Friday, December 23, 2011

The Mumia Abu-Jamal Story

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, and an activist and journalist, was tried in 1982 for the murder of Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death, only for the death sentence to be eventually declared unconstitutional and vacated. In December of 2011, the Philadelphia District Attorney made an announcement that there would be no further attempts to seek the death sentence for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Instead, Abu-Jamal’s sentence would be allowed to revert to a sentence of life without parole.

Abu-Jamal’s case has been the subject of heated debate over the decades, pitting those who see it as proof of a racially-biased justice system against those who see it as evidence that justice can prevail. The December 9th 2011 announcement by the Philadelphia District Attorney, Seth Williams, was met with celebration by Abu-Jamal’s supporters worldwide. The nearly three decades that he had spent on death row at the SCI-Greene maximum security prison were over. He would no longer be confined to a small, windowless cell, away from other prisoners, nor would the state be able to continue denying him physical contact with his family and friends.

Abu-Jamal’s flawed sentencing has long been the subject of controversy. The jury at the 1982 trial sentenced him to death based on misinformation and confusion over the options available to them. This was confirmed by a series of federal courts, beginning in 2001. So the December 2011 decision was a victory for Abu-Jamal. However, for many, the celebration was tinged with disappointment: Abu-Jamal was slated to spend the rest of his natural life in prison for a crime they believed him to be innocent of. If, as they asserted, the entire trial, and not just its sentencing phase, had been flawed, then an innocent man had just given 30 years of his life to death row with the threat of death hanging over him and would spend the rest of his life incarcerated in Graterford Prison without the possibility of parole. That was hardly a victory.

Some may argue that the righting of the wrongs committed during the sentencing phase of his trial is cause for hope: It points to the possibility that someday the verdict of his original trial will be overturned and he will be proven innocent. Mumia Abu-Jamal has already tried to challenge the verdict of his original trial (citing all the unconstitutional flaws that characterized this trial and the subsequent appeals) and failed. If anything, this is an indication that any future attempts on his part are likely to be an uphill struggle. However, it is possible for Abu-Jamal to get a new trial if new evidence supporting his claims of innocence comes to light.

The details surrounding the shooting of Officer Daniel Faulkner on 9th December 1981 are contested to date. The prosecution’s version of the fated happenings has it that Faulkner stopped William Cook, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s brother, for a traffic violation. Cook responded aggressively, prompting the police officer to try to subdue him. Abu-Jamal, who was witnessing the events from a parking lot in the vicinity, crossed over and shot the police officer in his back. Faulkner shot back at him and succeeded in wounding him. Subsequently, Abu-Jamal is said to have cold-bloodedly fired four more shots at Faulkner, killing him. According to the prosecution, Abu-Jamal’s attempts to escape came to nothing as he fell to the ground, wounded. He was later found there by other police. Abu-Jamal was transported to the hospital, where, according to two eyewitnesses, he is supposed to have admitted to killing Faulkner.

During Abu-Jamal’s trial, four witnesses for the prosecution confirmed the above version of events to various degrees. They included Albert Magilton, a pedestrian, Michael Scanlan, a motorist, Robert Chobert, a taxi driver, and Cynthia White, a prostitute. Chobert, the taxi driver, claimed to have seen the killing from his taxi, which he said was parked immediately behind Faulkner’s car. He positively identified Abu-Jamal as the shooter, as did Cynthia White. Scanlan, who said he saw Officer Faulkner being attacked and then saw a second man run across the street and shoot him, could not positively identify the killer. Magilton admitted to seeing Abu-Jamal begin crossing the street, but did not witness the shooting, nor did he see Chobert’s taxi behind Faulkner’s police car.

Abu-Jamal never testified at his own trial. However, he maintained his innocence. According to his statement, he ran across the street after he heard the gunshots and was shot by a police officer upon arriving at the scene. He denied ever claiming to have shot Faulkner. One witness for the defense claimed to have seen a man run along the street after Faulkner was shot. This has contributed to speculation by Abu-Jamal’s proponents that the killer was not Abu-Jamal or his brother, but another man who left the scene of the crime.

