An Extreme Attack on the Right to Counsel

Mumia Abu Jamal can’t keep himself out of the news. 31 years after a death sentence was imposed on him for the killing of Officer Daniel Faulkner, three years after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing, 2 ½ years after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office chose not to seek another death sentence against him, but rather to have him live the rest of his life in prison, Mr. Jamal got 756 hits in a Google news search this morning. The latest kerfuffle concerns one of his former lawyers, Debo Adegbile, who President Obama has nominated to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. It seems that Mr. Adegbile’s association with the Legal Defense Fund, which successfully represented Mr. Jamal, disqualifies him from working for the Department of Justice. The Legal Defense Fund, of course, is the former legal arm of the NAACP, legendary for successful civil and human rights battles against segregation, discrimination and the death penalty. Could it really be that his work with such an organization would disqualify him from running the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice? Apparently yes.

Or so the usual suspects would have it. The National Fraternal Order of Police called his nomination “a thumb in the eye of our nation’s law enforcement.” The Major County Sheriff’s Association attributed the overturning of Mr. Jamal’s death sentence “to the manipulation of the justice system by the Legal Defense Fund.” The National Association of Police Organizations claimed that Adegbile’s efforts “led to the overturning of the just sentence Abu-Jamal received for murdering a valuable member of the law enforcement community.”

And then there was the Wall Street Journal op-ed by the not-so-odd couple of Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams. “Let there be no mistake,” they bravely proclaimed. “Our concern is not based on the fact that Mr. Adegbile acted as an attorney for a criminal defendant. The right to counsel is a fundamental part of America’s criminal justice system, and no lawyer should be faulted for the crimes of his clients.” Of course their op-ed was not a staunch defense of the right to counsel, as they quickly noted: “But it is one thing to provide legal representation and quite another to seize on a case and turn it into a political platform from which to launch an extreme attack on the justice system.”

So it seems appropriate and even necessary to take a closer look at the “extreme attack on the justice system” that led to a reduction from a death sentence to life in prison for Mumia Abu Jamal. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the land, found that Mr. Jamal’s jury was misinformed about how it should consider the evidence it was given. Not exactly an extreme attack on the justice system; or an extreme result, for that matter, given that Pennsylvania has seen more than 100 death sentences reversed.  And who were these judicial rebels who took the law into their own hands and created such havoc? The three judges were Ambro, Scirica, and Cowen, who combined had 59 years serving on the Third Circuit at the time of their decision in the Jamal case. The latter two, Judges Scirica and Cowen, were nominated by that legendary rabble-rouser, Ronald Reagan.

Which makes it all the more disappointing to hear that Senator Robert Casey, a Democrat and a man we would expect far more from, relented to the bombardment of irrational argument and pressure and announced his decision to vote against the nomination of Debo Adegbile. Taking a page from Toomey and Williams, Casey noted his “respect that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime.” Nonetheless, he went on, “Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country (must) have full confidence in their public representatives – both elected and appointed.” He released his decision to the media late Friday afternoon, so as to garner the minimum amount of press. It is this sort of courage that makes one proud to be a Pennsylvanian.

All is not lost, however. The Senate will still vote on the nomination this Tuesday, and even without the brave Mr. Casey there is a bare majority of Democrats in that august body. Assuming Mr. Adegbile doesn’t represent anyone else facing execution between now and then, he still has a chance to prevail.