If It’s Okay that John Roberts Defended a Mass Murderer, Why was Debo Adegbile Rejected by the Senate for Defending a Cop Killer?

Monday, March 17, 2014
Debo Adegbile (photo: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.)

The U.S. Senate has decided that what was an honorable thing to do for John Adams and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is somehow intolerable when it’s done by one of President Barack Obama’s sub-cabinet nominees.


Debo Adegbile, who represented cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal on appeal, was on March 5 blocked from becoming the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined with all the Senate’s Republicans in filibustering the nomination of Adegbile, who was recognized as one of the country’s leading civil rights attorneys.


Adegbile’s flaw appeared to be that as a member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, he worked on an appeal for Abu-Jamal that resulted in his sentence for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner being commuted from death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court ruled that the instructions given the jury at his original trial were improper. The commutation was the source of much opposition to Adegbile from right-wing media and Faulkner’s widow.


However, Roberts represented a killer of eight, John Errol Ferguson, in Florida on appeal. This wasn’t seen as a problem during Roberts’ 2005 confirmation hearings. Ferguson was executed in 2013. Similarly, Adams, who later became the second president of the United States, represented British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. He did so because of his belief that all accused deserve to be represented by counsel.


“The part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough,” Adams wrote. “It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.”


Some in law enforcement endorsed Adegbile. “The attacks on Mr. Adegbile’s character for upholding one’s constitutional rights are troubling. To take away one’s right to a proper defense because of the act committed, is against the constitutional oath that we as law enforcement officials have sworn to protect and defend,” said John Dixon, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.


There might be other reasons for opposing Adegbile’s nomination, however. Abu-Jamal, who has written several books, has become a lightning rod for the law-and-order crowd. Adegbile has been accused by the right of sharing Abu-Jamal’s politics. Also, it might be that law enforcement fears that Adegbile would be more vigorous in investigating civil rights violations by police.


Adegbile worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 2001 to 2013. He argued his first case before the Supreme Court in 2009, defending the Voting Rights Act. As a child, he played one of the neighborhood kids on Sesame Street.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

A Past Client Is Used Against an Obama Nominee (by Adam Serwer, MSNBC)

Democrats Join Republicans in High-Tech Lynching of Black Nominee (by William Boardman, Reader Supported News)

John Adams and the Boston Massacre (American Civil Liberties Union)


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