On the evening of Feb. 17, 1986, James Jones, a diminutive ex-con, along with his impressionable friend Harold Devalle Miller paid a visit to a small-time drug dealer named Patrick Daniels. A few days earlier, Jones watched Daniels selling marijuana to teenagers out of his apartment in the Melrose neighborhood. Jones was said to have been outraged. Despite having a lengthy criminal history and no aversion to drug use himself, this son of a military policeman had always felt like he was better than the common street criminal.
Jones and Miller labored at low-paying jobs at the National Baptist Publishing Board. It was there where they had come to join a religious group called the Southeastern Gospel Ministry (SGM). A more militant wing of SGM began meeting privately to discuss a broad approach to rid the black community of drug dealers, numbers runners and prostitutes. Jones and Miller belonged to that group as well.
“The tenor of those discussions and some of the speakers was that the black man had to be the savior of himself,” Miller testified years later. “Blacks were doing damage to themselves by selling drugs in their neighborhoods and engaging in illegal activities in their own communities, and it was up to the black man to clean up his own communities.”
After talking it over with the other members, Jones decided to make Patrick Daniels the group’s first targetin large part because the dealer was selling to teenagers. As a child, Jones endured horrific beatings at the hands of his father. Once, his father struck his penis with a baseball bat. Ever since, Jones has expressed outward hostility to anyone who puts children in harm’s way.
Jones had a simple plan: intimidate Daniels so that he would stop selling drugsto children especially. But the drug dealer wound up dead, stabbed six times through the chest. His girlfriend, Norma Norman, was stabbed twice. After lying unconscious for hours, she crawled to the room where her children were hiding and, with the knife still lodged in her back, had them call for help. Somehow she survived.
Prosecutors dismissed the vigilante element to the murder and claimed that Daniels’ death was part of a drug turf war.
Today, James Jones, now Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, sits on death row, where he could be executed as early as next year. Prosecutors never sought the death penalty for Miller, even though it was heand not Abu-Aliwho fled Nashville when television newscasts reported that Norman survived the crime. More than a year after the murder, authorities nabbed Miller in Aliquippa, Penn., where he was working at a local McDonald’s. Shortly after his apprehension, he told the Davidson County District Attorney’s office that Jones was the killer.
There are, however, some serious doubts about that contention. There were no other witnesses to the crime, and Miller had a clear motive to testify against his cohort. Given the circumstances of the murder, Daniels’ girlfriend could not have seen the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Jones’ current attorneys and several judges all agree that the convicted murderer’s first criminal defense attorney was incompetent. The jury foreman in the criminal trial now says he’s convinced that, if the panel knew then what they know now, Abu-Ali would not have been sentenced to death.
Since the conviction, the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution inmate has filed various appeals in state and federal court. Today, his legal options are running out. Just this week, after an expected refusal by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case, the state attorney general’s office requested that an execution date be set.
In the movies, innocent men find themselves languishing on death row, wrongly convicted of heinous crimes in which they played no part. That’s no Hollywood fantasy. In Illinois, 13 inmates have been liberated from death row after evidence surfaced exonerating them. One man, Steven Smith, was sentenced to death for a 1985 murder based on the testimony of a woman who had allegedly been smoking crack cocaine during the crime. The woman, who had personal ties to an alternate suspect, claimed to have identified Smith from across the street where the murder was committed. In February 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the woman’s testimony was not reliable and reversed the conviction.
Still, while the tales of innocent men freed from the mortal clutches of death row garner headlines, cases like that of Abu-Ali’s may be more common. These are the sloppier cases that may feature eyewitness testimony from a suspect, questionable legal counsel on both sides and no definitive forensic evidence. These are the cases, where the defendants’ actions might well have precipitated a murder but might not rise to the level of a capital offense. These are the cases that don’t inspire movie scripts, but they happen just the same.
