Friday, March 7, 2008

Was Officer Ramp killed by police gunfire? An interview with Linn Washington Jr.

(UPDATE: The MOVE 9 were denied parole in 2008, but this interview with Linn Washington is still relevant for exposing the multi-layered injustice of the August 8, 1978 related convictions.)

 

MOVE 9 Parole Hearings in April!
--Was Officer Ramp killed by police gunfire? An interview with Linn Washington Jr.
by Hans Bennett

Almost 30 years after their imprisonment, the eight remaining "MOVE 9" prisoners are now eligible for parole (see Philadelphia Inquirer and Metro articles). April hearings are scheduled for only seven, because Chuck Africa is eligible six months later than the others. In early April, they will be interviewed on an individual basis, and ultimately a majority 5/9 vote among the nine Parole Board Members will be needed for each prisoner's release on parole.

With the hearings just weeks away, MOVE is asking for support by contacting the Parole Board and signing the online petition. A new series of videos about the parole hearings features interviews with MOVE members Ramona Africa (the sole adult survivor of the May 13, 1985 police bombing of MOVE headquarters) and Mike Africa Jr. (the son of MOVE 9 prisoners Debbie and Mike Sr.). Ramona recently spoke in Harrisburg about parole, and the new Ona Move Newsletter has just been released.

Following the shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp during the Aug. 8, 1978 police siege on MOVE's headquarters in West Philadelphia, MOVE members Janine, Debbie, Janet, Merle, Delbert, Mike, Phil, Eddie, and Chuck Africa were convicted of 3rd degree murder, conspiracy, and multiple counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault. Each was given a sentence of 30-100 years. The MOVE 9 are widely considered to be political prisoners. Both the evidence and the fairness of the MOVE 9 trial have been hotly contested by MOVE and others (READ MORE).

Following their conviction, the presiding Judge admitted that he had "absolutely no idea” who had actually shot Officer Ramp, and explained that since MOVE called itself a family, he sentenced them as such. In a recent newsletter, MOVE argues that if they had shot from the basement, the bullet would have been coming at an “upward” trajectory instead of the “horizontal” and “downward” accounts that had been presented. This crucial point aside, MOVE also argues that it would have been essentially impossible to take a clean shot at that time. The water in the basement, estimated more than 7 feet deep, forced the adults to hold up children and animals to prevent them from drowning. “The water pressure was so powerful it was picking up 6 foot long railroad ties (beams that were part of our fence) and throwing them through the basement windows in on us. There’s no way anybody could have stood up against this type of water pressure, debris, and shoot a gun, or aim to kill somebody.”

Veteran Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington Jr. reported from the scene on August 8, 1978. In this exclusive interview, Washington cites several sources in the police department who told him that Officer James Ramp was actually shot by police gunfire, and not MOVE.

This interview has been edited into short audio clips: Was Officer Ramp Killed By Police Gunfire?, The Illegal Destruction of MOVE's House, Manipulation of Evidence and Media Bias, Ed Rendell and Prison Guard Violence Against MOVE, MOVE 9 Parole and Unfair Stipulations, and May 13, 1985 and American Justice. The unedited segment about MOVE is also available with the full, one-hour interview from May, 2007.

A graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program, Linn Washington Jr. is currently a Professor of Journalism at Temple University and a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper. He was prominently featured in the recent documentary on MOVE, made by Cohort Media and narrated by Howard Zinn (Watch in full or on You Tube).

Hans Bennett: In the recent documentary on MOVE, you cite your sources within the police department who told you that the police know Ramp was killed by police gunfire. Can you say anything more about this?

Linn Washington Jr: I will confirm that I was told that by my sources in the police department. However, I have never identified the sources to MOVE, and I will never identify them to anyone else.

But I will tell you this.

Officer Ramp was allegedly shot and killed by a bullet that came from a weapon that fired a .223 caliber round. .223 is the same caliber used in an M-16. Inside MOVE’s house, police claimed that they found four carbines called Mini-14’s, made by Ruger and they fired this .223 round.

