Frequently Asked Questions About Justice on Trial

It is neither easy nor popular to go against prevailing assumptions in society, especially when they pertain to how justice is dispensed in this country. But speaking out against injustice is and always has been the moral assignment of those who are inspired by the promise of American Freedom. That's why Johanna Fernandez and Kouross Esmaeli sought to tell this difficult story of a system gone awry in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Dissecting what went wrong - and what continues to go wrong - in the American justice system when it comes to people of color or of lesser economic means (and working toward correcting those injustices) is an essential civic duty, and the basis of Justice on Trial.

What inspired you to make this movie?

The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal appeals to our moral conscience. On the one hand you have the slaying of a police officer. And on the other you have someone who has spent 30 years in prison, someone whose guilt was never clearly established given the gross violations and irregularities that continue to plague this case. The story of Mumia is at once an iconic and tragic American story that deserves our attention. In addressing the specific case of Mumia, we're also trying to initiate a broader conversation about race in America, specifically the relationship between the police and communities of color in urban centers. Documentary films lay out social questions and social problems and invite people to join the conversation. We hope they will.

Why are you releasing this film now?

Two critical factors influenced the timing of this film's release. First, another film is coming to theaters with what we believe to be a distorted approach to the facts of this case and the moral character of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Allowing such perceptions to linger unchallenged would do a disservice to any and all who seek justice and truth and work to ensure that the justice system is fair and accessible to all Americans, regardless of class, creed, gender, orientation, national origin or color. Second, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit, will be deciding on Mumia's case soon. This is a propitious time to raise consciousness around this case and its implications for all of us.

Where does the case stand now?

Mumia remains on death row, with Pennsylvania prosecutors and politicians awaiting the chance to execute him. Requests for a new trial - a fair hearing - have been denied by each reviewing court. A newly released report from the National Academy of Sciences contained research findings concerning the unreliability of some of the ballistics evidence offered at Mumia's trial. On the basis of these findings, Mumia's attorneys petitioned for a new trial. Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas denied that petition. An appeal of that denial of a new trial is now pending in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In the meantime, also, the U.S. Supreme Court recently set aside a 2001 decision that had vacated Mumia's death sentence, and remanded the 3rd Circuit Court to consider Mumia's sentence in light of a new federal precedent just set by its ruling in Smith v. Spisak. The legal future is hard to predict. The 3rd Circuit could read Smith v. Spisak in a way very damaging to Mumia's case. On the other hand, it may be the case that the 3rd Circuit Court can consider other claims made by Mumia's lawyers about his denial of due process and other violations. Both the prosecutors and Mumia's lawyers now have briefs before the 3rd Circuit court. Thus, much depends on what the 3rd Circuit Court rules next. We expect a ruling this fall or in the spring. Throughout all this, Mumia has never left death row. His life remains precarious, and even if he manages to again avoid execution through this next round of court battles, the real prospect of languishing in prison for life remains.

I'm a law-abiding citizen who has never had any run in with the police, nor has anyone I know ever had a problem or been involved in the criminal justice system. Why should I support this film?

To be wrongfully accused of a crime, especially a crime as appalling as murder, is one of the greatest burdens our society can impose upon our fellow citizens. There are scores of stories of people who have been exonerated of crimes, yet the years of their lives that were robbed, the sullying of their names, and the shame borne by their families cannot be recuperated. Any system that would subject any of its citizens to this horrific experience must be re-examined and checked, especially if it considers itself a free society. That kind of interrogation is the duty of the citizens of a nation that values the experience, and not just the promise, of freedom.

This seems to be a local issue that has been adopted as a cause by people who are not from Philadelphia. Why don't you just let people from that city deal with this case?

Philadelphia has a tradition of struggle for equality, from the founding of the first public library system to the concept of citizen liberty itself. Yet, this case stands as a particular gift to us as well, in that it challenges us to wade into the darker corners of our justice system and be brave enough to face its imperfections and its terrible consequences for individual citizens and targeted groups in our society. It also pushes us to be bold enough to not only speak out against such travesties, but to take considered action. Our charge as Americans has always been to work toward and build a more perfect union. What happens in Philadelphia - the oft-touted "cradle of liberty" - concerns all Americans.

Aren't Mumia supporters really just anti-establishment, anti-police types, anyway?

