An Obama Justice Department Nominee Reignites Debate Over Mumia Abu-Jamal 

Debo Adegbile, Obama’s nominee for a post in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, worked on Abu-Jamal’s death row appeal in the 1980s.

Debo Adegbile
Debo Adegbile Alex Wong/Getty Images

The 1995 convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia was the scene of “a struggle for the soul of NABJ, a struggle between the nationalistic-activist and professional establishment wings of the association,” Wayne Dawkins wrote in “Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream,” his history of the group.

At issue was what stand the organization should take on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists who was on death row in the killing of a Philadelphia policeman.

On Wednesday, the Abu-Jamal case again demonstrated its power to ignite. It was cited in the U.S. Senate as reason enough to reject President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Adegbile had worked on Abu-Jamal’s death penalty appeal, prompting law enforcement officials to vigorously lobby the Democratic-controlled chamber in opposition to the nomination.

NABJ members, while not on the Senate floor, were again part of the debate.

The demagoguery of politicians exploiting the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner to score points toward their next election is blatant and sickening,” began an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, whose opinion page is led by NABJ member Harold Jackson.

The editorial continued, “It would be hard to find a better candidate for the position than Adegbile. But [Sen. Pat] Toomey (R., Pa.), Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and others say he should be disqualified because he was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s director of litigation when the organization advocated on behalf of Faulkner’s killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal, during appeals of his conviction.

“The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is no fly-by-night group. It is held in high esteem for the historic work that led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation. That case was argued by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who later became the high court’s first black justice. Over the years, the Legal Defense Fund has added to its mission the pursuit of justice in criminal cases that may involve racial bias.

“Sometimes the organization is right; sometimes it is wrong. But its goal is commendable.

“To argue that Adegbile, one of the country’s foremost legal scholars — especially when it comes to civil rights law — should be disqualified from the Justice post because he participated in Abu-Jamal’s appeals is an affront to what it means to live in America. This country allows every convict to exhaustively appeal a verdict, even when all the prior evidence appears to have assured his guilt. . . .”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., read from an Inquirer editorial in defending the nominee.