization of her husband by the media.
When we asked Lydia what she would tell Maureen Faulkner, she suggested that justice for Daniel Faulkner and justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal depend on an uncompromising commitment to facts, due process, and truth: “Justice for Maureen Faulkner is tied to finding out who killed Officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia is not that person.”
JJ: Which leads us to the issue of who actually shot Officer Faulkner.
JF: Yes, perhaps the most startling revelations of our interview, was Lydia’s testimony about Kenneth Freeman.
On the night that Policeman Daniel Faulkner and Mumia were shot, there were four persons at the crime scene: Billy Cook who is Mumia’s Brother, Officer Daniel Faulkner, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kenneth Freeman.
The presence of Kenneth Freeman, the fourth person at the crime scene, is one of the least discussed facts in Mumia’s case.
JJ: So how did these people converge in the same place and why has the presence of Kenneth Freeman been suppressed all these years?
JF: The answer here is complex, but the first reason is linked to police and prosecutorial misconduct and corruption.
In the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, Billy Cook was stopped by Officer Faulkner for an alleged traffic violation. Billy was driving home from work. Soon that exchange escalated. The police started hitting Billy Cook repeatedly over the head sometime after Billy got out of his Volkswagen.
Presumably, the officer would have been concerned about the other person traveling with Billy, seated in the front passenger’s side— Kenneth Freeman, with whom Billy owned a newsstand in downtown Philadelphia. According to Lydia, Billy and Kenny were close, inseparable in fact, like brothers, “they hung.” The two men had just closed up for the night before they were stopped by Officer Faulkner whom they knew from previous, numerous unsavory encounters.
During the altercation between Billy and Officer Faulkner, Mumia happened to be dropping off a passenger at a nearby club, when he recognized that the person being beaten was Billy. Mumia got out of his cab and ran through a parking lot to aid his brother.
Mumia was already a rising-star journalist who had recently won the coveted Columbia University, Edward Howard Armstrong prize in broadcasting for his report on the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia—but he was moonlighting as a cabdriver to make ends meet.
Out of that encounter, the police officer was shot and killed. Mumia was found semi-conscious, sitting nearby with a bullet from Faulkner’s gun in his stomach. And the gun that Mumia had recently acquired after having been held-up while driving the cab, was allegedly found nearby.
According to Lydia, she and her family had always suspected that Kenneth Freeman killed Daniel Faulkner.
JJ: Why do you think Lydia waited so long to publicly talk about Kenneth Freeman?
JF: What I discovered over the course of many years interviewing different people connected to this case is that Black people in Philadelphia’s Black working-class neighborhoods carry an epic code of honor. They don’t snitch. And that’s the second reason why Freeman does not figure prominently in the narrative of what happened that night.
JJ: But how do we know that there was a fourth person at the crime scene and that the person was Kenneth Freeman?
JF: Photographs taken by an independent photojournalist —Pedro Polakoff, the first person to arrive at the crime scene—point to a fourth person at the scene. Several of the Polakoff photos show Officer Faulkner’s hat sitting on top of Billy’s car, right above the passenger’s seat. This suggests that the officer had a conversation with the passenger.
Significantly, Pedro Polakoff told German author Michael Schiffmann that when Polakoff was present at the crime scene, all the officers present expressed the firm conviction that the shooter had been the passenger in Billy Cook's VW, who they believed to be Mumia. But of course, it is undisputed that Mumia had been parked across the street and was not the passenger in Billy Cook’s car.
At least four witnesses interviewed by the prosecution said they saw one or two black men running away from the crime scene immediately after they heard gun shots. And the prosecution’s main witness, Cynthia White, testified that she saw a man at the crime scene seated in the Volkswagen that Mumia’s brother, Billy Cook, was driving.
Moreover, within hours of the shooting, a driver’s license application for Arnold Howard (a friend of Billy Cook and Kenneth Freeman) was found in Officer Faulkner’s shirt pocket, leading the police directly to Freeman. At Mumia’s 1995 PCRA Hearing, Arnold Howard testified that he had loaned his license application to Kenneth Freeman, and that on the morning of Dec. 9, 1981, both Howard and Freeman were brought in for a police lineup where Freeman was actually identified as the shooter.
JJ: So Mumia’s defense never knew that Arnold Howard’s driver’s license application was found in Officer Faulkner’s front shirt pocket?
JF: Amazingly, this key piece of exculpatory evidence was hidden from the defense and jury during Mumia’s trial, first by police inspector Alfonzo Giordano, and later, at trial, by Prosecutor Joe McGill.
In a flagrant example of perjury and prosecutorial misconduct, McGill is on record acknowledging the presence of Kenneth Freeman during Billy Cook’s trial (which happened almost concurrently with Mumia’s and revolved around the same crime scene) while concealing Freeman’s presence during Mumia’s trial.
But wait, when it comes to the case of Mumia you can’t really make up the level of intrigue, violence, corruption, and gangsterism exhibited by those in power. Five days after Faulkner’s death, the newspaper kiosk co-owned by Billy Cook and Kenneth Freeman was burned down, Freeman told the Philadelphia Inquirer “there was no question in my mind that the police are behind this.” The same article quoted a police officer who suggested that police were involved.
And three years after Mumia’s trial, on May 13, 1985—the night the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE House with a military grade explosive, shot at fleeing occupants, and burned down the entire city block — Kenneth Freeman was mysteriously found dead in a parking lot, bound and gagged with a needle in his arm. The coroner reported heart failure as the cause of death.
In his book, The Framing of Múmia Abu-Jamal, editor and producer of Crime Magazine, and former editor of TV Guide, Patrick O’Connor, argues that Kenneth Freeman, not Abu-Jamal, killed Officer Faulkner.