It is rare that the US Congress can do anything that gets me riled up anymore. I have come to expect so little from the institution, but today, the US Senate, by denying Debo Adegbile’s appointment to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, struck a blow at the heart of the American criminal justice system.
It is a basic tenet of our system of due process that all criminal defendants are entitled to competent representation. As the US Supreme Court noted in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938), “The average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect himself.” When they expanded the right of indigents to be provided with an attorney in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court noted that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” Since then the Court has tried to ensure that the representation received by those accused of crimes meets a minimum standard of competence. The reason for this is simple. Since most defendants do not have the knowledge or skill to adequately represent themselves, defense attorneys are needed to assert their rights and to try to ensure that only guilty defendants are convicted. Without defense lawyers, it would be a lot easier to convict the innocent (and it is already alarmingly easy to convict the innocent in the US).
Yet, it is performing this very task that was Debo Adegbile’s downfall. Opposition to his appointment came from police organizations because Adegbile once represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, who, despite shoddy evidence, was convicted in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, and sentenced to death. I am not writing to advocate for Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence. His culpability in the death of Officer Faulkner is not relevant to the discussion, despite Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s pleas to his colleagues in the Senate. Everyone accused of a crime in the United States is entitled to competent legal representation, no matter how heinous the alleged crime is and regardless of their guilt or innocence, and Mr. Adegbile should not be punished for performing this task.
In denying Mr. Adegbile’s appointment, the US Senate sent a message to all young, promising criminal defense lawyers not to take on high profile cases because it could come back to haunt you decades in the future. This is NOT a message we want to be sending, and it places innocent defendants in greater danger of being convicted.
Ross Kleinstuber is an assistant professor of Justice Administration & Criminology at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. His research focuses on law & society, court procedure, and capital sentencing. His website is http://faculty.upj.pitt.edu/rkleinstuber/