IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE : An interview with William Francome
--British documentary about US death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal
presents shocking new evidence
By Hans Bennett
The trailer for the new British documentary about US death-row journalist
Mumia Abu-Jamal, titled "In Prison My Whole Life," begins with the film's
central character, William Francome, explaining that he's "been aware of
Mumia for as long as I can remember. That's because he was arrested on
the night I was born, for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. As
my mom would often remind me, every birthday I had, has been another year
that Mumia has spent in prison.... I am going on a journey to find out
about the man who has been in prison my whole life."
The 90-minute film premieres on October 25 at both The Times BFI 51st
London Film Festival and Rome's International Film Festival. With the
acclaimed British actor Colin Firth as an executive producer, "In Prison
My Whole Life" is directed by Marc Evans and produced by Livia Firth and
Nick Goodwin Self. The film has interviews with such figures as Alice
Walker, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Ramona Africa, and
musicians Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Steve Earle. Amnesty International, who
concluded in a previous report that Abu-Jamal's original 1982 trial was
unfair, is supporting "In Prison" as part as part of its international
campaign to abolish the death penalty. Amnesty International UK Director
Kate Allen says: "It's shocking that the US justice system has repeatedly
failed to address the appalling violation of Mumia Abu-Jamal's
fundamental fair trial rights."
In this exclusive interview on the eve of the film's premiere, Francome
discloses for the very first time, one of the movies biggest surprises:
The film will prominently feature the startling Dec. 9, 1981 crime scene
photos that were recently discovered by German author Michael Schiffmann,
and are published in his new book. Never presented to the 1982 jury,
these new photos (taken by press-photographer Pedro Polakoff) "bolster
claims of Mumia's innocence and unfair trial," according to Black
Commentator columnist David A. Love.
Polakoff's photos have been shown on the Journalists for Mumia website
since Dr. Schiffmann unveiled the photos in May, the same week that The
US Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments regarding the
fairness of Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial (listen to courtroom audio). While
waiting for this important court ruling (expected any week), Abu-Jamal's
international support network has initiated a media-activist campaign
demanding that the major media outlets acknowledge the new crime scene
photos. One of Polakoff's photos will be published for the first time in
the US, in this week's issue of The San Francisco Bay View National Black
Newspaper, which has previously reported on Abu-Jamal's case.
Francome cannot reveal any more of the film's big surprises, but he does
say that "the film interviews people who have never told their story of
the events of that night for the first time ever and offers new insight
and theories as to what happened on Locust Street in 1981. To learn more
about this, people ought to go and watch the film."
Hans Bennett: What can you tell us about the new crime scene photos
discovered by German author Michael Schiffmann, and how they appear in
William Francome: The photos of press photographer Pedro Polakoff feature
in the film as well as an interview with him and Michael Schiffmann, the
German author who found them.
We had been in contact with Michael from the beginning of this project as
he is one of the most knowledgeable people on the case. He had been
working on his book 'Race Against Death' when he found a photo online
that he realized was not taken by the police at the scene. Somehow
(Michael is an amazing investigator) he found Pedro who was a press
photographer at the time of the shootings in December of 1981. Pedro had
arrived on the scene within minutes and captured much of the initial
chaos of the scene.
They are quite amazing photographs as they show the complete lack of
professionalism by the police who were faced with the task of preserving
the crime scene and any forensic evidence that might be inherent within
it. There are pictures of a police officer holding both of the weapons at
the scene in one hand without gloves, which would therefore completely
contaminate any fingerprints or gun powder residue. They also show the
police walking in and out of the scene and show that Officer Faulkner's
hat was moved from photo to photo. I may just be a layman in terms of
crime scene maintenance but it seems to me that these are grave and
almost criminally negligent mistakes to make. There is also the issue of
bullet holes or the lack thereof in the pavement. The photos should show
where bullet fragments would have been found in the surrounding cement
according to the prosecution witnesses' account, but this is not the
Whether or not these acts were made on purpose remains to be seen, but
the photos could have helped clear this case up from the very beginning.
Now we are 25 years down the line and we are still asking basic questions
of the initial evidence that should not have been left for so long
unanswered. Meanwhile, a man is on death row who claims he's innocent and
it's been a quarter of a century since a policeman was killed and many
feel the killing hasn't been sufficiently solved.
What makes the issue of the photos even more important is that they were
purposefully ignored by the prosecution and the District Attorney's
Office. Pedro says that he rang them and told them of his photographs and
offered them for use in the trial, but that the office never got back to
him. It is obvious that the prosecution knew that the photographs of the
crime scene could have done their case some damage in court and therefore
outright ignored them.
HB: Where does the movie go from here? When can people in the US view it?
WF: The film is about to premiere at the London and Rome film festivals
and I'm very happy to say that it's sold out all of its screenings. We
are still at the early stages and we have to wait and see if and when it
gets taken on by a distributor, what happens next. I'm sure at some point
in the near future we'll be screening the film in the US. The film was
shot in America and mostly deals with American issues so I look forward
to seeing the reaction it gets there. I myself am half American, and
spent my teenage years in New York, so I have enjoyed making a film about
the country I grew up in as well as having been able to look at it as an
HB: Why is Mumia's case still so important after 25 years?
WF: I think the fact that Mumia's case is still being debated after
twenty five years is an issue in itself. It seems unbelievable to me that
you could keep someone in solitary confinement for a quarter of a century
as well as having a death sentence hanging over him that whole time. The
starting point of this film is that it's been my whole life, and
considering all the things that I have done and all the memories I have
really helps to put the whole thing in perspective. Try thinking back to
what you were doing in 1981 and it might have the same effect. In that
time, there have been hundreds of people executed and there are still
over 3,000 currently sitting on death row in America. However, despite
evidence that people innocent of the crimes they were convicted for have
been executed and over 100 people who have been exonerated and released
from death row because of new evidence, the death penalty system in
America still grinds forward.
After 25 years, the questions of race, cost and inadequate legal
representation have yet to be fully and honestly addressed and the issues
that caused it to be declared unconstitutional in the 70's persist. In
short, as long as there is a death penalty in the United States, Mumia's
case and the case of all death row inmates will remain vital and
important. People should see this movie because they too seek for answers
and honesty from the criminal justice system, and they too, want to gain
a greater understanding of the inherent flaws in the death penalty system
in the U.S.
Even if people can't relate to the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal or are not
affected by it, they might still be able to relate to my story. I think
for many people, the journey that I'm going on is enough on its own. This
is the story of two lives coming together in a sense, and hopefully it
will allow many who have previously been uninterested in the issues
surrounding the case to sit up, take notice and find out more on their
own. In a ninety minute film, it is hard to comprehensively look into any
subject, but you hope that it gives the audience enough to go away and
--Hans Bennett is an independent journalist and co-founder (with German
author Michael Schiffmann) of Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal
author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
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