1981 shooting of officer takes center stage as Senate debates Obama civil rights nominee


Debo Adegbile, right, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 8. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It has been more than 32 years since police officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over a blue Volkswagen driving through Philadelphia’s Red Light District just after 3:50 a.m.

But the fallout from that famous traffic stop — which left Faulkner shot dead on the pavement and journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal sentenced to death for murder — will be a key element of a debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, when President Obama’ s choice to be the nation’s top civil rights lawyer comes up for a confirmation vote.

In the decades since the 1981 murder, Abu-Jamal, now 59, has successfully petitioned to have his death sentence thrown out and has transformed himself into an internationally recognized political lightning rod — hailed by many as a political prisoner and a victim of a criminal justice system that discriminates by race.

Others regard Abu-Jamal as a celebrity cop killer whose fame spits in the face of the nation’s police officers.

Once considered the world’s best-known death row inmate, Abu-Jamal has written books from his prison cell, had his cause championed by prominent civil rights advocates including Cornel West and Desmond Tutu, and had a street in Paris named in his honor.

And now his case is threatening Debo P. Adegbile’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Adegbile, a voting rights expert and former director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, was involved in a handful of the dozens of appeals and court briefs filed on behalf of Abu-Jamal. The nomination has been opposed by national law enforcement groups.

Under new Senate rules approved in November, Adegbile will need to secure a simple majority of senators — 51 votes — to clear a procedural hurdle before he is confirmed. But he is at risk of falling short of the votes needed because he cannot count on Democrats, especially those locked in vulnerable reelection bids, to support their president’s choice.

The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund began providing counsel to Abu-Jamal well after his conviction — filing appeals and briefs dealing with whether he received a fair trial. That work began before Adegbile, 47, joined the staff in 2001. He did, however, contribute to the filing of a 2009 court brief that argued that Abu-Jamal’s jury was improperly instructed. A judge later found that the appeal had merit.

Although Adegbile’s involvement was limited — and came well after Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was overturned — his nomination has faced opposition mounted by Faulkner’s widow, the Fraternal Order of Police and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).

But a real sign of trouble for the nomination in the Democratic-controlled Senate came last week, when Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said he would not vote for confirmation.

“The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia,” Casey said in a statement. “After carefully considering this nomination and having met with both Mr. Adegbile as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, I will not vote to confirm the nominee.”

Several prominent Republicans are expected to speak in opposition to the nomination before the vote, and that could put Democrats in moderate and conservative states who face tough reelection bids this year in a tough spot.

Democratic senators considered to be facing a difficult vote include: Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Mark R. Warner (Va.). None of them responded to requests Tuesday for comment on how they would vote on Adegbile’s confirmation.

But several prominent Republicans eagerly filled the silence, taking to the lectern at the front of the Senate chambers to deliver a series of addresses on Tuesday afternoon opposing Adegbile.

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) noted that Adegbile is the first federal appointee whom the Fraternal Order of Police has vocally opposed in 17 years and called Faulkner’s killing “an act of unmatched brutality.” Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said Adegbile’s participation in the 2009 Abu-Jamal court filings raise “serious questions” about his ability to fairly apply civil rights laws. And Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a tea party darling, described the NAACP’s work on behalf of Abu-Jamal as “extreme and radical advocacy, not legal representation.”

In the longest of the floor addresses — which included the reading of a letter from Faulkner’s widow — Toomey pleaded with Democratic senators to reject the nomination as a measure of respect for the officer.

“I agree that the justice system has failed,” Toomey said as he stood next to a black-and-white photo of the Faulkners. “But it has failed officer Danny Faulkner and his family.”

Further complicating the decision for vulnerable Senate Democrats is the support Adegbile’s nomination has received from the Congressional Black Congress and other civil rights organizations.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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