‘True facts’ show Abu-Jamal’s trial was unfair

Below is Linn Washington’s response to Maureen Faulkner.

Dear Ms. Faulkner:

Thank you for the recent letter expressing your views about my Sept. 8, 1998 column published in the Philadelphia Tribune bearing the headline, "Fundamental fairness forgotten in Mumia’s case." While we hold differing views on this controversial case, I appreciate your frank expression of opinion. Exchanging views is always informative. I trust that we can disagree without being disagreeable. I accept your offer to contact you for comment when writing about this case. I would like to extend an invitation to you to conduct an interview with the Philadelphia Tribune.

Ms. Faulkner, apparently you have misconceptions about the differing roles and ethical responsibilities of newspaper reporters and newspaper columnists.

Reporters have a responsibility to report the news as accurately and objectively as possible. A component of accuracy is the thoroughness, which means the reporter digs for as much information as possible in the time allotted to prepare the story for publication.

Reporters are supposed to report news free of their personal opinions. However, newspaper columnists are free to include their personal opinions in their reports. One purpose of a columnist, according to accepted newspaper practice, is to provide their opinions on news events.

While a basic element of the balance required of news reporters is getting comment from both sides, columnists are not bound by this standard. An important distinction between news reporters and columnists is journalistic license. Columnists have the discretion (license) to construct their commentary, as they deem appropriate. If a columnist wants to seek comment, they can. If a columnist chooses not to seek comment, they have neither violated essential elements of journalism, nor "human decency" as you allege.

The published item sparking your ire is a column. My column about this case is clearly marked as representing my personal opinion. (See editor’s note at end of column: The views expressed in this column are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Tribune.) Had I written a straight news article instead of a column, your criticism would be relevant.

For your information, Ms. Faulkner, when I teach basic and advanced news reporting, I emphasize the necessity of obtaining comment from both sides. Interestingly, in my lectures, I tell students that they must get comments from both sides even if they firmly believe one party is an absolute liar.

What would be ‘frightening’ Ms. Faulkner, is if journalism professors, myself included, advocated that students use selective application of reportorial balance. It would be frightening to instruct aspiring news reporters that they do not need to get comment from both sides if they feel that one side is a confirmed liar.

Ms. Faulkner, under the standards that you suggest, if a news reporter felt that you are a confirmed liar, this would eliminate their journalistic obligation to obtain comment from you. I think we can both agree that this would be a destructive and deceptive journalistic practice.

Concerning my column regarding that May 18, 1995 Washington Post article, the source of the "shoddy journalistic efforts" that you accuse me of practicing is that article and quotes attributed to you in that article.

The article begins by stating there is "an image" from the trial that you cannot forget and quotes you in the second paragraph declaring, "He smiled at me."

The opening paragraph of the article describes this smiling incident occurring when a "ballistics expert" held up your late husband’s shirt "to display the bullet holes."

A ballistics expert named Tumosa did testify on June 26, 1982 and he did hold up the shirt for display, according to the transcript and my column.

The Justice for Police Officer Daniel Faulkner Website lists Tumosa as "Prosecution ballistics expert" in its "Names of key individuals in this case" section. Mr. Weinglass mentions this expert in his published account cited in my column.

The court transcript for June 26 notes and you agree that Mr. Abu-Jamal was not in the courtroom that day.

Now you claim in your letter that this smiling incident actually occurred on June 21. The Faulkner Website offers the same claim. However, neither the Post article nor the comments attributed to you in that article stated that this smiling incident occurred on June 21, as your letter contends.

The June 21 court transcript excerpt cited in your letter states that an Officer Heftner identified the shirt. That transcript excerpt does not specifically state that Officer Heftner held up the shirt or "displayed" it as you assert in your letter.

The Philadelphia Inquirer article cited in your letter as proof of your claim states the shirt was "admitted as evidence" on June 21. This article does not say a ballistics expert displayed the shirt. Additionally Ms. Faulkner, contrary to the ’95 Post article, the court transcript excerpt cited in your letter does not identify Heftner as a ballistics expert.

Isn’t it true Ms. Faulkner that the court transcript from June 21, 1982 does not list Officer Heftner as a ballistics expert? Isn’t it true that the Justice for Faulkner Website describes Officer Heftner as "the courts evidence handler" and not a ballistics expert in its section assailing Mr. Weinglass for questioning your account of the smiling incident?

