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Abu-Jamal appellate work derails lawyer’s nomination to lead DOJ Civil Rights Division

Posted Mar 5, 2014 1:59 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: Debo Adegbile’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been blocked amid controversy over the lawyer's appellate work on behalf of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Eight Democrats joined Republicans to block Adegbile in a procedural vote, the Washington Post reports. Among those voting against Adegbile was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid's switch from a yes to a no vote allows him to bring up the nomination at a later date, the story says.

Also voting against the nomination was U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a police officer during a Philadelphia traffic stop in 1981. Since then, Abu-Jamal's death sentence was overturned and he has become “an internationally recognized political lightning rod,” the Washington Post reported before the vote. Supporters see him as a victim of a discriminatory criminal justice system, while opponents see him as a cop killer.

The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund represented Abu-Jamal after his conviction, and the group’s work continued after Adegbile joined the staff in 2001, the Post says. Adegbile contributed to a 2009 brief in the case. The story says Adegbile’s involvement was limited and came after Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was overturned.

Also opposing Adegbile is U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who explained his position in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Toomey wrote that Adegbile was “an active part of Abu-Jamal's legal team, signing legal briefs and supervising the other, more junior LDF lawyers.”

“This was not a case of every defendant deserving a lawyer: Abu-Jamal already had multiple attorneys,” Toomey wrote. “This was about joining a political cause. As part of this cause, the lawyers supervised by Adegbile promoted the myth that Abu-Jamal was an innocent man who was framed because of his race.”

In a statement issued after the vote, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill said she was deeply disappointed by the outcome. "Unfortunately, Adegbile has been subjected to an unfair smear campaign," Ifill said. "The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's involvement in Mumia Abu-Jamal's case reflects its institutional commitment to ensuring that the criminal justice system is administered fairly and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution for all Americans, no matter how controversial."

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