by Revolutionary Worker #1018
August 15, 1999
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On the morning of August 3 Philadelphia's largest Black-owned newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, hit the newsstands with an exclusive story: "Letter Contradicts Mumia's 'Confession': Philip Bloch Wrote Abu-Jamal Would Be Vindicated." Bloch was featured prominently in the August issue of Vanity Fair and a recent segment of ABC network's 20/20 program. He claimed that during a 1992 visit with Mumia at Huntingdon Prison, Mumia admitted to killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. There was a week-long media frenzy, especially in Philadelphia, declaring that this new "evidence" once again confirmed Mumia's guilt, and he should now be executed.
But now the Tribune had the text of a letter from Philip Bloch written to Mumia after the alleged 1992 conversation. The author of the Tribunepiece, Milton McGriff, wrote that Bloch's letter "expressed confidence that Abu-Jamal would be acquitted if he received a new trial."
At 9 a.m. on the same day, reporters crammed into a tiny studio at radio station WHAT-AM in Philadelphia for a press conference announcing this stunning new evidence in Mumia's case. The press conference was aired live on the Bill Anderson Show. Last month, Mumia called in live from death row to this same talk show to refute Bloch's allegation. The participants in the press conference were: Tribune reporter Milton McGriff; Linn Washington, journalist and professor; Leonard Weinglass, Mumia's lead attorney; C. Clark Kissinger of Refuse & Resist and contributing writer to theRW; Pam Africa, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal; and two Mumia supporters. It was broadcast live on the national show Democracy NOW on the Pacifica network, New York's WLIB and WCXJ in Pittsburgh. Two taped statements by Mumia were also played--his initial response to Bloch's allegations and the article "Anatomy of the Lie," his commentary on Bloch's letter (see accompanying article).
So-called "confessions" have been a big part of the frame-up and railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal from the start. With Bloch's allegation, Mumia's enemies claimed to have a brand new "confession" tale. But, like the other "confessions" claims, this one has turned out to be a flat-out lie. And Mumia and his supporters have indisputable evidence -- in the form of black ink on paper, written by the very person that claims to have heard Mumia "confess."
The Letter that Refutes Bloch's Claim
In a dramatic moment during the press conference, Clark Kissinger held up a priority mail package containing Bloch's letter. Kissinger is the author of a nationally published article taking on the Vanity Fair article and its author, Buzz Bissinger. Among other things, Kissinger exposed that Bissinger was a publicist for Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. Rendell is now eyeing a run for a higher office, but there's a potential problem. He was the Philly D.A. when Mumia was railroaded onto death row; when the police attacked the MOVE house in 1978, beating Delbert Africa in front of TV cameras; when the police bombed the MOVE house in 1985, killing 11 people and burning down a Black neighborhood. So Rendell -- along with other powerful figures in the Philadelphia power structure and someone like Bissinger -- have an interest in covering up the truth about the miscarriage of justice against Mumia and the MOVE organization.
Shortly after his reply to Vanity Fair appeared, Kissinger received the mail from Mumia: "I opened up this envelope -- and what should come out of it but a letter from Mr. Philip Bloch addressed to Mumia at the prison. You can see it's got the date on it here from the postmark, July 17, 1993." As Kissinger emphasized, the significance of the date is that it shows Bloch wrote the letter months after the date that he supposedly heard Mumia "confess."
Kissinger spoke about Bloch's letter: "It deals with Mr. Bloch talking about himself -- how he graduated summa cum laude, how he was smarter than almost all the rest of the students and how he has a higher moral sense. But at the end of the letter he talks about having watched this film on the FBI's attack on the Native Americans in South Dakota -- and how a number of them who were prosecuted by the government were freed by a jury. He goes on to say that in essence he was heartened by them being freed. And he says at the end: 'So it is possible to get justice from the jury. Not always, but sometimes. So, when you get a new trial I think there is a good chance of acquittal.'
"It's very clear in reading this 1993 letter that Mr. Bloch was not under the impression that Mumia Abu-Jamal had committed this crime. He carries on in this letter in the context of justice for the Native Americans and justice in general, getting justice from a jury -- and he looks forward to the acquittal of Mumia at a future trial. I think that pretty effectively, in Mr. Bloch's own words, puts the lie to the claim that Mumia had made some sort of confession to him."