In exchange for his testimony against Abu-Ali, Devalle Miller was charged with second degree murder. He was paroled after only six years. He didn’t take well to freedom. Less than three years after he left prison, he was charged with kidnapping and assault. In February 1997, the man whose testimony landed Abu-Ali a death sentence pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a handgun. He received a 40-year sentence and is now serving time at the Northwest Correctional Complex, a closed-security prisonone level below maximum-securityin Tiptonville, Tenn.
Miller declined to be interviewed for this story. But in trial court, he offered chilling, blow-by-blow details of a cool, methodical Jones stabbing Daniels and then his girlfriend. Yet no one else was able to claim that they saw Jones kill anyone. Norma Norman testified that Jones bound her and her boyfriend in duct tape and threatened to snap her children’s necks. But by her own testimony, she was blindfolded at the time of the two stabbings.
Well before the 1986 murder, Jones had run afoul of the law. At 19, he was shipped off to federal prison after assaulting a soldier with a knife. While in prison, he murdered an inmate by repeatedly stabbing him in the stomach. The inmate had allegedly raped Jones earlier and then spread homosexual rumors about him. Nevertheless, a jury convicted Jones of second-degree murder.
“I killed him because the rumors were around that this was fixing to happen again,” Abu-Ali says, referring to the threat of another rape. “I don’t know if the rumors were true or not, but in the situation I was in, I couldn’t take any chances.”
While Abu-Ali had a rather serious and extensive criminal history, Miller himself had never been in trouble with the law. Worse for the defense was Abu-Ali’s initial contention that he didn’t remember the murder because he had blacked out. On the surface, it looked like an open-and-shut case.
But as the prosecution’s files would later reveal, there were some problems in the case against Abu-Ali. For example, in his testimony, Miller described Abu-Ali removing his gloves before he taped up Daniels and Norman. But there were no fingerprints discovered on the murder weapon, a kitchen knife with a wooden handle.
In addition, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ran tests on Abu-Ali’s clothing and found no evidence of blood, even though blood splattered wildly onto the kitchen walls when Daniels was stabbed. Authorities never searched Miller’s clothes for blood evidence. But while the TBI report was on file at the court, Abu-Ali’s lawyer never presented its contents to the jury.
During the sentencing hearing that immediately followed his conviction, a skittish Abu-Ali pleaded for his life and offered an awkward and vague confession, one that he would later retract. But at the time of his sentencing hearing, Abu-Ali had nothing left to lose. He had already been convicted of first-degree murder, and according to his lawyers today, he had been under the incorrect impression that there was blood found on his pants.
Murders are messy, traumatic events that can play wicked tricks on the people who were present. In capital trials, even well-intentioned eyewitnesses have given inaccurate testimony shown to be false after the application of authoritative forensic tools such as DNA testing. In the murder of Patrick Daniels, no such tool exists. There is only the testimony of a blindfolded girlfriend and an accomplice with a lot to lose.
Riverbend Maximum Security Institution is actually a beautiful facility, if you can ignore the rows of tall fences sternly topped with coils of rough barbed wire. A stretch of the Cumberland River flows directly behind the prison. Rolling green hills dot the background. The grounds of the facility itself are pristine; the grass is as lush as any lawn in Williamson County, and the walkways are clear and absent of any litter or gum.
Murderers, rapists and other menacing criminals all reside at Riverbend. But only the worst of that lot, as determined by the state of Tennessee, are locked up in Unit 2, segregated by bricks and mortar from the rest of the incarcerated population. There are more than 90 death row inmates in Unit 2.
At 51, Abu-Ali hardly looks like a criminal. He is short and frail with the unthreatening build of a child. When he discusses some of the more graphic parts of his past, he apologizes to the female photographer present. The convicted murderer is unfailingly polite.
In a 90-minute interview with the Scene, in which his lawyers were not present, Abu-Ali talked about his involvement in the vigilante organization he says targeted Patrick Daniels. Miller has already corroborated either at the trial or at Abu-Ali’s post-conviction hearing much of what Abu-Ali says, even though Miller testified against him.
