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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seven of President Barack Obama's Democrats in the U.S. Senate broke ranks on Wednesday and joined Republicans to block Obama's nominee to a top Justice Department job after complaints that the lawyer, Debo Adegbile, had helped represent a "cop killer."
The seven voted with 44 Republicans to sustain a procedural roadblock against the nomination of Adegbile, a former director at the Legal Defense Fund of the civil rights group NAACP, to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eventually joined the seven fellow Democrats in a maneuver to preserve his right to bring up the nomination again. The final vote was 47 for and 52 against, with 51 votes needed for the nomination to proceed.
The vote was a tough one for Democrats, many of whom face challenges in elections in November and are leery of allowing themselves to be portrayed as soft on crime.
It was the first time an Obama pick has been blocked in the Senate since Democrats changed the rules last year to strip Republicans of their power to stop a nominee on their own.
The Fraternal Order of Police had helped rally opposition against Adegbile, calling Obama's selection of him "a thumb in the eye of law enforcement."
Scores of civil rights groups backed Adegbile, calling him "a tireless advocate," and "a skilled litigator" who was well qualified for the job.
Obama, in a White House statement, called the Senate action "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
"The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice," Obama said.
Other backers said Adegbile should not be punished for his limited role in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.
Adegbile, a senior counsel the past year on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in 2006 when it first became involved the case, 25 years after the trial and five years after the death sentence was overturned.
At the LDF, Adegbile was part of a team of lawyers who helped in Abu-Jamal's case as it wound through a federal appeals court in Philadelphia and on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawyers argued that the trial judge's instructions to the jury violated Abu-Jamal's rights by improperly describing the role of possible mitigating circumstances.
Federal courts agreed and in 2011 ordered a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal where prosecutors could make their case again that he should be executed. Later that year, prosecutors decided not to move forward with the hearing, leaving Abu-Jamal to a sentence of life in prison.
Abu-Jamal's case stirred debate inside and outside America about the fairness of the U.S. justice system and the application of the death penalty.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the nominee, saying, "Everyone deserves a fair trial and a zealous legal defense. And lawyers aren't personally responsible for the actions of their clients.
"But lawyers are responsible for their own actions. In this case, the nominee inserted his office in an effort to turn reality on its head, impugn honorable and selfless law enforcement officers, and glorify an unrepentant cop-killer," McConnell said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, defended the nominee, saying: "Debo's role in the Abu-Jamal case was limited to two Supreme Court briefs and one Third (U.S.) Circuit (Court of Appeals) brief."
"Attempts to attribute more to Debo, including out-of-court statements by other (NAACP) LDF attorneys, are unfounded," Leahy said.
Reporting by Tom Ferraro and David Ingram; Editing by David Storey and Jonathan Oatis