Mumia Abu-Jamal has long been a living litmus test for whether people really want justice. Convicted in what even the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time was calling a terribly unfair trial over the alleged killing a white police officer, and sentenced to death by a racially biased and bloodthirsty “hanging” judge, Albert Sabo, Abu-Jamal spent 30 years on Philadelphia’s death row, always in solitary confinement, until a federal court, backed by the US Supreme Court, finally vacated the sentence, switching it to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
When the court tossed out Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, the reasons given were faulty jury instructions by the judge and a flawed jury sentencing form that the federal court believed could have led jurors to mistakenly believe that they could not individually oppose the death penalty, but would have to unanimously agree to oppose it. (In fact the opposite is true: any one juror in a death penalty sentencing can block execution by opposing the sentence, while death can only by imposed by a unanimous vote of the jury.)
This was an important ruling that upheld the “integrity” (such as it is) of the capital punishment system. It didn’t correct for the three decades that Abu-Jamal spent, wrongfully and unconstitutionally, in the hell-hole of Pennsylvania’s Death Row, but it at least ended that cruel and unusual torment, substituting another — life without parole.
Now one of the attorneys who helped craft the legal case that ultimately led to the lifting of that unconstitutional sentence, Philadelphia attorney Debe Adegbile, has been nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department. Adegbile, on the merits, is an excellent choice for the post. A long-time civil rights litigator, well versed in the issues that the division is responsible for dealing with, he has also served with distinction as senior counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Adegbile’s nomination has predictably aroused the wrath of the right-wing media and the pro-cop fanatics in Congress and elsewhere because of one thing he did, which was to volunteer to assist the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in developing its argument in federal court for overturning Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.
UPDATE: On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee, voting 10-8 along party lines, approved Adegbile’s nomination. ignoring a belated attempt by the Fraternal Order of Police (an organization that hasn’t met the brutal or corrupt cop it won’t defend as a maligned “hero”), to get Maureen Faulkner, widow of the police officer Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, to be able to testify against Adegbile. With the filibuster no longer available for stopping votes on nominees, it is likely Adegbile will be approved for the Civil Rights post.
Never mind that the arguments Adegbile and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund presented to the federal court were found to be correct, and that in fact the court found that Abu-Jamal had been improperly and unconstitutionally sentenced to death. For the right-wingers and for the political charlatans for whom police are all to be held up as heroes, regardless of their abuses and corruption, taking the side of a “cop-killer” disqualifies anyone from holding a post in government.
Here in Pennsylvania, this toxic attitude is particularly virulent.
No sooner did Obama nominate Adegbile than the state’s self-described “Tea Party” Sen. Pat Toomey said he opposed it. Toomey was joined by another cop apologist, Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams. Williams, who of all people, as a top lawyer in a city of lawyers, should know better, wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Sen. Patrick Leahey (D-VT), in which he called the nominee’s credentials “impressive,” but then said “His decision to champion the cause of an extremist cop-killer…sends a message of contempt to police officers who risk their lives every day to maintain the peace.”
Right. Tell that to Darrin Manning, the 16-year-old straight-A high school honor student and basketball player who, as my colleague Linn Washington wrote in TCBH! yesterday, lost a testicle and may end up sterile because of a police woman’s abuse in which she yanked down violently on his scrotum during a “frisking,” part of a routine stop-and-frisk on the sidewalk. Williams has been a defender of the city’s “stop and frisk” policy, which has been seen cops harassing young minority males for years, often leading to this kind of police abuse.
In any event, Williams obviously knows that it is the responsibility of attorneys to offer volunteer legal assistance where they see a need, and clearly, as the courts have stated, there was an egregious constitutional violation in Abu-Jamal’s death sentencing. Adegbile saw that violation and volunteered to help right it. Had he seen that constitutional violation and not done anything about it, as all too many gutless lawyers have done for years in Philadelphia, he would have been negligent and violative of the oath of office taken by every attorney admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. That oath, which makes attorneys technically “officers of the court,” reads, in part:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth…”
That, of course, as Williams well knows, is exactly what Adegbile was doing when he sought to have Abu-Jamal’s sentence overturned on constitutional grounds. (Although let’s be clear here: What Williams is saying in his letter to Sen. Leahey is that if a person is on the Fraternal Order of Police “hate” list, like abu-Jamal is, anyone who tries to defend that person’s civil and human rights is showing “contempt for police.” — an astonishingly craven position for a prosecutor sworn to “seek justice” to be taking.)
Sen. Toomey is not an attorney. He’s a businessman. But he did go to Harvard, and as a student at such a top school, he presumably studied politics and history and knows that the Constitution is the nation’s founding document, and that defending someone whose inalienable rights were violated, as the federal courts, right up to the Supreme Court, have determined Abu-Jamal’s have been in the case of his death sentence, if not in his conviction, was a noble act.
No matter. In the small, shabby, morally desiccated political world of Washington and Philadelphia, anyone who defends Mumia Abu-Jamal is considered a contemptible advocate of “cop killing.”
The real crime here is that Abu-Jamal is still languishing in prison with a life sentence, thanks to a 1982 trial and subsequent appeals process that was fatally contaminated by multiple cases of prosecution misconduct, coached perjury by prosecution witnesses, including police officers, obstruction of the defense by the trial judge, interference in the appeals process by the state’s governor, misconduct by the state’s top judge, who refused to recuse himself from considering Abu-Jamal’s appeal despite his having been Philly’s DA at the time it was moving through the lower courts and the his office played the lead role in arguing against it, and a jury selection process in which the prosecution deliberately excluded qualified jurors from being seated simply because of their race.
But none of that is at issue in the case of Adegbile’s nomination to head the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, as his legal involvement in the case was solely about the death sentence. And the issue there is whether a couple of rank charlatans, Toomey and Williams, claiming that his voluntary legal assistance in a victorious appeal of a factually established unconstitutional death sentence is simply an example of his “championing the cause of an extremist cop-killer.”
The only proper way to characterize the opposition to Adegbile’s nomination by Sen. Toomey and DA Williams is “disgusting pandering.”
Dave Lindorff is the author of the critically-acclaimed book “Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal” (Common Courage Press, 2003).