Just got off the phone with Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill, whose documentary The Barrel of a Gun, which gives an uncompromising perspective on Mumia Abu-Jamal, premiered this week at the Merriam Theater.
One of the things I admire about Hill, whom I've known for more than 10 years, is that his work is always provocative - whether you agree with it or not.
But I've got to admit, I left the screening of his movie shaking my head in disbelief. And I had to tell him so.
Let's see. On one side, you've got the do-gooder prosecutor and the stalwart Police Department. Never mind that the U.S. Justice Department had filed a lawsuit against the department over brutality when Frank L. Rizzo was mayor.
On the other side, there's an impressionable Abu-Jamal, indoctrinated by the radicalism of the Black Panther Party from the time he was 15.
Two hours of overblown conclusions from disconnected dots.
Still, I have to give my friend credit for even tackling the subject of Abu-Jamal, the former Philadelphia radio journalist convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner and whose trial, sentencing, and subsequent appeals have been tied up in the courts for almost 30 years.
Since his 1982 conviction, Abu-Jamal has become a cause celebre, a brand, a larger-than-life symbol for millions of anti-death-penalty activists all over the world.
To me, the death penalty is a barbaric notion. Abu-Jamal or not, I will always believe that.
But you have to live in Philadelphia to understand how his case evokes two passionate perspectives of what happened early on Dec. 9, 1981, at 13th and Locust - perspectives that don't easily mesh.
There's no doubt what side Hill falls on.
"For anybody who thinks Mumia did not get a fair trial, take the time and read the 2,000-page transcript," he says. "The evidence is overwhelming."
"There's no question," Gov. Rendell says in the film, "that Mumia executed Daniel Faulkner in cold blood."
Yet, for a whole lot of folks, there are questions.
Which was why earlier that day I attended a screening of Justice on Trial, a pro-Abu-Jamal film by Johanna Fernandez and Kouross Esmaeli that sheds light on some of those questions.
I came away from it still not knowing whether Abu-Jamal was guilty or innocent.
But the murkiness of the case is enough to convince me that Abu-Jamal should get a new trial.
Because when you're talking about putting someone to death, you'd better make sure the case is crystal-clear.
Hill's Mumia-as-angry-black-man approach made it easy for him to theorize that Abu-Jamal and his brother conspired to kill a cop that night.
Talk about disconnected dots. A 1981 article in the Bulletin put Abu-Jamal, then a cabdriver, at 13th and Locust with a flat tire.
For its part, Justice on Trial interviews court stenographer Terri Maurer-Carter, who says she overheard trial judge Albert Sabo telling an aide, "I'm going to help them fry that n-." At the time, Sabo had imposed the most death sentences of any judge in the nation. Maurer-Carter said she told everyone she knew back then, but was never called to testify.
The film also noted instances of evidence contamination, jury suppression, and evidence withholding.
Not surprisingly, the police union has endorsed Hill's version.
Clearly, Hill's an FOP darling, judging from the officers, active and retired, who attended Tuesday's screening en masse, along with former city leaders and police supporters, including the Centurion Motorcycle Club.
Hill insists he wasn't "bought and paid for," as Mumia contended when he called in to a panel discussion after the opposing film.
"For a year, [the FOP] wouldn't talk to me," Hill said.
"Because I'm African American."
After Hill's screening, former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham took the stage.
"For 19 years, the men and women of my office fought this fight to make sure that [prosecutor] Joe McGill's work would withstand . . . a tidal wave of lunatics and crazies out there," she said.
"Jamal is just a killer," she declared. "Now, the only thing left to determine is death or life in prison." Which the court will reconsider in November.
"Death!" shouted someone from the audience. "Fry Mumia!" yelled another.
Time to go.
One fact is indisputable: When it comes to Abu-Jamal, there are enough lunatics and crazies to go around.