If you’re going to kill someone, at least make sure you have the right guy. That’s essentially what Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s lawyers are telling the Tennessee Supreme Court, which could set an execution date any day now for the death row inmate convicted in 1987 of stabbing a local drug dealer to death. He was convicted, even though there was virtually no hard evidence to suggest he committed the crimeno blood on any of his clothes, no fingerprints on any murder weapon and not a single eyewitnesses, except for a shady accomplice who made a sweetheart deal with the prosecution.
This is not The Shawshank Redemption; Abdur’Rahman is far from an innocent man. But after nearly 15 years of court battles, no judge, lawyer or juror can say with any amount of certainty whether he actually killed the man he was convicted of murdering, or if he was just an accomplice in a robbery gone horribly wrong.
Last Friday, in a desperate, last-ditch effort, Abdur’Rahman’s attorneys asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to review the case in its entirety, including claims that their client has been undermined by his incompetent, disdainful original attorney and a “fraudulent” prosecutor who engaged in a pattern of deception. The lawyers, Brad MacLean and Bill Redick, also claim that their client has been failed by the judicial process itself, which allowed the state to exploit technical loopholes to prevent appeals courts from hearing evidence that came to light after Abdur’Rahman’s trial.
In February 1986, Abdur’Rahman, then James Lee Jones, and Harold Devalle Miller confronted Patrick Daniels, who they believed was peddling drugs to children. Abdur’Rahman bound Daniels and his girlfriend, Norma Norman, in duct tape. Daniels was later found dead; Norman was left alive and, with a knife lodged in her back, managed to have her kids call for help. Blindfolded during the stabbing, she couldn’t identify either Miller or Abdur’Rahman as the assailant.
When news broke that Norman survived the attack, Miller fled to Pennsylvania. When he was apprehended a year later, he said that Abdur’Rahman killed Daniels. Meanwhile, Abdur’Rahman, who was arrested at his job within days of the murder, said that he blanked out during all the commotion. He couldn’t recall any details about who stabbed Daniels and Norman. Miller, who had everything to gain by fingering his partner in crime, was the state’s only eyewitness against the defendant. There was not a shred of forensic evidence, however, that identified Abdur’Rahman as the killer.
Based in large part on Miller’s testimony, a jury sentenced Abdur’Rahman to death for Daniels’ murder. And there were aggravating factors that doomed the defendant. In an earlier stint in federal prison, Abdur’Rahman killed a man who had threatened to rape him. Also, after his conviction, a desperate Abdur’Rahman offered a vague and rambling confession that he killed Daniels. The confession, which offered no details of the killing, was a failed bid to save his life, one that he later retracted.
There was nearly as much evidence, however, that fingered Miller as the assailant. He was there the night of the crime and, if he was merely an accomplice, then why was he the only one who fled? And yet, in exchange for his testimony against Abdur’Rahman, Miller was sentenced to second-degree murder and was paroled after only six years. Shortly after, the state’s star witness was charged with kidnapping and convicted of aggravated robbery with a handgun. Now the only person who claims he saw Abdur’Rahman kill Patrick Daniels is locked up at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tenn., serving a 40-year sentence.
The dubious evidence used to convict Abdur’Rahman formed the grist for more than a decade of appeals. In 1998, the defendant won a fleeting victory when U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell set aside his death sentencethough not his conviction. Shortly after, however, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the death sentence. Last year, Abdur’Rahman came within 36 hours of being executed, when the U.S Supreme Court issued a dramatic stay. Then, in November, it reversed course, ruling that it had “improvidently granted” the appeal and essentially saying that it shouldn’t have taken up the matter in the first place.
Clearly, time is running out. The crux of Abdur’Rahman’s latest appeal is that neither the Tennessee Supreme Court, nor any other court, has ever thoroughly considered the issues of prosecutorial misconduct that might have resulted in an unfair conviction. Those issues, more than anything else, cast doubt on whether Abdur’Rahman ever received a fair trial.
In filing after filing, the lawyers contend that John Zimmermann, the Davidson County assistant district attorney who tried the case against Abdur’Rahman, intentionally distorted their client’s mental health history. For example, the prosecutor told the trial court there was “no evidence” the defendant suffered from any mental illness, even though his own file included information showing that a prior judge recommended Abdur’Rahman receive psychiatric treatment. The lawyers also say he withheld police reports describing how the defendant banged his head and otherwise behaved so strangely that police locked him in a padded cell for his own protection.
Also, according to the defense attorneys, Zimmermann lied to their client’s psychological evaluators about Abdur’Rahman’s mental health history, in turn tainting the evaluation.
Abdur’Rahman’s mental health background didn’t necessarily have anything to do with his guilt or innocence. But if Zimmermann could portray him as a cold and calculating killerand not as a sick man with a history of mental problemshe’d have a better chance of persuading a jury to sentence Abdur’Rahman to death.
“Zimmermann understood that it’s difficult to get the death penalty against a defendant who suffers from mental health problems,” says MacLean, who, with Bill Redick, took the case in 1996. “It was clearly in his interest to withhold from the defense Abu-Ali’s long history of documented mental health problems.”
In fact, Zimmermann later told a federal court that Nashville jurors are “tougher to get death sentences from.”
Abdur’Rahman’s lawyers have continually claimed that Zimmermann’s actions in the case against Abdur’Rahman amount to prosecutorial misconduct. But for a variety of reasonsmost of them proceduralno court has seriously taken up their full slate of claims. The few claims the courts have reviewed turned out to be favorable to the defense. In this latest plea, the lawyers are practically begging the Tennessee Supreme Court to examine Zimmermann’s conduct in its entirety and evaluate its effect on their client’s trial.