There were holes in the prosecution’s version of events, many of which have been raised by Abu-Jamal and his defense teams over the years. More recently, Linn Washington and Dave Lindorff, journalists who have both written about Abu-Jamal’s case, have taken up the story and subjected it to further scrutiny.

One of the points that the two journalists have sought to verify concerns the bullets that Abu-Jamal is said to have fired downward while aiming at Faulkner. One bullet hit Faulkner between the eyes, but there is no evidence that other shots were fired in the way that the witnesses claimed. If Abu-Jamal had actually fired shots into the sidewalk, they would have left clear marks there and there would also likely have been debris embedded in Faulkner’s clothes or skin. Two separate tests conducted by the journalists in their respective attempts to reconstruct the crime confirmed this. There was no evidence of marks in the concrete sidewalk in the photographs of the crime scene or in the police investigators’ reports. Nor was there evidence of debris in the coroner’s report or in the report of the analysis of Faulkner’s police jacket. These results put to question the prosecution’s physical evidence and the testimony presented by its eyewitnesses, Cynthia White and Robert Chobert

Another important point involves the police’s apparent failure to test Abu-Jamal’s hands for gunpowder residue, which would have been a routine step to take. If they did test him, the results remained unreported. Interestingly, two other people, previously suspected of involvement in the crime, had had their hands tested for gun residue by the police.

Linn Washington and Dave Lindorff have also pointed to Chobert’s and White’s questionable credibility as eyewitnesses. Chobert claims to have parked his taxi behind the police car seem unlikely as he had a history of severe traffic violations and was driving on a suspended license at the time. He also happened to be on probation; thus, it seems inconceivable that he would take the risk of parking next to a police officer’s car and being caught violating the terms of his parole. Additionally, Chobert’s view of the events (as he described them) would have been severely obscured if he had actually parked his vehicle where he said he did. It is unlikely that he would have been able to identify the killer easily.

There is also the fact that Magilton, another eyewitness, saw no taxi parked behind the police officer’s car at the time Chobert claims to have been there. Official crime scene photos by the police and subsequent photos by Pedro Polakoff, a press photographer, show no evidence of a taxi behind Faulkner’s car. This suggests one of two things: either Chobert never parked his taxi there to begin with, or the police removed it before the crime scene investigators and photographers arrived. If the latter was the case, then the police were guilty of tampering with the crime scene.

It is worth noting that Cynthia White never described Chobert’s taxi as being present in the area when she drew a diagram of the crime scene and, later, when she described it for a police artist. Just as interesting is the fact that no witness claimed to have seen White at the intersection from which she claimed to have witnessed the nearby shooting. Other inconsistencies have become apparent: For one, White’s description of the shooting evolved in each subsequent interview with the detectives. At the first interview, she claimed that Abu-Jamal had fired several shots at Faulkner. Later, she spoke of two shots being fired. By the time of her trial, the details had been modified: she only mentioned one shot.

The eyewitness testimony to the effect that Mumia Abu-Jamal boasted about killing Faulkner while in the hospital ER is also worth subjecting to further scrutiny. The doctors at the hospital stated that Abu-Jamal was in no condition to make statements of that nature. More noteworthy is the fact that Gary Wakshul, the officer who accompanied Abu-Jamal to the hospital, explicitly indicated in his report that Abu-Jamal made no comment.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case has been characterized by evidentiary issues. It is no wonder that it has received international attention and taken on symbolic meaning in the eyes of activists globally. In the past two decades, the rhetoric surrounding the death penalty has become less strident. A number of people, previously found guilty of murder, have been proven innocent and released. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the public that the justice system is not infallible. Evidence can be unreliable and investigations can be flawed; as a result, innocent men and women can fall into the cracks of the justice system. If Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of these people, will he get a chance at a fair trial someday?


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Teaching through humiliation: tough love or cruelty?

