Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, and the Death Penalty, Pt.3

“We ordained therein for them (People of the Book): ‘Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.’ But if anyone remits retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. And if any fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah has revealed, they are no better than wrongdoers.” (al-Qur’an, 5:45)

As Imam al-Asi noted in his recent commentary on the death penalty, who indeed can be more just or merciful to man, than the Most Merciful Creator, The Nourisher and Sustainer, of all life? Allah Almighty has decreed that certain earthly crimes are worthy of a death penalty, and there is no better example of this, perhaps, than the case involving Timothy McVeigh; the young man who was convicted of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Federal Center in Oklahoma City, Ok. (an attack that killed 168 people, while injuring hundreds of others).

The 33 year old decorated Persian Gulf veteran has reportedly admitted to being the “mastermind” behind the terrorist attack, and he hasn’t expressed any remorse for the deaths and injuries. If plans go according to schedule, McVeigh will be the first inmate executed by the federal government in 38 years.

Given the present climate in America, debates around the merits of his execution, and the larger issue of capital punishment in America, will continue long after the May 16th execution (insha’Allah). For advocates of capital punishment the McVeigh case will provide fertile ammunition for years to come. The Timothy McVeigh case, however, is only one, in an unfortunate pantheon of many. The case of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin is yet another.

In this final part of our report on Imam Jamil and the Death Penalty, we would like to explore in objective, analytical detail why we consider even the pursuit of a death penalty to be totally inappropriate. We will begin with what appears to be the state’s most potent weapon for conviction; the eyewitness identification of the surviving deputy (Aldranon English).

The “Vagaries” of Eyewitness Identification

“The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification. ” Justice William Brennan

In the 1902 Professor von Liszt experiment in Berlin Germany – widely considered to be a landmark study in the psychology of eyewitness testimony – out of a large seminar class of male students, the one with the best recollection of the classroom drama made errors on an estimated 26 percent of the significant details. As a German American scholar at Harvard University, Hugo Munsterberg, would later write:

“Words were put into the mouths of men who had been silent spectators during the whole short episode; actions were attributed to the chief participants of which not the slightest trace existed; and essential parts of the tragi-comedy were completely eliminated from the memory of a number of witnesses.”

There is another more recent experiment in the realm of human psychology that is even more compelling. On December 19, 1974, a short documentary film was shown on an NBC affiliate in New York. As described in the book entitled Actual Innocence, co-authored by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer (pg. 43):

“A young woman walks in a hallway. A man lurks in a doorway, wearing a hat, leather jacket, and sneakers. The man bursts from the doorway, grabs the woman’s handbag, and runs straight toward the camera, full-faced. The entire incident lasts twelve seconds. After the film was shown, the show presented a lineup of suspects. The viewers were provided with a phone number and asked to choose the culprit from among those six, or to say that he wasn’t in the lineup. ‘We were swamped with calls, ‘ Robert Buckhout, a professor at Brooklyn College, who organized the experiment, would later write. They unplugged the phone after receiving 2,145 calls.”

As it turns out the actual thief (who was in the lineup in position number two) received a grand total of 302 votes, or 14.1 percent of the total votes cast. Professor Buckhout would later write an article with the following headline: “Nearly 2000 Witnesses Can Be Wrong.” What is even more amazing, is that when Buckhout reportedly used the same purse-snatching documentary with panels of lawyers and judges, he reported similar inaccuracy!

“Unconscious Transference”

Elizabeth Loftus, one of the leading researchers in this field of study, illustrated the phenomenon of unconscious transference, in which the mind drafts a vaguely familiar face to play a role that could not otherwise be cast. She extracted a case from real life to illustrate how this works. A railroad ticket agent who had been robbed at gunpoint ended up identifying a sailor as his assailant. On the day of the robbery, however, the sailor had been away at sea. To the psychologists who reviewed this case, the sailor had been an obvious victim of the unconscious transference phenomenon. He was the one picked out from the lineup, because his face was the most familiar one to the ticket agent. As it turns out the sailor was based near the railroad station, and had purchased tickets from that very agent three times before the robbery.

On the night of March 16, 2000, deputies Kinchen and English were on the West End to serve a warrant for the arrest of Imam Jamil. The same Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin who was wrongfully charged and paraded before the cameras five years earlier. Is it possible that when Deputy English identified a photograph of Imam Jamil as his assailant – within hours of the tragedy, and while still in the intensive care unit of Grady Memorial Hospital – that his identification fit the profile of “unconscious transference?” Only Allah Knows. What we know is that the “facts” as they have so far been presented simply don’t add up!

Facts such as the following:

  • the wounded assailant and the blood issue (“Now we see it, now you don’t”);
  • the 911 report(s), on the night of the incident, of a bleeding, pleading mystery man – begging for a ride within blocks and minutes of the deadly encounter;
  • the inconsistent accounts of how the tragedy supposedly unfolded;
  • police radio transmissions which suggested that more than one person might be involved;
  • the long suppressed confession to the shooting of both officers (and subsequent recantation), made by a felon now imprisoned in the state of Nevada or California;
  • the inconsistent identification accounts rendered by the state’s star witness (Deputy Aldranon English).

Then we have the character of police agencies themselves (both federal and local). The year 2000 Human Rights Watch report (“Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States”) examined common obstacles to accountability for police abuse in fourteen large cities (Atlanta included), and came to the following conclusion: “Police brutality is persistent in all of these cities.” As for the feds, Mayor Campbell of Atlanta confided a few months back, during the course of radio interview, that it is a well known fact among many African Americans that, “the FBI has never been a friend” of the black community.

“O you who believe! If a wicked person [or agents of an unreputable government entity] comes to you with any news, ascertain the facts, lest you harm people unwittingly and afterwards become full of repentance for what you have done.” (The Sacred Qur’an, 49:6)

And then for the final clincher. Despite the presence of all of these grounds for reasonable doubt, the Fulton County States Attorneys’ Office, led by Paul Howard, insists upon pursuing the death penalty in this case; and further, denying Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin even the modicum elements of fundamental due process, and his constitutionally guaranteed right to “a presumption of innocence.”

If Imam Jamil is found to be innocent – as his many supporters hope and expect he will be – he would have been imprisoned for almost two years by the time this whole tragic ordeal comes to an end. Given his stature and long term ties to the community, this will only add to the many other injustices permeating this case! In my humble opinion, it all underscores the undeniable, deeply rooted political nature of this case.

We in America often boast of how the U.S. system of “justice” is head and shoulders above the rest; and this may be so (comparatively speaking). However, much too often our adversarial system of jurisprudence has revealed itself to be not so much about uncovering the facts, discovering the truth, and establishing justice; far too often the goal is winning by any means necessary. This is a negative paradigm that people of conscience must painstakingly oppose in this particular case. It’s not just a test for Imam Jamil. It is a test for us all.


A Final Damning Afterthought:

On Monday, May 7, 2000, Jeffrey Todd Pierce, 39, was freed from prison after spending 15 years for a rape that he never committed, based apparently in large part on the testimony of a former Oklahoma police chemist, Joyce Gilchrist, who testified in 1986 that the rapist’s hair was “microscopically consistent” with Pierce’s hair. Recent DNA analysis on hair and semen taken from the crime scene has proven otherwise.

Gilchrist who is now an administrator, is on paid leave during an investigation. She testified in the cases of 12 inmates who are currently on death row in Oklahoma, and 11 who have already been executed. An FBI report said Gilchrist’s testimony in this and at least five other cases “went beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science.” (source: The Washington Post, 5/8/01, A24)