By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group that represents U.S. police officers is opposing President Barack Obama's choice for a top civil rights post because he helped represent a man convicted in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia officer.
The Fraternal Order of Police said in a letter released on Wednesday that the nomination of lawyer Debo Adegbile to head the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division was "a thumb in the eye" for law enforcement officers. Supporters of Adegbile have sent at least 18 letters to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which must vote on his nomination.
Adegbile was on the team of lawyers who handled appeals for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who became an internationally recognized death row inmate in a case that stirred debate about the fairness of the U.S. justice system and the application of the death penalty.
Courts upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction for the December 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, but his sentence was reduced to life in prison because of what judges called improper instructions to the jury.
"This nomination can be interpreted in only one way: it is a thumb in the eye of our nation's law enforcement officers," Chuck Canterbury, president of the police group, wrote in the letter addressed to Obama.
The opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police threatens to at least slow Adegbile's nomination process. Barring additional opposition, however, he is likely to be confirmed because a rule change last month gave the Senate's Democratic majority greater leeway to push through Obama's nominees.
Asked about the matter on Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Adegbile called Faulkner's death "a tremendous loss" and said he had never meant to insult the late officer by representing Abu-Jamal.
"It was about the legal process," Adegbile told senators. "Ultimately, several federal courts found that the jury had not been properly instructed and there was in fact a constitutional violation."
The civil rights office enforces anti-discrimination laws in voting, housing and other areas. Adegbile is a civil rights lawyer who spent 12 years with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Abu-Jamal.
Support for Adegbile's nomination included letters by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, prominent defense lawyer Ted Wells and American Express Co chief executive Kenneth Chenault.
Two brothers whose father was a New York Police Department detective sent a letter saying Adegbile admired their father's career and comforted their family when he died in 2008. The brothers, Christopher and Nicholas Panarella, were law school classmates of Adegbile.
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, quoted from the police group's letter during the hearing. Grassley said afterward that he was reserving judgment until he learned more details about the police group's objections.
Many lawyers who take jobs in government previously handled cases for unpopular clients, he said.
"You always have to take into consideration that everybody under our constitution is entitled to a defense, you know?"
The police group's letter said that argument should not apply to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's representation of Abu-Jamal. "A defense should not be based on falsely disparaging and savaging the good name and reputation of a lifeless police officer," it said.
The letter did not elaborate on why the legal defense was disparaging. In a phone interview, Jim Pasco, executive director of the police group, said Abu-Jamal's lawyers falsely accused Faulkner of beating up Abu-Jamal's brother.
There is long-standing tension between the Justice Department's civil rights division and some local law enforcement agencies, in part because the division may sue police departments if it believes they have discriminatory practices or use excessive force.
Adegbile, the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian father, grew up poor in New York but attended private schools. Along the way he was a child actor on the children's TV show "Sesame Street." He worked as a corporate lawyer before joining the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2001.
He has argued twice before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases about voting rights. In one, the high court last year disagreed with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying Congress had exceeded its authority by continuing to require certain states, mainly in the Deep South, to submit election-law changes to the Justice Department.
After the ruling, Adegbile went to work for the Senate Judiciary Committee's staff to help draft possible revisions to the law.
If confirmed, Adegbile would head the Justice Department office that is suing two U.S. states, North Carolina and Texas, over requirements that voters show identification at the polls.
The civil rights division is also considering federal charges against George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who was found not guilty of state charges in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)