Today a popular East African radio show host received a message from one of her fans, an aspiring writer who was seeking advice about how to get published. The young writer made the mistake of sending the radio show host a message ridden with grammatical errors and typos. How did the radio show host respond? She posted the young writer’s message, complete with her name, age and alma mater on her Facebook wall, with a statement to the effect that nobody would take a self-proclaimed writer seriously if she couldn’t be bothered to write her message properly.

The radio show host had a point about the importance of such details as grammar and spelling in letters of inquiry about jobs and about opportunities for publication. Hiring managers routinely disqualify candidates who send them documents that are full of errors. In their experience, people who don’t pay attention to detail in their formal communication are bound to carry the same casual attitude into the job. This is especially the case in the writing professions, where the correct use of language is necessary for clear communication. It is important for those in the know to convey this information to aspiring professionals as they would otherwise continually sabotage their efforts to find decent jobs and opportunities.

The radio show host was likely thinking along these lines when she set out to show her fan “tough love” on her page. However, she went overboard. Her attempt to shame her fan ended up overshadowing any lessons she might have imparted and probably earned her a huge chunk of ill will.

Now, it is not the role of an entertainer to teach her fans the finer points of English grammar or to connect them to professional opportunities. So the radio show host would have been entirely within her rights to ignore her fan’s letter. However, she did choose to respond, and she did so in her professional capacity. So she should have taken the time to do it properly: she should have sent a private response to her fan, answering her question, and pointing out the flaws in her approach. Then, if she felt inclined to turn it into a teachable moment for her other fans, she should have written a note on the subject without singling out the fan and sharing the specific contents of her letter.

Radio entertainers may not view themselves as journalists, but they do have a public platform, and the capacity to reach and affect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of listeners with their words. Their profession brings with it great responsibility. More so if they take it upon themselves to inform or educate their fans on matters that fall outside their immediate purview. Belittling their fans for lacking sophistication in professional etiquette is unprofessional. It is also a wasted opportunity to make a meaningful difference.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A response to the article “Kiswahili Tech Projects are falling apart, why?”

I have enjoyed reading Kachwanya’s 2009 article, “Kiswahili Tech Projects are falling apart, why?” because I think it addresses an important subject. The article makes it evident that there are different levels of language use and that, while a given population may find it natural to speak in one language, the same population might prefer to use technology or engage in professional writing/ speech in a completely different language. As contradictory as such a situation might seem, it reflects the linguistic complexity of our everyday experiences. I must mention that the article does have one significant shortfall. In my opinion, an article that makes claims this strong about Kiswahili technology projects should be based on more than the writer’s personal experience. Frankly, I was expecting the writer to have interviewed a wide range of people outside his/ her immediate circle and to have actual data from Facebook, Microsoft and others about the long-term success of their Kiswahili projects.

Having read the article, I’m interested in understanding, first of all, whether the alleged unpopularity of the Kiswahili versions of Facebook, Microsoft Office etc. among Kenyans constitutes a problem. I personally think that it is not a crisis. I imagine the popularity and accessibility of these forms will increase over time. Let’s give the average user of technology time to get used to the features of the Kiswahili version of Facebook. Let’s also give the translators time to expand and stabilize the Kiswahili lexicon as they adapt various words for use in technological contexts. These are processes that take time and they will (hopefully) catch on.
I also think that there is a significant difference between the use of language in everyday conversational contexts and the use of the same language in technical contexts. I would be more concerned if the average Kenyan was unable to use Kiswahili in the former context than in the latter one. It is a bit premature to sound the alarm bells over the latter. Kenya is not Tanzania. The two nations have adopted English and Swahili in different ways for different reasons. So one cannot properly compare the two without examining why they adopted their specific language policies and why they continue to reinforce those policies. Tanzania’s language policy may have done wonders for Tanzanian nationalism and for the development of Kiswahili as a regional lingua franca, but there are also associated negative implications for the average Tanzanian when it comes to transitioning from the use of Kiswahili at the lower levels of education to the use of English at the higher levels. There are also implications for international trade.
When the writer discusses his/ her inability to understand Dr. Naomi Shaban’s contributions to a parliamentary debate without consulting a dictionary, he/ she illustrates his/ her own inability to understand the language well when the speaker employs specialized vocabulary. That is only natural. I admit to not understanding half of what goes on in the US Congress even though I speak English pretty well. So, like I said before, the writer’s dilemma is not a crisis. I imagine that if he/ she wants to address that issue, he/ she is already on the right track: reading and listening to technical Kiswahili and consulting a dictionary when confused will help significantly. That is part of the learning process and it is commendable too.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Exposing society's underbelly: Are 'stealth' social experiments responsible?

