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 September 20, 2010
 Former Carnegie Mellon history professor produces film on the crisis of the
American Judicial System

News | Abhinav Parameshwar

Racial targeting in incarceration is an issue that has taken a backseat over
the past decade ever since terrorism took the forefront in the court of
public opinion. However, it will once again be a hot topic when two new
films with opposing views on the infamous trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal debut

Abu-Jamal has been described by *The New York Times* as “perhaps the best
known death row prisoner in the world,” and the question of his innocence
and whether his trial and treatment were just has received plenty of
international attention over the past three decades. The case is often cited
in the debate on whether the death penalty should be used as a means of
justice. During his imprisonment, Jamal published several books and
commentaries, notably *Live from Death Row*, which has contributed to his
status as a controversial cultural icon.

Professor Johanna Fernandez, who used to teach at Carnegie Mellon as a
visiting professor and now teaches at Baruch College, teamed up with
filmmaker Kouross Esmaeli to produce a film about the workings of the
criminal justice system and, more specifically, the nearly 30-year-old
Abu-Jamal case. The film, aptly titled *Justice on Trial*, follows the
sentencing and subsequent appeals of the case while exposing the numerous
violations of the standards of fair trial conducted by those involved in the
criminal justice system. Filmmaker Tigre Hill produced the other competitor
in this controversial film duel. Titled *The Barrel of a Gun*, Hill’s
narrative portrays Abu-Jamal as a cold-blooded cop killer.

“We decided to confront Tigre’s film with a more thoughtful exploration of
the case after we saw the series of initial trailers that he released six
months ago,” Fernandez said in an interview with *PhillyIMC*. “Contrary to
his claim of having found ‘rare new insight’ into the case, the trailers
pointed to a rehashing of the basic arguments put forth by Assistant
District Attorney Joe McGill, who wanted to win a death sentence by any
means necessary. We want to elevate the dialogue at a time when reasoned
voices are needed.”

*Justice on Trial* challenges Hill’s account of events by reviewing 29 years
of judicial records, facts, and historical insight, and the film revealing
new and possibly exculpatory evidence. Many consider the crisis of the
American judicial system as one of the most pressing civil rights problems
of our time, and this film addresses these issues. It challenges its
audience to think about the issues of racism and the flaws in the American
criminal justice system.

According to a recent press release from media communications company
BgConnex, the film “features lawyers and criminal justice experts, young
Mumia supporters, citizens across the racial spectrum, and both police
officers who defend and those who doubt the official trial records.”

Fernandez revealed that, during its research, the team discovered cases of
judicial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and discrimination in jury
selection, as well as police corruption and the tampering of evidence to
obtain a conviction. “Some of the violations shocked the conscience. Too
many people think that judges are honest and the system is fair,” Fernandez
said. “Politicians are doing things to get votes. Criminals are often the
politicians and the police are the court system. They are getting away with
murder. The other film argues that Mumia killed Faulkner in a pre-meditated
fashion, and we thought it would be too damaging to Mumia and decided to
finish our film.”

Fernandez also disclosed that her passion for the case and the issue was
born here at Carnegie Mellon. “I arrived at CMU in 1995. I was at a speech
by Ellaine Brown. She gave a phenomenal talk. I made a comment, and a
professor by the name David Demarest told me that Mumia was not far from
Pittsburgh and that I should visit him. His persistence eventually prevailed
and I did. I even taught a class at CMU and had a live conversation with
Mumia in class. I have been doing it ever since, but nothing will come close
to that first conversation with CMU students that we had with Mumia. It
stretched us intellectually and it stretched us humanely. My students at CMU
had a very strong ethical core. The students realized that the man has been
wrongfully demonized by the press in Philadelphia,” Fernandez said.

Addressing students at Carnegie Mellon, Fernandez went on to say that it is
“important to keep in mind that students have the luxury of being in an
environment that fosters critical thinking. The object of the environment is
to ask questions. In this instance, students should scrutinize the case and
ask whether justice has been served. Sometimes students do not realize that
they have the power to change society.”

*Justice on Trial* will have two screenings tomorrow. A press preview begins
at 2 p.m. at the National Constitution Center. This screening will be
followed by “In the Interest of Justice,” a public panel discussion of the
constitutional questions central to the controversy surrounding the
Abu-Jamal death sentence. Both events are free but public seating is
limited. A second screening will take place at the Ritz East Theater at 8

Abu-Jamal currently is being held on death row at Waynesburg State
Correctional Institute.