Free Mumia’s Lawyer!

The system doesn't work without defense attorneys like Debo Adegbile—even when bad defendants are involved.


As far as I know, Mumia Abu-Jamal is guilty, guilty, guilty of gunning down a Philly cop in cold blood back in 1981. The system doesn’t always get these things right — and I’m not sure it’s even worked perfectly in his case — but courts have examined and re-examined and re-examined his case over the decades, all without deciding, suddenly, that Abu-Jamal is innocent after all. If I had to bet, even at this late date, I’d bet on his guilt.

That said: I’m damn glad he’s had lawyers — some of them good ones — over the years.

Why? For one thing: The Constitution guarantees Abu-Jamal’s right to a lawyer. For good reason: The passing and execution of judgement on an accused person without affording them the chance to competently defend themselves at trial amounts to little more than a lynching. Our adversarial system forces police and prosecutors to prove a suspect’s guilt, forces them to justify the punishment he receives.

The system is wildly imperfect, for reasons we can talk about another time, but it requires — requires — that somebody serve as defense attorney in order to work. It requires that that defense attorney zealously represent their client. It requires those defense attorneys to buck popular opinion.

It requires somebody like Debo Adegbile, in other words.

Adegbile, who had a long career as a young actor on Sesame Street, has been named by President Obama to head the voter rights division. In an earlier part of his legal career, though, he served on the staff of the NAACP’s defense fund — which provided assistance to Abu-Jamal in his successful effort to overturn his death sentence.

Which apparently renders him unfit for further public service.

“Obama Nominates Cop Killer Advocate to Head DOJ Civil Rights Division,” snarled the headlines at the conservative

Adegbile’s nomination is “a direct affront to the thousands of law enforcement officials who serve in harm’s way to protect our families,” Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, wrote to President Obama.

Abu-Jamal’s “sentence — death — was undone by your nominee and others like him who turned the justice system on its head with unfounded and unproven allegations of racism,” added Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Let’s not dance around the issue here: What these folks are suggesting is that there is only one legitimate way to serve in the justice system — and that is to serve on the side of police and prosecutors. Doing the Constitutionally mandated work of providing a defense to those accused of crime, they’re saying, is wrong. It should disqualify those who perform it from any future office.

You almost get the idea these observers have little to no respect for the Constitution, or for the system of law they’re supposed to uphold.

We have these arguments all the time. When it came time for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo to begin facing trials a few years back, conservatives accused their lawyers — often American civilians, working pro bono — of siding with the terrorists against America. In their own minds, of course, the attorneys were trying to ensure that the system of law continued to work even in cases where defendants are ultimately unpopular.

So it’s worth remembering that one of the greatest patriots of all — John Adams, a Founder and the second president of the United States — spent part of his legal career defending the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre. Adams was hated for his decision. But he knew it was the right thing to do:

“The part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.”

If today’s conservatives — and their friends in the FOP — had their way, Adams’ career would’ve ended then. The United States would’ve been deprived of his wisdom and leadership during the country’s earliest days. We’d be a poorer country without Adams’ contributions.

I don’t know Adegibile; I’m not familiar with his work other than the facts named here. But I do believe that we will ultimately be a poorer country if we disqualify those talented Americans who serve their country — and the law — by working as defense attorneys. I’m glad Mumia Abu-Jamal is in prison. It’s Mumia’s lawyer I hope we can allow to be free, and to freely serve.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.