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Police shouldn’t tell lawyers who they may represent

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This is an open letter to my good friend Sean:

Obtaining justice in a criminal matter, or as close to the idea of justice as we can hope for in a flawed world, requires balance. One side advocates for its position on the evidence; the other side argues against that conclusion by challenging the evidence as presented.

This debate is overseen by an impartial authority, who maintains fairness and order by compelling the two rivals to follow accepted rules. The final judgment is rendered by a panel of citizens, who weigh the evidence and use their discretion to decide the outcome.

Our nation’s criminal justice system is certainly not perfect. The biggest flaw is that so few people involved in a criminal case were present when the incident occurred. So most of them don’t truly know what happened.

They’re relying on circumstantial and physical evidence as well as the memories of bystanders. Then they’re using their best judgment to determine what happened.

But as I said, it all depends on a balance between all the factions. And when that balance is thrown out of whack, negligence is likely to occur.

I received your email about the U.S. Senate’s vote on Debo Adegbile’s bid to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The petition attached to your email sought signatures urging senators to oppose Adegbile based on his past association with Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in the early 1980s. Adegbile helped prepare some briefs for the case as a staffer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

As a Chicago police officer, the deep sentiments you have for Faulkner’s family are understandable. Having known police officers all my life, I know what an outrage it is when an act of senseless violence leads to such a death.

But I cannot support your action, which contributed to the Senate’s vote Wednesday to decline Adegbile’s nomination. For you and many other officers to approach this issue in such a manner risks disturbing the balance needed to ensure that something approximating justice is achieved in our courtrooms every day.

Adegbile’s involvement in Abu-Jamal’s case was relatively minor. He never appeared in court on Abu-Jamal’s behalf and wasn’t the one at the NAACP who chose to take him on as a client.

Here’s a real kicker. The most direct action taken by the NAACP was on unconstitutional instructions given to the Abu-Jamal’s jury, and this led to his death sentence being commuted to life in prison. So the NAACP wasn’t merely screaming racism; it challenged a legitimate problem.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts previously defended convicted serial killer John Ferguson. Does this make him unqualified for the position he now holds, or does this standard only apply when those killed are police officers?

The message to civil rights leaders from the police community is, “Watch your step! Don’t get involved in any case that upsets us, or we’ll make trouble for you.”

Is this what you want? Do you believe it’s acceptable for police officers to dictate to civil rights groups which defendants they may represent? Has that become your role?

Imagine the chilling effect this will have on defense lawyers who aspire to public service positions. They’ll be much more cautious about representing certain clients in controversial cases because it may come back to haunt them.

This means these defendants won’t have access to the best lawyers. Or in some cases, if the police community had its way, any lawyers.

Now, what if your actions make groups like the NAACP too timid to take on certain criminal cases? If there is some malfeasance involved, who will step up to challenge it?

We may not like everything that defense lawyers do, but they are essential to the criminal justice process. They force the government to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person charged with the crime is indeed guilty.

There are far too many instances where defendants are cornered into making “deals” that send them to prison for crimes they likely didn’t commit. If more lawyers become reluctant to take on certain cases, the number of wrongful convictions will increase.

Of course, the real message sent by police was to senators. Some of them voted against Adegbile’s nomination out of fear of how it may impact their next election. They were more concerned about saving their jobs rather than doing them.

To appreciate the need for balance in the criminal justice system, it’s essential to separate our feelings about a particular defendant from his or her attorney. And here’s a way for police officers to relate to this concept: Representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police defended Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge to the end.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of his complicity in torturing hundreds of suspects, the FOP stood in Burge’s corner. In 2008, FOP President Mark Donahue said that the union “will stand with the police officer every time.”

Would it be fair to call for the careers of FOP officials or lawyers to be derailed because they defended someone like Burge? Not at all. I expect them to engage in such work because police officers need to know someone will always be their advocate no matter what.

The same goes for criminal defendants. They must know they will always have access to the best defense possible, as is their right as U.S. citizens.

And every single citizen is entitled to the best criminal defense possible, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, John Ferguson and Jon Burge. To suggest otherwise is to seek something other than justice, and this is unbecoming a police officer.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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