Having watched this video posted on the ABC News page, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think it was brave of Gaby Rodriguez to conceive of this project and to go through with it. It’s undeniable that the publicity that her performance drew to the issue might just force the powers that be to take action to address the stigma and challenges endured by pregnant teens.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling it is cruel to deceive so many people, especially family and close friends, all for the sake of proving a point about the social stigma that pregnant girls face. Aren’t there other ways of accessing this kind of information that don’t involve deception? Specifically, why couldn’t Gaby Rodriquez get the written or videotaped testimonies of teenage girls who were actually pregnant?
A teenage girl who was actually pregnant would have to deal with so much more than Gaby Rodriguez dealt with, including the bodily changes that come with pregnancy (which do include hormonal changes and the accompanying mood swings, discomfort and morning sickness for many women). A girl who was actually pregnant wouldn’t be able to end her performance with a theatrical moment in which she removed the padding from around her abdomen. Instead, she would likely go on to give birth to a little baby and then have to spend the next 18 years of her life being responsible for raising that little one or she would have to deal with the psychological agony of giving her child up for adoption. I hope that all the publicity that Ms. Rodriguez’s social experiment garners manages to focus attention on this fact and to redirect the public’s interest to teen pregnancy and motherhood as they are actually experienced by teens who aren’t conducting an elaborate social experiment.
I have heard of social experiments of this nature before, including one in which a white man disguised himself as a black man and got a painful taste of what it might feel like to be a black law-abiding citizen, trying to live a normal life in a predominantly white society. I am referring to the journalist, John Howard Griffin, who published his experience in a book, Black Like Me.That was a valuable experiment, because it revealed in a dramatic fashion just how virulent and apparent racism was in the lives of those who were subjected to it and how invisible it was to those who had the privilege of never having to experience it. The experiment probably didn’t reveal anything new to black men and women who underwent the same and worse every single day. It most likely opened the eyes of white men and women who might previously have paid little attention to what the victims of racism said about their own experiences.
Perhaps, in a similar way, Ms. Rodriguez’s experiment has forced people who would otherwise be dismissive of what pregnant teens experienced to reexamine their assumptions. In other words, these social experiments suggest that people are more likely to believe the testimony of a so-called objective party (such as the undercover pregnant girl or black man) than they are to believe the actual victim of the social stigma (the teen who really is pregnant, or the man who really is black). This is sad, because it reveals that many of us are apathetic about social issues until somebody ‘objective’ (better known as somebody in a position of relative privilege) comes along and tells us how we are supposed to react in a particular situation.
At the same time- and I would be remiss to ignore this- the social experiments reveal just how powerful an influence stigma has over our emotional health and, consequently, just how much it shapes our lives. Gaby Rodriguez and John Howard Griffin, while aware that they were not the people they were portraying to the outside world, still endured abuse and shunning from people that would otherwise have embraced them or, at the very least, been neutral towards them. The stigma had deep psychological consequences for Griffin who, in addition, had to endure threats to his and his family's well-being after the news of his social experiment broke. In her video interview, Gaby Rodriguez reveals the hurt she felt at the reactions that her apparent pregnancy drew from people around her. Both Mr. Griffin and Ms. Rodriguez went into their social experiments expecting to have to deal with the darker aspects of human nature, but they still paid an emotional toll that has had/ will have an impact on their relationships with others. Stigma truly is powerful.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.