A History of "Confession" Tales
Leonard Weinglass pointed out that there has been an "ongoing dynamic" in Mumia's case from the beginning, involving claims by the prosecution that Mumia had allegedly "confessed." He noted that the prosecution makes these claims "because they recognize how weak their case is." Weinglass went into the history of these alleged "confessions": "First they said Mumia had confessed in the hospital [on the night that he was shot and Officer Faulkner was killed]. And they had a witness to that effect, Officer Bell, who was Officer Faulkner's partner. Unfortunately, on that occasion they were faced with a document that contradicted Officer Bell. And that document said, 'The male Negro made no comments.' That document was authored by the police officer, Officer Wakshul, who had Mumia in custody at the hospital.
"Then they produced a hospital security guard, Ms. Durham, and she said that she heard a confession and that she had written it down. They were very pleased with the fact that now they had a document that she had reported, and there was a writing. Unfortunately, she never told the police 60 days later that the writing existed. She never told Judge Sabo, pretrial under oath five months later, that a writing existed. She only said a writing existed when she testified before the jury. But unfortunately, the prosecution could not find that writing, and to this day they have never located that writing. So that document was false, never existed, has disappeared. And Priscilla Durham's testimony must be seen in that light.
"Now, years later, 17 years later, they produce a Philip Bloch. And he says: Yes, Mumia had confessed to me. I questioned Mr. Bloch on tape, on the air. He said there was no writing -- he never wrote it down. Although he was amazed that he had heard this confession from someone on death row, he never made a note of it in seven years...
"But what do we find today? Fortunately, Mumia has gone through his papers. And he located a letter which Mr. Bloch wrote to him seven months after this alleged confession occurred, in which he speaks of justice and the fact that Mumia could look forward to some day getting justice -- and that if Mumia can succeed in getting that new trial, a jury should acquit him. All of this absolutely contradicts in writing, from the author's own hand, what he claims he's heard from Mumia."
Weinglass said that the earlier claims of "confession" were thoroughly examined by Stuart Taylor, the leading lawyer/journalist in the United States, in an eight-page article in American Lawyer. Taylor interviewed the prosecutors and Weinglass and reviewed the trial transcript and all the evidence. He concluded that the "confession" that the prosecution used as evidence in the trial of Mumia was a fabrication.
Clark Kissinger officially turned over Bloch's letter to the legal team. Weinglass then spoke about the possible legal relevance of Bloch's allegations. He pointed out that Mumia's case is now on the federal level, where Mumia has won all his civil suits. Weinglass said that the federal judge will hopefully be someone who's not from the "old boy network" of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He noted that historically, federal courts have reversed almost 40 percent of all death penalty cases nationally. As a result, said Weinglass, "The prosecution is slightly panicked.... They desperately need something new. They need something that will convince a federal judge that he should not grant Mumia a new trial. And I think they trotted out Phil Bloch as their last ditch effort to try to dissuade a federal judge from doing what the case demands and requires and ought to have."
Bugged Cubicles at Huntingdon Prison
Bloch's own letter is the most damning evidence against this latest "confession" claim. But the press conference participants pointed out another reason why Bloch's claim is so ludicrous -- Mumia's knowledge that prison authorities eavesdrop on his conversations. Leonard Weinglass said, "Mumia from day one always assumed that his conversations were being taped, particularly with non-legal visitors.... Huntingdon was opening my mail to Mumia, making copies of it and sending it on to the governor's office. That had never happened in my 25 years of experience. So far as I know, it has rarely happened to any attorneys. That's the nature of Huntingdon."
Linn Washington covered Mumia's case from 1981 and has interviewed him in prison. He said that as soon as he heard Bloch mention where the alleged conversation with Mumia took place he knew Bloch's claim "had no merit": "It took place in a secured visiting area, a small area not even a third as large as this studio, separated by Plexiglas with wire mesh screen. But the point here is that these areas contain hidden microphones. All of the inmates know that the areas are bugged. So Mumia and other inmates that I interviewed there did not talk freely.
"I specifically on one occasion asked Mumia some questions about the night, the incident itself. And he started laughing. He was looking up in the air. He said, 'I can't respond for two reasons. One, my lawyers have told me not to speak about this. And two...everyone's listening.' So it is inconceivable that this individual who is sharp, he's no fool, he's not dumb, he knows what's going on in the prisons...that he would come in and not be very guarded in anything and everything that he said in that particular area."
