The Senate recently blocked the confirmation of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Senator Pat Toomey led the charge against Adegbile, and his Democratic counterpart Bob Casey joined with six other Democrats to finish the job. Another victory for truth, justice and the American Way. There is a rumor that at least one senator broke a bone in his wrist when trying to slap himself on the back.
Who is Adegbile? Why has his nomination aroused so much enough emotion in the Senate? He was raised by his single Irish immigrant mother. His father was Nigerian. We like to brag in America that the opportunity is there to overcome the handicaps that life sometimes places upon us. Adegbile, one would think, fit that profile. He got his law degree and rose up the ranks to become the senior counsel on the staff of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2008, as a member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he argued in defense of the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court. And then he took a career move that is costing him big time. He became a visible force in trying to get the death sentence of notorious convicted Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal overturned.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had already been deeply involved in Abu-Jamal’s case when Adegbile arrived on the scene, but he played a key role. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was vacated by the court because of improper jury instruction. Adegbile argued unsuccessfully the verdict should be overturned because of “racial discrimination” by the jury.
To understand the deep feelings surrounding this case, you have to have lived in this city when it all went down on that fateful night of Dec. 9, 1981. Officer Daniel Faulkner was shot dead while conducting a traffic stop on Abu-Jamal’s brother. Abu-Jamal himself was injured. He was found guilty of having fired the fatal shot, and the case became an international sensation. Abu-Jamal had been a member of the Black Panthers Party, a noted journalist and head of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. He became the poster boy for the “injustice” of the judicial system and for doing away with capital punishment. Although upon appeal his death sentence was vacated, Abu-Jamal’s murder conviction was upheld. While in prison, he continues to publish books and commentaries. A film was produced proclaiming his innocence.
During this time Maureen Faulkner, the slain officer’s widow, the Fraternal Order of Police and some of the media fought against the Abu-Jamal publicity onslaught. In some ways, the case became a scab over the City’s race relations that has never quite healed. Along came the president’s nomination of the lawyer most closely identified in Abu-Jamal’s defense, and the scab has once again been picked raw.
I am the son of a decorated Philadelphia cop and have never wavered in believing Abu-Jamal got a fair trial and deserves to be behind bars. Although I’m against capital punishment, mainly because the sentence depends less on the guilt of the individual, than the amount of money one has to spend on a good defense lawyer, I have always felt Abu-Jamal was the wrong person to make that case. During the ’90s, I hosted a Sunday morning radio talk show on WWDB-FM. One morning in the midst of my heatedly arguing that Abu-Jamal was rightly convicted of murder, someone identifying herself as Ramona Africa called into the show. She claimed to have evidence proving Abu-Jamal’s innocence. I challenged her to get it to me and I would put her on the air with it. I am still waiting for the “evidence.” I have always thought that Maureen Faulkner has waged a courageous battle, the kind of which her husband would have been proud. I also believe, from a political standpoint, the president’s nomination of Adegbile was a losing fight he could ill afford now. Despite my feelings, I think the Senate was wrong in rejecting the nomination.
In America, everybody — no matter how heinous the crime — deserves the best legal representation. Emotions have run so high, one would have thought Adegbile had murdered Faulkner. Toomey and the opposition say they agree every defendant deserves the best legal representation, but then pay only lip service. Toomey claims Adegbile went outside the bounds of a defense counsel in vigorously defending Abu-Jamal. Nonsense. If Adegbile is passionate in arguing a case, I want him on our side. If you think he’s an SOB for taking Abu-Jamal’s side and doing it so well, I want him to be our SOB this time around defending all our civil rights.
By rejecting the nomination, the Senate has said. Any talented, ambitious attorney should now understand it’s best to avoid taking a case involving high profile unpopular defendants or causes or it might negatively affect your career. Abu-Jamal is the guilty party, not the man who defended him.
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