The day immediately after the shootout, police were claiming that not a single officer out there that day carried that particular type of weapon. About three weeks later, during the pre-trial proceedings, the police department began to acknowledge the fact that there were police officers who had the Mini-14s firing the .223 rounds. They first said that they had just been out there, but not near the scene. Then, subsequent reports put the officers with those guns closer to the scene, however the official version was “Yes, they were part of the assault, but no, they never fired their weapon.”

So, if in fact, there were no improprieties, why the constantly changing stories and why the heavy-handed cover-up?

There’s another thing, and this is where the destruction of the property precluded a thorough examination, as well as how the trial was handled by MOVE and when the court-appointed attorneys came in, it really became a circus.

But let’s think about this for a minute. You don’t have to be a ballistician to figure this one out. It’s just common sense. You’ve got four male MOVE members in the basement allegedly armed, according to police testimony. A basement by its very nature means it’s below ground level. They’re allegedly firing out of windows, and let’s understand, this was not like The Alamo where people are close up at the window and shooting out. They’re away from the windows, hiding behind pillars in the basement. So, anything they’re shooting out of the windows has to be at an upward trajectory. They would have to shoot up to get out the window.

Ramp was directly across the street at ground level. So how could something hit him in what was said to be a downward type angle when MOVE members were firing upward from that basement?

Okay, maybe the bullet could have ricocheted a little bit. The apartment building across the street from the old MOVE compound is a brick building. However, their compound was made of wood, so the idea that the bullet ricocheted off the brick, back towards MOVE’s house, and then back again to hit Ramp somewhere near ground level, is highly problematic.

Furthermore, the .223 bullet is actually a very small, light weight bullet. Since it’s a very light bullet it will likely break up bouncing back and forth off a brick wall. It’s not going to maintain its integrity and be able to ricochet back and forth a couple times. Unless this was a bullet like the one that Arlen Specter, when he worked for the Warren Commission, said killed Kennedy. You know, one able to change directions in the air a couple times? It’s questionable to unlikely that the bullet that killed Ramp came from that basement.

But, it’s hard for anyone to ever know, because police destroyed evidence. Earlier that year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal for authorities to destroy a crime scene before the defense has a chance to examine it.

Furthermore, a couple days before the Aug. 8, raid, a Philadelphia judge signed an order barring the city from destroying the MOVE house. Yet, the city did it in violation of this order.

And guess what? They were never called to account for violating that court order. There are copies of the court order too, so they can’t say that it does not exist.

One of my most vivid memories was of MOVE’s house being destroyed around 1:30 that afternoon, just hours after MOVE’s arrest. The shoot out had stopped around 10:30, and the last MOVE person was out around 11:00.

The police had dumped 250,000 gallons of water into the basement. I know this because I was hiding behind the pumping truck that they used for the water cannon when the shooting started. I was talking to the guy as he was pumping the water in. So I know how much water went into that basement. It was a darkened basement filled with water and tear gas, and you can not adequately do an investigation of that within a few hours. Yet police claimed they conducted a thorough investigation and then they tore the compound down.

So, the destruction of evidence alone raises serious questions about the propriety of the evidence used for the charges against them.

HB: Why do you think they destroyed it?

LW: I think they tore down the house in part because they wanted to destroy evidence. Mayor Frank “the racist” Rizzo’s administration and Police Commissioner O’Neill claimed they tore it down because they didn’t want it to become a shrine for MOVE and they felt that they could not maintain security around the house to prevent MOVE people from occupying it again.

The patent absurdity of that is shown by this: From the beginning of March to around the middle of April, 1978, the police enacted a starvation blockade around the house where they sealed off a whole section of Powelton Village, and did not let anyone in or out. People that lived there had to have special passes like in South Africa to get in and out of their homes. So the notion that police couldn’t adequately secure the house is absolutely absurd.

One point of view is that the destruction of evidence destroyed any semblance of a fair trial.

You asked about “vivid memories,” and I remember covering one of the early preliminary hearings. It was held in prison, where they brought in a mini-courtroom and a presiding judge (who was later fired for corruption). I remember vividly when the medical examiner came in and gave his testimony based on the autopsy report related to James Ramp, the officer who was killed.

