A day before a key Senate vote on President Obama's nomination of Debo Adegbile to head a key Justice Department post, civil rights leaders moved to defuse opposition based on his link to appeals filed on behalf of Philadelphia cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Adegbile is "one of the preeminent civil rights attorneys of his generation," Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters Wednesday in a news conference.
Henderson said opponents of Adegbile's nomination as chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division were using the always-volatile case of Abu-Jamal to "shout down" and "hijack" the nomination.
Adegbile was on the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when it submitted three briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing against Abu-Jamal's death sentence for the Dec. 19, 1981, murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25.
Adegbile told the Senate committee on Jan. 8 he had no direct role in writing the briefs. All three involved the fairness of the death sentence, not Abu-Jamal's guilt, Adegbile said.
The nomination will be up for a vote Thursday before the Senate's Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether it should be considered by the full Senate.
John Dixon, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and chief of police in Petersburg, Va., said "the attacks on Adegbile's person are unnecessary and his qualifications are clear."
Dixon said Adegbile was being criticized for doing the "job which he has sworn to do, upholding the Constitution."
Joining Henderson and Dixon were Mark Perriello, head of the American Association of People With Disabilities; Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of New York-based LatinoJustice PRLDEF; and Fatima Goss-Graves, vice president for Education and Employment for the National Women's Law Center.
All the speakers emphasized the Civil Rights Division's importance as the agency that enforces a range of laws guaranteeing the rights of voters, racial, ethnic and gender minorities, and the disabled, as well as the relationship of citizens to the federal government.
Cartagena, for example, cited Adegbile's ability to work with Republicans and Democrats in reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act and his advocacy for the law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wednesday's news conference came two days after U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat, joined with the state and Philadelphia lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police in opposing Adegbile.
Toomey said Adegbile's involvement with Abu-Jamal's case "raises serious questions about his judgment and fitness to execute the duties of assistant attorney general."
Williams called Adegbile's credentials "impressive," but 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."
Abu-Jamal's death sentence was reversed in 2001 by a federal judge in Philadelphia. The judge ruled that the trial judge's jury instructions were unfair and made it more likely the jury would impose a death sentence. The decision gave the District Attorney's Office the choice of conducting a new sentencing hearing or letting Abu-Jamal serve life in prison without parole.
The District Attorney's Office appealed the ruling up to the Supreme Court, which in 2011 refused to overturn the federal judge's decision.
In early 2012, Williams, with the agreement of Maureen Faulkner, the slain officer's widow, and FOP officials, announced that his office would drop appeals and allow Abu-Jamal, now 59, to serve a life term.