40 Years a Prisoner

The new HBO documentary looks at what happened before, during, and after the 1978 MOVE shootout in Philadelphia.


In 1978, a conflict between the city of Philadelphia and the black anarcho-primitivist group MOVE, which had already featured a police blockade aimed at evicting the movement's followers by starving them out, culminated in a shootout that killed Officer James Ramp. The HBO documentary 40 Years a Prisoner looks at what happened before, during, and after that confrontation, tracking efforts to free the nine MOVE members who were convicted of third-degree murder in connection with Ramp's death.

Mayor Frank Rizzo, an authoritarian former police commissioner who took every opportunity to escalate tensions, threatened to use deadly force against MOVE members who resisted eviction, "children or not." He ordered MOVE's headquarters demolished immediately after the shootout, possibly destroying crucial evidence.

It remains disputed who killed Ramp. Former Mayor Wilson Goode doesn't buy the official story, saying he believes the officer was hit by friendly fire.

The MOVE defendants, who were prone to profane outbursts against the legal system, did not do a very good job of representing themselves. After the bench trial they requested, Judge Edwin Malmed imposed 30-to-100-year sentences on all nine, reasoning that they must have "acted in concert" because they considered themselves members of the same "family." Two of them died in prison, while the rest were released after four decades.

District Attorney Ed Rendell, whose subsequent career included stints as mayor and governor, initially claimed the cops had shown "extremely commendable restraint." His office nevertheless prosecuted three officers who were caught on film savagely beating an unarmed, surrendering MOVE member. A judge acquitted them in a directed verdict that Rendell describes as legally indefensible. "If that had happened today," he says, "people would have gone wild."