Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Academy Awards and Dateline: Two cases of falsely accused
I watched in amazement NBC’s Dateline feature on the release of Ryan Ferguson. I watched the Ferguson family scuffle as Ryan waited to be set free after being convicted of the death of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor killed in the parking lot at the Columbia Daily Tribune.
It happened in my home town. I returned just weeks before the Western District Court of Appeals vacated Ferguson’s 40 year sentence. Charles Erickson, who had claimed he and Ferguson killed Heitholt, testified he couldn’t remember what happened. He was too intoxicated to remember what happened. Erickson is serving a 25 year sentence after cooperating with the prosecution.
The district court ruled that Ferguson’s original trial was flawed and that a new trial without key evidence would have to determine guilt of evidence. The state decided against a new trial.
I was moved by Ferguson’s release. I celebrate parents who never questioned their son’s innocence, and a defense attorney who pressed to the end. Kathleen Zellner, the Chicago based attorney who worked the case pro bono, refused to allow Ferguson to remain incarcerated for 40 years.
“It’s easy to be falsely convicted,” Ferguson told the crowd after he was released at the Boone County jail. He mentioned the masses of others caught up in a system despite mounds of evidence to prove their innocence.
The story reminded me of Mumia Abu-Jamal – another case with sketchy and circumstantial evidence that led to a conviction. Ferguson’s case sheds light on a judicial system that often fails to get things right. Years were taken from Ferguson’s life. He’s forced to contend with the transition back into life of freedom. That’s not as easy as one might think.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was originally sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2012. The New York Times described Mumia as "perhaps the world's best known death-row inmate" Supporters from around disagree with his conviction.
The convictions of Ferguson and Abu-Jamal, and their public support, end the tie between the two. Ferguson is white. Abu-Jamal is black. Ferguson was young with no political agenda. Abu-Jamal is a black nationalist who fought on behalf of MOVE, a radical movement in Philadelphia.
Dateline’s report reflected the power of the press and community support in shifting unfair convictions. Many documentaries have been produced to expose Abu-Jamal’s case. The most recent could lead to the release of the man with the golden voice. His radio show From Death Row continues to air on prison radio. He was celebrated as a journalist before his arrest and conviction. The most recent documentary may be the one that forces his release.
Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary qualifies for Academy Awards consideration. Director Stephen Vittoria deserves recognition for presenting a compelling glimpse at the humanity of Abu-Jamal. While in Durham, NC, I helped bring the documentary to the Carolina Theatre and Hayti Heritage Center. Rachel Wolkenstein, one of Abu-Jamal’s attorney’s, made a strong case for his innocence after the viewing of Manufacturing of Guilt, a short film that examine the evidence associated with the case.. Noelle Hanrahan, the producer of Abu-Jamal’s radio broadcast, shared her experiences with the man and her role in making the documentary.
I’m close friends with Keith Cook, Adu-Jamal’s brother. I met Jamal Hart, Abu-Jamal’s son. I listened as Keith talked about carrying his brother around as a child. I was moved when Jamal shared stories from his childhood. I cried him Abu-Jamal called from prison to thank us for supporting him.
Beyond being an amazing documentary, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary educates viewers. Those who watch it leave convinced of Abu-Jamal’s innocence. Holding an Academy Award may be enough to set Mumia free.
Ferguson proves innocent people are going to prison. Lapses in the judicial system transcend the burden of race. It may be true that most falsely convicted are black. It may also be true that it’s harder to prove innocence when race is a factor. It’s saddening that Ferguson had to endure the loss of years. Mumia is still there.
May this Oscar go to Mumia.
Free Mumia. Free Mumia
That’s taking Dateline to another level of exposure.