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Lawyer tied to Abu-Jamal withdraws as Obama nominee

WASHINGTON – Debo Adegbile, the civil rights attorney whose path to a high-profile post in the Obama administration was derailed by connections to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, has withdrawn as a nominee and joined a law firm.

Adegbile, whose nomination to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division was blocked by a charged Senate vote in March, joined Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP as a partner, the firm announced Monday.

"Debo Adegbile has withdrawn himself from consideration for a position at the Department of Justice, and we are actively working toward announcing a new nominee for the post," said a White House spokesperson. UPDATE: The White House later officially announced that Adegbile had withdrawn as a nominee.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) led the fight against Adegbile's nomination, landing an unlikely victory when he convinced Republicans and eight Democrats to oppose President Obama's nominee. Adegbile's nomination was blocked in a 52-47 vote, after a heated debate.

Republicans questioned Adegbile's fitness for the job, given the work that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had done under his watch for Abu-Jamal, convicted in the notorious 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Toomey led the argument that Adegbile had not only aided Abu-Jamal, but helped glorify the cop-killer who in some corners has become a cause célèbre. Toomey said Adegbile was part of an effort to discredit the U.S. justice system.

The nomination brought fierce opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police. Two Democrats from the Philadelphia area – Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.) -- voted against Adegbile, along with other Democrats from conservative states who feared being linked to a lawyer who could be tied to an infamous criminal.

Democrats fumed at the defeat, saying Adegbile was a qualified nominee who had followed the principle that even the most unpopular criminals deserve a defense, and that his role in the case had been horribly distorted. He was nominated to lead a division that works to ensure voting rights, enforce laws protecting the disabled, and guard against employer discrimination, among other duties related to civil rights.

Adegbile, a former child actor on Sesame Street and a teenager when Faulkner was killed, led the NAACP's defense fund when its attorneys helped Abu-Jamal's fight prosecutors' attempts to reinstate his death sentence. The death sentence had been thrown out five years before Adegbile got involved, and a court eventually sided with Abu-Jamal and Adegbile's team by declining to restore the sentence.

Adegbile signed three briefs in the case, though he had said he only supervised lawyers in the case. Toomey and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Adegbile was responsible for the actions of the attorneys who oversaw, and accused them of attempting to glorify Abu-Jamal.

In an interview with The Huffington Post Monday, Adegbile stood by his work in the Abu-Jamal case.

"I think if you look into it, it would be a rare situation in which somebody was blocked from public service for having successfully vindicated the Constitution of the United States," Adegbile told the Web site.

He suggested that neither he nor the White House expected his work on the case to become such a focus, and that it was not a major topic of concern during the vetting before he was nominated.

"In our system, you get counsel, you make your case to the court, and then the court rules and we agree as a society, as a civilized society, to abide by that rule of law. Therefore I don't think that there was a lot of focus in my participation in that defense as being disqualifying in any way," Adegbile said.

He also said he only found out moments before the Senate vote that his nomination was in trouble. After the vote, the White House faced sharp criticism that it was asleep at the switch while Toomey and others rallied opposition.

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