The medical examiner testified to one thing, in terms of how the bullet entered the body and such. Then, when the prosecutor was getting ready to introduce the medical examiner’s report as evidence, he looked at the first couple paragraphs, and said “Oh, your honor, the medical report here does not conform with the testimony you just heard, let me correct it right here.” This dude pulled out a pencil and changed the damn report right in the courtroom, and then introduced it as evidence. Unbelievably, the judge accepted it!

Once again, this was a very fundamental and egregious violation of procedures. I left the courtroom and called my boss at the Philadelphia Journal, where I was working at the time. I was told, “Yeah, okay, well, we’ll talk about it when you get back.” I was also covering it for the United Press International (UPI) news service, so I called them up, but they told me they weren’t interested.

I said, “Wait a minute. This whole confrontation between the city of Philadelphia and MOVE, starting from 1972, has been about double-standards of justice and violations of rules and procedures. Here you have a clear example of one, and it’s not newsworthy?” UPI answered: “No. It’s not newsworthy, Linn. If you find something else out, give me a call back.”

HB: So, did anybody use your story?

LW: No!

Nobody used it because they didn’t think it was important. This is a separate argument from whether MOVE is right or wrong, but when you look at the media coverage of MOVE, everything that was perceived as MOVE doing something wrong, was publicized. In contrast, the attacks on MOVE, the injustices, and the deprivations that they endured never found any coverage in the mainstream media. I know it was covered in the Tribune because I was covering for them. It was also on black radio stations because there were black reporters that believed that you should be fair and balanced, and we were criticized for it, Mumia being one of them. This was just because we felt that there were two sides to the story. We weren’t taking MOVE’s side, but we felt they had a legitimate side that needed to be accurately presented.

If they’re getting beaten up, the women getting kicked in the vagina and having miscarried babies, that should be a news story.

February of 1978, there were MOVE members being held in the Philadelphia prisons. The guards jumped on these guys and beat them horribly and then turned around and charged them with assault on the prison guards.

Now, MOVE would normally say, “No, we don’t participate in any kind of cooperation with the system, because we know the system is corrupt.” But, in this particular instance, they said “We’ll cooperate just to show that even if we do cooperate, it won’t mean anything.” So they cooperated with the DA’s office (then headed by Ed Rendell), and after a lengthy investigation, the DA concluded that the victims had indeed been MOVE, who had been attacked by the guards.

So, that meant that the prison guards should have been charged with assault and other crimes. However, Rendell’s office concluded that the appropriate action was not to take any action against the guards, but rather to simply drop the false charges against the MOVE members.

Now, filing a false police report is a crime, as well as lying about something in the report. There are many crimes short of assault (that had been proven in the investigation) that could have been brought against them, but they didn’t do anything.

And, you know what? Little of this that I just told you about that confrontation at the prison ever got into the news media.

HB: Do you think the MOVE 9 should be granted parole in 2008?

LW: Parole is supposedly based on adjustment to prison. From what I understand, there have been few infractions, if any at all. So, the short answer is yes.

They’ve served 30 years in jail for a third-degree murder conviction. The average sentence for third-degree murder is 10-15 years, so they’ve already served twice that. So, yes, they should be released.

Will that happen? I don’t think so.

The Parole Board has a couple of arguably illegal standards in place. One of them says you have to accept responsibility for your crime. But, if you’ve maintained your innocence the whole time you’re in there, how can you say “Okay, I did it?”

This next standard is clearly illegal. It will demand that for MOVE members to be released without serving their full sentence, they will have to renounce membership in MOVE. This is something that would easily happen in China, North Korea, or Russia, saying “You have to denounce these un-communist feelings that you have.” But in America, we’re not supposed to do that. But we do that in Pennsylvania with MOVE members, and nobody says that it’s a problem.

Once again, this is another example of what I was saying at the beginning of our conversation, that there is a big gap between what America says it is and what it actually does.

--Hans Bennett is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia (insubordination.blogspot.com) and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia (Abu-Jamal-News.com).

2 comments:

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I just have a quick question.it's about the mumia case.why didn't maj tell his side of the story? Nor did he or his brother testify on the behalf of his case? Anyone can claim to be innocent.and why did some pull the race card when the witnesses,2,are black.they were very much the reason he got convicted! If anything,I'd want hear what his brother has to say about that life changing night of horror?? May we ever know the truth within their hearts?