Your letter contains an excerpt from the June 21 court transcript (T.R. PG 4.10) where the prosecutor is asking Heftner to identify the shirt. This excerpt is part of a series of questions where the prosecutor is asking Heftner to identify various articles of clothing worn by your husband that Heftner collected and turned over to homicide detectives. Yet, minutes before this line of questioning about the clothing, Heftner tells the prosecutor that he is a "Police Officer" assigned to the "6th District" when the prosecutor asked where did he work on Dec. 9, 1981. Officer Heftner, in the court transcript (T.R. PG 4.7) identifies himself as a patrol officer, three pages before the excerpt cited in your letter.

Officer Heftner, under direct questioning from the prosecutor, does not identify himself as a ballistics expert.

If Abu-Jamal smiled at you during Heftner’s testimony as claimed in your letter, why does the ’95 article identify Heftner as a ballistics expert instead of a patrol officer?

Did Heftner receive a promotion from patrolman to ballistic experts before his testimony on June 21? If so, you failed to note that development in your letter.

Ms. Faulkner, as you can see from the "true facts" contained in the court transcript, any confusion about the smiling incident occurring during testimony by a ballistics expert results from misinformation contained in that ’95 article.

Corroboration is a method reporters employ to access credibility. There was no corroboration in that 1995 article that anyone else in that packed courtroom observed Abu-Jamal smile at you.

The 1995 article could have made a tremendous contribution to increasing the credibility of your account of Abu-Jamal smiling by quoting one or both of the two individuals that your letter states also witnessed this heinous act.

Are these individuals available for interview?

Another element impacting the credibility of this account is the lack of contemporaneous confirmation of the smiling incident.

The last paragraph of the Tuesday, June 22, 1982 Inquirer article did state that you left the courtroom crying. Yet, this article does not state that the defendant’s mean-spirited smile caused your tears. The article states that you left crying after the shirt "was admitted as evidence."

None of the Inquirer articles about the trial for the remainder of that week (6/22-27/82) report your account of the smiling incident or the defendant even glancing at the prosecution side of the courtroom. Was your 1995 Washington Post interview, over a dozen years after this smiling incident, the first time that you told a reporter about Abu-Jamal’s antic? Did you immediately inform the prosecutor, police, or the judge about this act of intimidation?

Ms. Faulkner, you criticize critics of Abu-Jamal’s conviction for laying blame in improper places. One reason why so many people question the propriety of Abu-Jamal’s conviction is that improprieties in the justice system occur far too often.

One impropriety that people question is alleged misconduct by prosecutors.

The eleventh paragraph of that June 22, 1982 Inquirer article quotes the prosecutor stating in court that the prostitute who identified Abu-Jamal as your husband’s shooter did not receive "leniency or any other consideration" from his office. "True facts" (court records) now reveal that this witness did receive leniency on outstanding criminal charges after her testimony.

Shortly after news reports last month about Phillip Bloch claiming he heard Abu-Jamal confess, a California Appeals Court cited "serious prosecutorial misconduct" in overturning the convictions of four gang members convicted of murdering a San Diego policeman. The officer’s widow filed a $2.6-million lawsuit against San Diego prosecutors for mishandling the case.

The day before the press conference earlier this month, releasing information crippling the credibility of Philip Bloch’s confession claim, a federal judge in Missouri ordered the release of a woman convicted of murder. This judge, "overturned" her conviction, calling the case Missouri prosecutors built against her "fundamentally unfair," according to a Washington Post news article. This woman spent 16 years in prison.

Ms. Faulkner, I concluded that Sept. 8, 1998 column by stating Abu-Jamal’s "conviction is based on an unfair trial." This opinion is based on my review of voluminous records in this case, contrary to your criticism that I "never have the courage to look at the evidence, the FACTS…"

I apologize for being a little wordy in this letter. You asked for a reply and I wanted to provide you with some of my perspectives. You ask for a public apology. Because I did not breach any ethical obligations as a columnist, there is no basis for your charges or your demanded public apology.

However, I’ll make you a deal.

I am hopeful that this proposal will erase your doubts that I am not "a big enough person."

This deal regards simultaneous public acknowledgements by us. I will publicly acknowledge that I did not ask you to comment in my column simultaneous to you publicly acknowledging that Mumia Abu-Jamal does have First Amendment rights to express himself freely. I’m not asking you to publicly apologize for your organized efforts to deny Abu-Jamal his constitutional rights. That 1995 article quotes you as stating, "By taking another man’s life, he forfeits the right to freedom of speech." I respect your right to hold this opinion irrespective of federal judges ruling that you are wrong on this forfeiture issue.

Thank you for your time.

Linn Washington Jr. is a Tribune columnist.

The Philadelphia Tribune, Friday, September 24, 1999

 

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