Public defenders know it could hurt them but they do it anyway
My first job at Kentucky DPA was as a law clerk for a small post-conviction unit in the central office in 1976. I worked for a time for a man named Ernesto Scorsone. Ernesto moved on to be a public defender in the office in Lexington, where he remained for awhile. An ambitious and articulate man, Ernesto eventually he ran for office and was elected to the Kentucky State House, and then the Senate. His eyes were on a higher office however. In 1998 he ran for Congress in the 6th District of Kentucky against another legislator, Ernie Fletcher. Fletcher, a future Kentucky Governor, ran an ad against Ernesto that I will never forget. A rape victim came on the screen and attacked Ernesto for having defended her rapist when he was a public defender. The ad was dramatic and effective. Ernesto lost. He went on to serve for many years in the State Senate and then was appointed by Governor Steve Beshear to be a Circuit Judge in Fayette County.
I remembered that ad this week when Debo P. Adegbile was rejected in the US Senate for the position of Chief of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice. Adegbile had been litigation direction of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a position formerly held by Thurgood Marshall. So why was he rejected by not only Republican but also Democratic Senators? It seems his fatal flaw is that LDF represented Mumia Abu-Jamal on appeal of his death sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer decades ago. Opposition came primarily from angry police officers, the widow of the deceased police officers, and Republicans in the Senate. The Fraternal Order of the Police released a letter blaming Adegbile for having defended the nation’s “most notorious cop killer” saying that he had “made his name defending one of the most notorious and unrepentant cop killers around.”
Notably, Adegbile was not even on the legal team that represented Abu-Jamal. The issue raised in a friend of the court brief by LDF was that African-Americans were not represented on the jury in a death penalty case. Their argument prevailed, and Abu-Jamal’s sentence was commuted.
So here’s how far we’ve come. John Adams represented nine British soldiers charged with killing American soldiers at the Boston Massacre, the most notorious case of its time. Now the litigation director of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organization which wins a case involving excluding citizens from juries because of their race, and as a result of that fact, he’s not fit to be confirmed. That’s shameful.
By the way, Adams would later write in his diary the following: "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.”
Today, Adams couldn’t be nominated much less elected to be President of the United States for his role as a defense lawyer.
One other thought. Public defenders know this but they do it anyway. They realize that at some point in time, they could be passed over for a judgeship but they do it anyway. They may harbor political ambitions but they represent the accused anyway. To all persons in public defense: what you do is “one of the best pieces of service” you will ever render to your country.