Sunday, March 1, 2015

A nomination is scuttled, but justice is the real victim

As Atticus Finch in ´To Kill a Mockingbird,´ Gregory Peck defends a black man accused of rape.
As Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Gregory Peck defends a black man accused of rape. Associated Press
As Atticus Finch in ´To Kill a Mockingbird,´ Gregory Peck defends a black man accused of rape. Gallery: A nomination is scuttled, but justice is the real victim
One old movie I usually can't help but watch if it is on TV is the film adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was a real treat when I returned home to Alabama a few years ago to attend a 50th anniversary celebration of the book's publication. Lee, a recluse, was a no-show. But I had a nice conversation with Mary Badham, who played the little girl, Scout, in the 1962 movie.

Scout narrates the story of her father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer who has to be persuaded to risk community outrage by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for playing Finch, though I think the principle his character represented had as much to do with his winning the Oscar as his absolutely outstanding acting.

That principle, recently assaulted in the U.S. Senate, is that every defendant, no matter how heinous the crime, has a constitutional right to question his conviction or sentence until he runs out of avenues to appeal. Most defendants run out fairly quickly due to the cost of competent counsel. But sometimes, organizations with an interest will provide legal aid.

That happened when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, nearly three decades after the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, joined an appeal of the death sentence given to Faulkner's murderer, Mumia Abu-Jamal. The appeal ended at the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which let stand a lower court ruling that allowed Abu-Jamal's sentence to be reduced to life imprisonment.

As disappointing as that development was to the family and friends of Faulkner, as well as to many in law enforcement who felt betrayed by the ruling, its impact won't touch nearly as many people as the odious exploitation of the Faulkner tragedy by politicians who in recent weeks have used it to benefit their personal agendas.

The ringleader was Sen. Pat Toomey, who used the tears of Faulkner's widow to fuel a smear campaign that derailed the nomination of former NAACP Legal Defense Fund litigation supervisor Debo Adegbile to head the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division.

I haven't met many people who are as knowledgeable yet humble as Adegbile. He was in Philadelphia last year to give the annual George Vashon lecture, sponsored by the Duane Morris law firm in honor of a 19th-century black lawyer who was denied entry into the bar in Pennsylvania.

It didn't matter to Toomey that it wasn't Adegbile's decision to represent Abu-Jamal. It didn't matter that all Adegbile did was add his signature to those on the Defense Fund's legal briefs. Adegbile never represented Abu-Jamal in a courtroom. Nor did he participate in rallies or make public comments in support of Abu-Jamal. That didn't stop Toomey from demonizing him.

Toomey convicted Adegbile of guilt by association, saying he should be punished because other Defense Fund lawyers under his supervision had participated in rallies in support of Abu-Jamal. He accused Defense Fund lawyers of distorting the facts during the appeal, a ludicrous accusation, which in essence questions the competency of the Third Circuit judges, including respected Reagan appointees Anthony Scirica and Robert Cowen.

Toomey's scorched-earth campaign to thwart the Adegbile appointment should put to rest any remaining conjecture that he is a moderate Republican who has been unfairly tarred by his past affiliation with the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Toomey's calling Adegbile an "extremist radical" was a love call to the right-wingers he expects to keep him in office.

That Toomey would go that route is disappointing, but understandable. As the old saying goes, dance with the one that brought you to the party. From that perspective, it is harder to accept the cowardly vote against Adegbile by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who said he was motivated by the still-open wounds the case has left in Philadelphia. Casey seemed more motivated by the thought of losing reelection votes to a law-and-order candidate.

Six other Democratic senators joined Casey to block Adegbile's nomination, including three who are up for reelection in the fall: Chris Coons of Delaware, who may again face tea-party favorite Christine O'Donnell; Mark Pryor of Arkansas; and John Walsh of Montana. The other three - Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin 3d of West Virginia - represent largely Republican states.

A bigger disappointment was Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who, in his zeal to prove his fealty to the Fraternal Order of Police, co-wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece with Toomey that blamed Adegbile for another Defense Fund lawyer's allegation that racism tainted Abu-Jamal's trial. This from the same man who last year tweeted a photo of himself wearing a hoodie to show support for slain black teenager Trayvon Martin, whose shooter was accused of racism.

I don't blame Faulkner's family for being upset with the international celebrity Abu-Jamal has received over the years. I understand them wanting to stand in the way of anyone seeming to benefit from Abu-Jamal's fame. But Adegbile isn't that person, and Williams and Toomey know that. Yet they led a campaign to portray the lawyer as something he is not for their personal benefit. Denying Adegbile this post won't ease the pain anyone feels over Faulkner's death.

There's a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where the father of the woman who alleges she was raped spits in the face of Atticus Finch for daring to defend her alleged attacker. By their actions, Toomey and Williams have figuratively spat in the face of a core tenet of American jurisprudence: that everyone is entitled to a vigorous and exhaustive defense. Unfortunately, too many people never get it.


Harold Jackson is editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board. hjackson@phillynews.com

215-854-2555 @harjerjac

Harold Jackson Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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