People who support this cause hold diverse political views but they are united in the idea of due process and the right to a fair trial. We respect and support law enforcement officers, many of whom work both tediously and valiantly, under difficult circumstances, to protect the common good. We respect and support honest, hard-working members of the criminal justice system who help us retain balance in our society. But few justice-oriented people in this country could support anyone tampering with evidence, neglecting potentially exculpatory evidence, forcing witnesses to lie, or actively working to rig juries.

That's contrary to our ideals as Americans. And as Americans, we have a Constitution that enables us to work and argue for due process for all.

What makes this movie any different than the other Mumia-related films already out there?
There have been several well-intended films created to advance this story, some for domestic consumption and others for foreign audiences. Our goal was to create a space for thoughtful dialogue surrounding this case, not shrill screed. Our intent was to capture the perspectives of a diversity of American voices, especially those that remain unheard, so that viewers might make their own decision as to whether justice was served, for Officer Faulkner or for Mumia. The best context for decision-making, especially in a case like this, is one in which all the evidence is heard. In the case of documentary filmmaking, access determines outcomes, and given what we were allowed to work with, we worked to provide a more encompassing view. Through this lens, we hope to speak to and engage a broader audience in this conversation.

Why are you so suspicious that race played a role in this case? Isn't that the catch-all excuse when people of color don't get their way in society?

It is clear, in speaking with academics as well as those in the trenches of the criminal justice system that race plays a role in how justice is dispensed, and it is a topic we have yet to broach honestly as a nation. While there was a groundswell of pride and sense of accomplishment that an African-American man was elected president, there remains this untouched, unfinished business of race in our society. We need to question why the prison population has grown from some 200,000 in the 1970s to more than 2 million today, despite the fact that crime rates have not gone down as mass incarceration has increased, and why a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color despite the fact that the rates of crime in black, white, and Latino communities are generally the same. Unfortunately, race still colors the ways in which justice is meted out in the United States, and this has been confirmed by numerous studies. This is a moral and political problem that merits attention. And it should be remembered, that U.S. federal courts themselves have, in many of their rulings - but not yet in Mumia's case - been quite clear that racial bias anywhere in the court and judicial bias is a serious infraction of due process.

In this case, everyone claims to know the "real" truth. What makes your findings any different?

We are people seeking to understand, not just indict or pardon based on what has been previously written or reported. In our hunt for the truth we seek an open discussion with people with different perspectives. Our aim is to present the facts and give voice to part of this story that has not been heard. We invite you to take a look at this film and hear the voices of those who have important perspectives on the facts of the case, and who, as of yet, have not had a chance to be heard in any court proceeding relating to this case.

Do you believe in the death penalty?

Many Americans question the death penalty. The American Lawyers Institute (ALI), made up of more than 4,000 judges, lawyers and law professors, has concluded that the death penalty is a "broken system." Sure, evil exists in the world, and in some cases, it is clear that heinous actions deserve strong punishment. But turning over the ultimate power of life and death into the hands of the state should give pause to us all - and even more so when there is considerable evidence that has not been heard, such as in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

What qualifies you to make this movie?

We have worked on this film for four years, combing through legal records, interviewing countless people of various backgrounds and viewpoints on this case, and filming and editing with an eye toward sharing an inclusive story. With a team that has documentary television and film credits with outlets ranging from MTV to Current TV to PBS, noted work on Academy Award-nominated films such as The Enron Story: The Smartest Guys in the Room, as well Fulbright-certified scholarship, there is both expertise and integrity in full supply and operating here.

What happens next?

Mumia remains on death row, with pending appeals under way from both his legal team and the prosecutors who want to murder him. Awareness of this case is paramount, which is why we will continue to screen Justice on Trial throughout the United States. We will continue to raise money for this grassroots project in order to develop a product that can go before even greater numbers of people, either via the big screen or television. The more people are aware of how the criminal justice system works, and where it falls short, the greater the likelihood we can work together to change a culture that actively and wrongly condemns tens of thousands of American citizens every year. That would be Mumia's greatest legacy, to expose the ways that our capital punishment process is a "broken system" - as claimed by Columbia University law professor James Liebman in his exhaustive studies of the death penalty, and affirmed by the American Law Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union and many others.