Feb 1 1999

Sam Donaldson: Hanging Judge

In a statement published the day that ABC‘s 20/20 aired his report on the case, Sam Donaldson called for the death of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

“Everything that we looked at compellingly points to the fact that Mumia shot [Philadelphia police officer Daniel] Faulkner in cold blood . . . and was convicted properly, and was sentenced according to the laws of the state of Pennsylvania,” Donaldson told the Philadelphia Inquirer (12/9/98). “And as far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s on the books, the death sentence has to be carried out.”

FAIR supporters and other activists had sent hundreds of letters to 20/20, asking that the news show not take the same one-sided approach to the story that many news outlets have adopted (Extra!, 11-12/95), and calling for coverage of the unfair trial that Jamal received. These pleas were apparently ignored, with Donaldson dismissing critics of the case against Jamal: “The people who support his release don’t do so from a position of knowledge,” he told the Inquirer. “They either oppose the death penalty, or they’re campus rebels, or they’re African-American activists who believe that a black man was railroaded, and will continue to believe it, no matter what’s presented to them.”

The report that 20/20 aired that night was the kind you would expect to be associated with a journalist who believes that black activists cling to their beliefs “no matter what’s presented to them.” ABC left out virtually all the information that would weaken the prosecution’s case, and presented a truncated and distorted version of Jamal’s defense.

For example, Donaldson runs through a list of the witnesses that have been cited by the defense, and raises questions about their stories or ability to see what happened. Completely left out of this account is arguably the defense’s most important witness, Dessie Hightower, who saw an unidentified man running from the scene of Faulkner’s shooting. (Donaldson refers to a person with a dubious account as Jamal’s “No. 1 witness.” This person’s story is barely mentioned in Race for Justice, the book-length account of the case written by Jamal attorney Leonard Weinglass.)

While dwelling on flaws in defense witnesses’ accounts, Donaldson completely ignores the problems with the witnesses presented by the prosecution–which, after all, has the burden of proving its case. “Three eyewitnesses…all say they saw Jamal run from across the street and shoot the officers in the back,” Donaldson states flatly.

You’d never know from this report that one of these witnesses, when asked by police two days after the shooting, “Did you see which male shot the officer?,” replied, “No, all I saw was the flash from the gun.” Nor would you know that another of these witnesses misidentified Jamal after the shooting. The third witness, who worked as a prostitute, repeatedly changed her story after being arrested by police, and other witnesses say she was not even at the scene during the incident. Donaldson doesn’t cite the credibility problems that each of these witnesses has, instead merely tabulating them as part of the “spectacular array of evidence” for Jamal’s guilt. (For a more thorough look at the evidence, and at the violations of Jamal’s legal rights during his trial, see American Lawyer, 12/95.)

Throughout the segment, prosecution claims are stated as fact. “As the officer spun around, he grabbed his revolver and, as he fell to the sidewalk, fired a shot that wounded Jamal in the chest,” Donaldson declares. Not only is this version not supported by two of the three main prosecution witnesses, it is inconsistent with the course of the bullet that hit Jamal, which entered the top of his chest and ended up in his lower back.

When supporters of a new trial for Jamal are quoted, their points are immediately dismissed. When actor Ed Asner is quoted saying that “no ballistic tests were done, which is pretty stupid,” Donaldson’s voiceover cuts him off: “But ballistics test were done,” he says, referring to tests that suggested that the bullet that killed Faulkner was the same caliber as Jamal’s gun. But Donaldson doesn’t mention that tests to determine whether the gun fired the bullet had not been done. Police neglected to perform simple tests to see whether Jamal’s gun had even been fired, or if gunpowder residues were on his hands. This is sloppy police work; not reporting it is sloppy journalism.

The entire report is similarly slanted, with 20/20 using every opportunity to spin viewers in the prosecution’s direction. Statements from Jamal’s lawyer were jarringly edited and shot in disconcerting close-up. Producers from People‘s Video Network told FAIR that ABC not only used audio from an interview that they did with Jamal without permission, but seemed “to add layers and layers of echo to Mumia’s voice, both distorting it and making him sound like a cave-dwelling animal waiting to escape and wreak havoc on America.”

It’s clear that a balanced account of the Jamal case was never intended. In a letter asking permission from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to interview Jamal (a request that was denied), 20/20 pointed out that “we are currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner [the officer’s widow] and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.”

While the Fraternal Order and its lobbying campaign for Jamal’s death is never mentioned in ABC‘s piece, Faulkner’s widow is featured prominently and has the last word: “Tell a lie, tell it big enough, tell it often enough, and it becomes truth.” Donaldson seems to be counting on that.