Death Row calling: The man broadcasting to save his life

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a US journalist, faces renewed calls for him to be put to death. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 27 April 2009 00:00 BST

Few journalists have polarised public opinion quite like Mumia Abu-Jamal, although his fame owes less to his writing and broadcasting than to the fact that he has spent more than 27 years in jail, mostly on death row.

In the confines of his cell at Green State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, Abu-Jamal, who despite his denials was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, has written a string of big-selling books (the latest with a foreword by Angela Davis).

Using his ration of three 15-minute phone calls a week, he broadcasts via a website called Prison Radio, amassing a catalogue of podcasts on subjects as diverse as the oeuvre of author CLR James to the activities of pirates operating off the Horn of Africa, a piece he produced last week. In each broadcast he signs off, in a rich voice, with "from Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal".

In Germany, fund-raising concerts are held for Abu-Jamal's cause; in the Saint-Denis area of Paris, a street has been named after him (a gesture that so enraged America's Fraternal Order of Police that members flew to France to protest). To Maureen Faulkner, the wife of the murdered officer, Daniel, Abu-Jamal is unquestionably guilty: a "remorseless, hate-filled killer".

The fate of the 54-year-old has become central to the lives of Livia Giuggioli-Firth and her husband, the actor Colin Firth. The couple have invested money in a film which highlights flaws in the case against the former Black Panther activist, who faces renewed calls for his execution after the US Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal for clemency this month.

Sitting in a coffee bar at St Pancras International station in north London, Giuggioli-Firth holds a DVD she has produced about the background to the case: a documentary that the Firths are distributing through a network of online contacts. Although it is directed by Marc Evans (whose feature films include Snow Cake with Sigourney Weaver), no British broadcaster has yet chosen to screen the documentary, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Considering the amount of rubbish you see on television, you would think that a channel would be interested in broadcasting a movie like this," says Giuggioli-Firth of the film, which includes interviews with Angela Davis and her fellow authors Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky, and the rappers Snoop Dogg and Mos Def. All of them agree Abu-Jamal should be re-tried.

The documentary includes stills taken by the photojournalist Pedro Polakoff, which were not used at the trial but show a police officer handling the alleged murder weapon without gloves (contradicting evidence given in court), and a crime scene that was not properly secured. The stenographer at the trial has claimed she heard the judge, Albert Sabo, say, "I'm going to help them fry the nigger", which the judge denies. Amnesty International argued in 2001 that the trial violated international standards.

Abu-Jamal represented himself in court and, except for denying murder, chose not to say what happened when he went to the aid of his brother, Billy Cook, who was being arrested by Officer Faulkner. Neither did Abu-Jamal call his brother, who fled the murder scene, as a witness.

Giuggoli-Firth acknowledges the remarkable nature of the case and the emotion it arouses. "The pro-Mumia people can make him out to be almost like a saint, a Che Guevara figure, whereas the anti-Mumia people say he is a black-hearted murderer," she says. "We decided to make a movie around what Mumia represents and why it has become such a political and inflammatory case." The film is called In Prison My Whole Life because it tells the story through the eyes of a young Briton, William Francome, who was born on the same night that Abu-Jamal was arrested and, as a child, learned of the case from his mother, a US political activist. The documentary highlights the racial politics in Philadelphia at the time of the shooting and the black radical group MOVE, which Abu-Jamal supported and was later bombed by police from a helicopter.

"We believe it is possible that there was another person in Billy Cook's car that night," says Giuggoli-Firth. Cook gave the film an unprecedented interview, saying there was someone with him but declining to say who. Such theories cut little ice with more right-wing elements of the Philadelphia media. Michael Smerconish, author of a book called Murdered By Mumia, celebrated the court ruling and condemned Abu-Jamal's campaign as "a charade".

Giuggoli-Firth, who describes Abu-Jamal as an "incredibly intelligent and articulate man", believes the time has come for the prolific writer and broadcaster to speak about the details of his case. "Mumia has always proclaimed his innocence and said he is going to talk the day he has a new trial," she says. "Now he has to say something. There is nothing else he can do."

The DVD costs £12.49 plus P&P at

Mumia Abu-Jamal broadcasts at

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