For example, MacLean and Redick claim that Zimmermann lied to the trial court when he maintained that the only promise he made to Harold Miller, the accomplice and witness, was that the prosecution wouldn’t seek the death penalty against him. In Miller’s sentencing hearing five months later, however, Zimmermann promised to accept from Miller a guilty plea to reduced charges with the possibility of parole within a few yearsa pretty nice deal for someone who might have committed murder.
Had the jury known just how much Miller benefited from testifying, they might been more circumspect about his self-serving account.
Zimmermann also gave the jury information about Abdur’Rahman’s previous murder conviction, even though the trial judge had instructed him not to, saying it was inadmissible. The Tennessee Supreme Court later said that the prosecutor’s actions “bordered on deception,” though it did not believe that it affected the outcome of the case.
Zimmermann’s alleged pattern of misconduct was exacerbated by Abdur’Rahman’s woefully underprepared defense counsel, Lionel Barrett. Once regarded as one of the top lawyers in Nashville, Barrett did almost no work on the case, meeting with his client only a week before the trial began and conducting no investigation of Abdur’Rahman’s mental health background. Highlighting the disdain he felt toward his own client, he characterized Abdur’Rahman as a “dumb motherfucker” in a memo.
He was the one, who, in this case, at least, wasn’t so smart. Barrett never obtained a critical TBI lab report showing that not one speck of the victim’s blood was found on any of Abdur’Rahman’s clothing. Blood from the victim splattered wildly all over the room, including the kitchen walls, but, miraculously, not a single drop landed on the defendant’s coat or any other article of clothing he was wearing at the time of the robbery. As for the accomplice, Harold Miller, nobody ever tested his clothes for the victim’s blood.
Even Zimmermann knew about the blood report and made a note of it in his fileindicating how it was potentially damaging to the case against Abdur’Rahman. Still, Abdur’Rahman’s own defense counsel never looked at it. As a result, the jury that convicted Abdur’Rahman never heard what would have been the defense’s most important piece of evidence.
Barrett also failed to investigate Abdur’Rahman’s mental health background. As a child, Abdur’Rahman endured violent beatings from his father, who began the abuse before his 10th birthday. He struck his son’s penis with a baseball bat, locked him in a closet naked and even made him eat a pack of cigarettes after he caught him smoking. But a jury never heard these accounts of Abdur’Rahman’s horrific childhood, even though that history might have spared him the death penalty. The prosecution has argued otherwise, saying that stories of the defendant’s background might have further portrayed him as mean and dangerous in the eyes of the jury.
But last year, the original jury foreman told the Scene that the jurors should have been presented with Abdur’Rahman’s personal history. “The defense gave us nothing,” he said. “If they gave us his social history, I think we would have given him life imprisonment.”
Unlike Zimmermann’s alleged misconduct, Barrett’s dreadful performance in defending his client is not up for debate. Every court that’s examined the case has determined that Barrett failed to meet the constitutional standard of care. In fact, that’s what led U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell to throw out Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence in 1998, ruling that Barrett’s defense deprived him of his constitutional rights to a fair trial. Barrett himself admitted before the state Board of Probation and Parole that he failed to offer even a bare-bones defense. His co-counsel Sumter Camp also said that the defense team had “no strategy.”
In their latest petition, Abdur’Rahman’s lawyers ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to examine not just Barrett’s performancethat’s been reviewed beforebut how that malpractice facilitated the prosecutor’s own conduct in trying the case.
In fact, Zimmermann is no stranger to charges of straying outside the boundaries of the legal profession. On two separate occasions, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility has publicly censured the assistant district attorney for misconduct, a humiliating and decidedly rare punishment. Most recently, the watchdog body chastised him last summer for withholding from the defense a key piece of evidence that cast doubt on a defendant’s involvement in a murder. The state Court of Criminal Appeals also reprimanded Zimmermann in that case, saying they were “most troubled” by his conduct.
If the Tennessee Supreme Court declines to embark on a full review of Abdur’Rahman’s claims, Tennessee could be just months away from executing its first African American death row inmate in nearly four decades. On the surface, Abdur’Rahman is hardly the poster child for the anti-death penalty movement. Unlike the dozens of death row inmates across the country who have been liberated after evidence surfaced proving their innocence, Abdur’Rahman either killed Patrick Daniels or participated in a chain of events that resulted in his murder. Even his lawyers argued at his clemency board hearing that he should be spared execution, he should live out the rest of his life in prison.
But when the jury sentenced Abdur’Rahman to death, they had every reason to believe that he was the actual killer. They never knew about his anguished past and his mental health background. They didn’t know that his own lawyer derided him. They didn’t know about the blood report. They sent him to death row, without knowing anything close to the full story.
Since the trial, state and federal courts have had the chance to look at how and why a jury banished Abdur’Rahman to death row, but, for a number of reasons, many of them mind-numbingly arcane, they have failed to serve as a check and balance. Abdur’Rahman might deserve to be executed. But nobody really knows. And even worse, the system isn’t designed to find out.
How could anyone possibly accuse donna of bigotry? She traded recipes with a hispanic woman…
The main damage to his credibility is that the Tennessean printed it.
Cite. Be specific now.
AnglRdr is the wind beneath my wings. "...Did you ever know that you're my hero?"
Yes, there is, Donna, which is why your naked bigotry always comes as such a…