President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division led the group that represents convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Debo Adegbile, who awaits Senate confirmation to become assistant attorney general for civil rights in Eric Holder’s DOJ, would bring a radical record on racial issues to his new job, which is responsible for enforcing federal discrimination statutes.
Currently senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Adegbile worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), a civil rights law firm independent of the NAACP, from 2001 to May 2013. He served as director of litigation under president John Payton when LDF took on Abu-Jamal’s case in 2011. In his role at the time, Adegbile “oversees the legal program and supervises the legal staff in the areas Criminal, and Economic Justice, Education, and Political Participation, while remaining actively engaged in litigation and advocacy.”
Abu-Jamal, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was convicted for the December 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, stemming from a shootout that resulted after Abu-Jamal approached Faulkner, who had pulled over Abu-Jamal’s younger brother at a traffic stop.
In addition to his membership in the Black Panther Party, Abu-Jamal was loosely associated with the Philadelphia based separatist organization MOVE. While supporters describe him as a journalist, Abu-Jamal was driving a taxi at the time he murdered Faulkner. He has since become an iconic figure in the left-wing media and activist circles.
“Abu-Jamal supporters are very encouraged by the fact that a case that officially began almost 30 years ago, on December 9, 1981, is being given the kind of attention and resources that the LDF, the premier legal organization fighting for racial justice in this country, is now devoting to this important case,” according to blackradionetwork.com.
At the time, Payton said, “Mumia Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence are relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination. Unless and until courts acknowledge and correct these historic injustices, death sentences like Mr. Abu-Jamal’s will invite continued skepticism of the criminal justice system by the African-American community.”
LDF Criminal Justice director Christina Swarns successfully fought to commute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence to life imprisonment in 2012.
When Payton died on March 22, 2012, Adegbile took over as acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
On March 26, 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected LDF’s attempt to appeal Abu-Jamal’s capital murder conviction, but LDF under acting president Adegbile reportedly refused to stop fighting for him.
“Although this decision concludes all of Mr. Abu-Jamal’s pending appeals, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. and Prof. Judy Ritter are actively researching and investigating all options for future legal challenges to Mr. Abu-Jamal’s conviction,” according to a contemporaneous report on FreeMumia.com.
On April 16, 2012, Adegbile joined his colleagues and Attorney General Eric Holder — who read remarks sent from President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama — in speaking at the Washington Convention Center for a tribute to Payton.
According to a contemporaneous NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund event summary, the “point” of Adegbile’s speech “was reinforced briefly but powerfully when the next speaker, Christina Swarns, director of LDF’s Criminal Justice Practice, read a hand-written note she had received from Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
“I was off death row, and, thanks to John, represented by one of the most respected civil rights litigation agencies in America. But life is, if anything, unpredictable. Within weeks of my leaving death row, news came of the passing of John Payton. To call it a shock would be an understatement… John Payton shows us that a great impact cannot be measured by time. He brought depth and insight that will continue to radiate not just through the agency but through many of its clients. I know. I am one of them, and I am thankful for our time together,” Abu-Jamal stated in his remarks.
LDF continued to represent Abu-Jamal under Adegbile’s acting presidency. Though he turned over the presidency of the group to Sherrilyn Ifill in November 2012, he remained with the Fund until May 2013, during which time LDF attorney Swarns filed another appeal challenging Abu-Jamal’s sentencing in February 2013.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund still acts as Abu-Jamal’s current legal counsel, according to Freemumia.com.
Adegbile, who once said that “the Voting Rights Act is Alabama’s gift to this country” and also said that Martin Luther King, Jr. would not want the United States to “blow up the bridge” of affirmative action, is a New York University Law School graduate who cut his teeth as part of the legal team in NAACP v. Harris, which won “certain improvements in Florida’s election system” after the 2000 Bush-Gore election, on behalf of minority voters.
As noted by staunch Adegbile critic J. Christian Adams, Adegbile filed a U.S. Supreme Court brief as acting director-counsel of LDF in which he successfully argued against plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher, a white woman who claimed that the University of Texas Law School’s Affirmative Action admissions policy prevented her from gaining admission.
Adegbile defended his position in the case with an MSNBC.com guest column in which he used personal experience to tout the benefits of diversity.
“As I reached out to hug a [soccer] teammate who was walking apart from the group he turned and snapped at me ‘get off me, you fuzzy foreigner,’” Adegbile wrote.
“This incident was well over twenty years ago, but I remember it clearly. We were both people of modest means who loved the game, but in the blink of an eye, our similarities seemed to be meaningless. While my life in The Bronx, New York may have been ‘foreign’ to the experience of my teammate who was from a different part of the country, it was undoubtedly my race, and perhaps my name that caused him, reflexively, to refer to me as something other than a teammate,” Adegbile added, before describing the friendship that they went on to develop.
“We would later travel to his hometown during a school vacation. Years later, at his request, I vouched for his character when he sought admission to his state’s bar,” Adegbile wrote. “This story is a window into a larger American challenge and the difficulties we encounter when we fail to develop tools for productive cross-racial interactions. In the absence of opportunities to understand people based upon experiences, we run the risk of reducing them to stereotypical assumptions about their most obvious feature, which is often their race… America is better and stronger when the pathways to educational opportunity are visibly open to everyone. We cannot and should not waiver from this important path to educational opportunity — as the Supreme Court has previously explained, nothing less than the future of the nation depends upon it.”
A message left for Adegbile at the Senate Judiciary Committee was not returned over the weekend.