On March 5, 2014, the Senate failed to confirm President Obama’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Debo Adegbile. The Senate blocked Mr. Adegbile’s nomination purportedly because the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Adegbile formerly worked, succeeded in commuting the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted of killing a police officer. The Senate’s failure to recognize that Adegbile’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund tenure uniquely qualified him for this position is disturbing; Mr. Adegbile’s prior work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund should have been an asset, not a liability, in considering his qualifications for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
As lawyers, we know that one of our most basic rights is that everyone is entitled to legal counsel when liberty is at stake. Because race plays a well-documented role in death penalty cases, it is vital that organizations such as the NAACP LDF vigilantly pursue due process errors. In the case of Abu-Jamal, the NAACP successfully challenged an unconstitutional jury instruction that resulted in his death sentence, and then twice successfully defended the ruling in a federal appeals court.
In the past few weeks, there have been at least a half dozen New York Law Journal cover stories on criminal trial irregularities, resulting in the reversal of convictions and/or scheduling of new trials. Public interest organizations are essential in exposing, challenging, and correcting these mistakes. The Puerto Rican Bar Association is not arguing the merits of any individual case here. Instead, we wish to express our support for the non-profit organizations and individuals who work to research and remedy miscarriages of justice within the criminal defense system. These individuals have a difficult and often unpopular job, but their advocacy protects us all.
Many attorneys with the breadth and depth of criminal defense experience are the subjects of successful appointments (e.g. Chief Justice John Roberts). This begs the question, what perceived threat could possibly have caused the Senators to reject Adegbile and what role did the media play?
The negative momentum from partisan media successfully discredited a potentially outstanding public servant. As media platforms expand and continue to shape and define outcomes, advocates must simultaneously sharpen their ability to respond.
On May 1, 2014, the PRBA will sponsor a CLE entitled “How to Speak to the Media” which will explore ways to interact with the media to advance our client’s and community’s interests. An electronic invitation will follow. We hope you will join us for this timely discussion.