Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I didn't know defending a cop killer was incompatible with justice...

 Newsflash: representing someone convicted of murder and sentenced to death does not disqualify one from being appointed to the Department of Justice. Even if that convicted murderer is the "unrepentant cop killer" at the center of Philadelphia's most emotionally-charged, divisive case.

According to some Republicans and a whole host of law enforcement organizations, though, such an attorney is an "offensive choice" to join the DOJ. I trust you can guess what I think about that.

Debo Adegbile used to work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a leader in the national fight against the death penalty. The LDF doesn't just help train death penalty lawyers or work on national policy, it also represents individuals. One individual the LDF represented is Mumia Abu-Jamal, about as hot-button a death penalty defendant as there is. Mumia was on death row for decades after being convicted of murdering a cop, but his death sentence was abandoned for good in 2011.

Mumia's supporters insist his trial was a racist sham. Many maintain he is innocent, that he was targeted for his subversive speech. Law enforcement hates his guts, thinks he's an unrepentant cop killer. And, apparently, that representing him makes a defense attorney unfit for a job at the DOJ.

The DOJ job in question is in the Civil Rights Division. The nomination of Adegbile has been called a "slap in the face" to law enforcement (Carl Rowan, of the Washington Times) and sends a "message of contempt" to police officers (Seth Williams, Philadelphia DA).

Well, I find those comments to be a slap in the face to the defense bar, sending a message of contempt to the work we do. I'm not going to go down the road of arguing how much or how little Adegbile really did on the case, because that would be giving any credence to the idea that representing a particularly loathed defendant makes one unfit for a job with the Attorney General. It is obscene for prosecutors, Senators, and police to suggest that working on the other side of the adversarial process disqualifies that attorney from a government appointment.

I am so tired of being expected to defend what I do, of being treated like a punching bag, a nuisance, a barrier to justice rather than an essential part of it. It's bad enough to get thoughtless questions at cocktail parties, from people who aren't part of the system and just have never been taught any better. But prosecutors, police officer, and US Senators damn well ought to know better. They're supposed to know how the system works and why it's important. The adversary system doesn't work very well if there's no adversary. And no one should be satisfied with a system where the state's word for it goes without challenge. So if you believe all that, you shouldn't run around disparaging the people who do the challenging. You certainly shouldn't think doing that work is somehow fundamentally incompatible with pursuing justice.

Oh, and for the record, there was a fatal flaw in the way Mumia Abu-Jamal's jury was instructed, so it's a good thing those damn pesky lawyers at the LDF fought so hard for their client.

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