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Race against Death

1 February 2008

Dr. Michael Schiffmann, lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Department of English and American Studies, wrote his PhD dissertation on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case and has been interested in it ever since – During research work for a book on the subject he chanced on photographs of the crime scene that cast doubt on the official version of the shooting

It was in the mid 1990s that Dr. Michael Schiffmann, now a lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Department of English and American Studies, first took a serious interest in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death in the United States for murdering a Philadelphia policeman. Intrigued by the circumstances surrounding the crime, Schiffmann decided to write his PhD dissertation on the question of why the Abu-Jamal case had caused such a stir all over the world.

In the early hours of 9 December 1981, police officer Daniel Faulkner on duty in the city centre of Philadelphia was first wounded by a gunshot and then killed by a second shot. Close by, the policemen summoned to the scene found the well-known radical coloured radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, also with a serious bullet wound. He was arrested and later sentenced to death in proceedings described by public prosecutor Arlene Fisk as one of the most famous homicide trials in the history of Philadelphia.

"The Abu-Jamal case assembles all the things that make capital punishment so reprehensible,” says Schiffmann, summarising the findings of his dissertation (2004) on which his later book "Race against Death” was based. Then, shortly before completing the book in May 2006, Schiffmann made a sensational discovery. Researching on the internet, he chanced upon two hitherto unknown photographs of the crime scene that cast a dubious light on the investigations that had taken place 20 years before.

The photos were displayed on an internet page containing propaganda against Abu-Jamal. It was an easy task for Michael Schiffmann to track down the photographer, Pedro P. Polakoff III, because his name was on the photos. Polakoff remembered the case well. At the time of the murder he had been a freelance photographer who made a living by selling photos to the newspapers. He heard of the incident on his car radio and arrived at the scene ten to twelve minutes after the crime and took 26 photos before the forensic experts arrived. Three of the photos appeared in the press and Polakoff, convinced that Abu-Jamal was the culprit, also offered his photos to the District Attorney’s office. But no use was made of them.

"Polakoff’s photos do not square with the version of the crime advanced by the public prosecutor during the trial,” says Schiffmann, who also placed them at the disposal of Abu-Jamal’s defending counsel. One discrepancy is that the police hat of the murdered officer Faulkner is on the roof of the car belonging to Abu-Jamal’s brother, while the official police photos show it lying on the sidewalk next to the front passenger door of the car. Other photos show police officer James Forbes holding the two firearms found at the crime scene, one of them alleged to be the murder weapon, in his bare hands, thus interfering with potential fingerprint evidence.

"In my opinion, Mumia Abu-Jamal must be released,” says Schiffmann, and not only because of this new evidence. In the meantime the case has also been made into the subject of a documentary called In Prison My Whole Life, shown recently at the famous Sundance Festival. Schiffmann acted in an advisory capacity during the making of it. The fate of Abu-Jamal, whom his biographer Terry Bisson calls "one of the most famous detainees anywhere since Nelson Mandela” will be decided by a court of appeal expected to announce its verdict in the near future. So there are many reasons to await the outcome of the Abu-Jamal case with considerable interest.
Stefan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schiffmann
Department of English and American Studies
University of Heidelberg
Kettengasse 12,
D-69117 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542801

General inquiries from journalists should be addressed to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317
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