Karry Koon visited Mumia regularly from 1989 to 1994, as a supporter and as a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. She told reporters at the press conference, "Mumia wouldn't discuss anything about his case, which I respected. I didn't ask questions. But he said he believed the room to be bugged or a guard could be listening in." Koon also said that she and Bloch lived in the same small town from 1986 through the mid-'90s. She said of Bloch, "Over the years that I knew him he never said to me, 'You know, I think Mumia's guilty.' He always acted as if he believed in his innocence." John Black said Mumia supporters distanced themselves from Bloch because he "talked more about himself than about the case."
Mumia supporters tried to get Bloch on the air for the press conference, but he would not return their calls. However, Bloch granted interviews with many mainstream reporters. He had different stories at various times about the letter -- from claiming he wasn't sure he had written the letter, to saying that the letter was being "misinterpreted" by Mumia supporters.
Media Lies and Distortions
Beginning with Bissinger's piece in Vanity Fair, the media ran with Bloch's "confession" story without ever checking it out. Bissinger's article itself is full of inaccuracies. (The article by C. Clark Kissinger, "A Myth Repeated," is a full debunking of the Vanity Fair article. See RW #1015; also available at the Refuse & Resist website--www.calyx.com/~refuse)
Mumia's supporters made numerous attempts to contact the media who picked up Bloch's story and talk to them about his letter to Mumia. ABC claimed that 20/20 anchor Sam Donaldson was on vacation. The Vanity Fair switchboard was said to be down. Milton McGriff said at the press conference: "Mr. Bloch didn't return phone calls, but I did speak to Harry Philips who produced the 20/20 on Mumia. And amazingly...he doesn't believe this letter means that Bloch was convinced that Mumia is innocent. Nor does he believe this letter says that Bloch could be lying.... The connection between the words justice and acquittal meant nothing in the conversation I had with Mr. Philips."
After the press conference, some of the participants appeared on a radio show that has a history of airing anti-Mumia programs. Bloch did call in to this show. He was vague, stammered and said he didn't remember when Mumia supposedly "confessed" to him. After he was disconnected, host Dom Giordano (definitely not a Mumia supporter) said to Milton McGriff, "[Bloch] comes across as a guy who's a little bit unhinged and a little bit out there, a little bit wifty, to some people. Why is he so important in this whole deal with Mumia then?" McGriff replied, "I think that's a good question and a fair question. And I think you should ask Buzz Bissinger, because he's the one who made Philip Bloch front-page news, not us."
At the press conference earlier, Linn Washington had told reporters, "This additional evidence underscores the absurdity of this allegation that was just taken at face value. As a journalism professor, one of the things that I impress upon the students, one of the things that all of the textbooks impress upon students, is that you do background reporting. You don't accept anything at face value. Mr. Bloch was accepted at face value.... So there's continuing double standards in the coverage of the Mumia case -- and this is something you could document year after year after year after year."
Also at the press conference, Pam Africa challenged the media about their coverage of the Mumia case: "I want to point out to all the media here now: For one week the Daily News and the Inquirer ran the whole Bloch story as if it was true. Now that you have the other side, are you going to run...the Bloch letter and the fact that Mumia said he did not have this conversation with Bloch? ... The whole world is looking at each and every last one of you, especially the Daily News, the Inquirer, 20/20 and these national and international news media. You all have not been fair. Not only is Mumia on trial, but the American way is on trial. We have asked for nothing more than a fair trial for Mumia that everyone will be able to see covered by Court TV. And I'm saying, why aren't you asking Joseph McGill [the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Mumia] and the rest of them, 'Why are you so hell bent on not giving this man due process of law?'... How come you haven't questioned these people on the way they have broken the law?"
Powerful forces attempted to strike a new blow against Mumia and the movement to stop his execution. But Mumia and his supporters delivered a quick and hard counter-punch that has made the enemy stagger back. As Leonard Weinglass said at the press conference, "So `confession' number two or three or four again falls flat. As a matter of fact, with each succession of `confessions,' Mumia's case gets stronger -- because each new `confession' proven false only shows that Mumia was innocent.