Shortly after Abu-Ali joined the Southeastern Gospel Ministry, he was asked to join a “paramilitary wing” of that group. He complied and, within a month, he was trained in everything from martial arts to surveillance. That subgroup, he says, was much like the original Black Panthers. “We were trying to get a list of thorns in the black communitythe drug dealers, the pimps or the numbers runners. Once we found out who they were, our intention was to run them out of the community,” he says.
Abu-Ali says that the group planned to clean up the city simply by making its presence known. Violence was not part of the game plan; but the group was prepared to defend itself just in case.
According to evidencespecifically, a firearms trace reportlater introduced into federal court, a man named Alan Boyd purchased the gun that Abu-Ali ultimately used to intimidate Patrick Daniels. According to both Abu-Ali and testimony from Miller, Boyd was a key figure in SGM's paramilitary group. At the time of the murder, he worked at the National Baptist Publishing Board as Abu-Ali's supervisor. Today, Boyd's brother, T.B. Boyd, serves as the president and CEO of the company and is an influential figure in Nashville.
Abu-Ali says that Alan Boyd took a leadership role in the paramilitary group. In the post-conviction hearing in federal court, Miller was asked if the group met in Boyd's house on three or four occasions. He said, “That's correct.”
In a brief interview outside his North Nashville home, however, Boyd says he played no part in the whole affair and that the group was mainly a Bible study that included “old ladies and grandmas.” Boyd, who never faced any charges in relation to the murder, denies playing any role in targeting drug dealers and other undesirables, noting that he was too busy trying to raise a family at the time.
Abu-Ali says he met Patrick Daniels just a few days before his murder. He was doing surveillance work for his organization and noticed Daniels selling drugs to both adults and children.
“At that point...a decision was made,” Abu-Ali says. [Daniels] was chosen to be a priority quicker than any other suspect.” Abu-Ali says that he only wanted to scare the man so that he would stop selling drugs to children.
On the night of the murder, Miller, then 25, accompanied Abu-Ali. Both men were more foot soldiers than leaders in this vigilante group. Miller would later testify that he joined the SGM because he wanted to become involved in a cause.
When the pair knocked on the door of Daniels’ Kirkwood Avenue apartment, just off Franklin Road, Abu-Ali says they did so on the pretense of purchasing marijuana. Dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, Daniels let the two in and walked toward the kitchen. According to Miller’s trial testimony, Daniels’ girlfriend was on the couch watching television. Abu-Ali then asked Daniels if “he had it,” and the drug dealer went to the kitchen counter and bagged some marijuana. Abu-Ali then looked at Miller.
As Miller testified, the two then pulled out their guns. Abu-Ali says that he told Daniels that they were not there to hurt him, just that he “needed to stop selling drugs to children.”
Miller testified that, according to the plan, he was the one who was to tie Patrick Daniels with duct tape, but he got nervous and “choked.” Both he and Abu-Ali stated that the situation became tense when a dog loose in the apartment began barking. Miller testified that he wanted to “do something about the dog,” but Abu-Ali angrily recalls from Riverbend that his accomplice threatened to kill it.
With Miller’s frayed nerves rendering him unable to wrap duct tape around Daniels and his girlfriend, Abu-Ali stepped in. “There wasn’t supposed to be this much commotion, so I took over and tied Patrick Daniels up,” Abu-Ali says. “Then I tied Norma Jean Norman up. Then I saw two little girls in that room, and that’s when my memory stops.”
From that point on, the only information about what happened comes from Miller, who testified that after Abu-Ali restrained Norman, he demanded that Daniels tell him where the “herb” and cocaine were stashed. As Daniels lay crying and begging, Abu-Ali “started throwing pillows everywhere,” discovering an additional bag of marijuana in the process. He then robbed Daniels of his bank card and demanded the PIN number.
According to Miller, Abu-Ali then picked up the victim and said “they call me Scarface, and I’m from Chicago...and I’m here to teach you a lesson.” Abu-Ali’s identification with the brutal drug-dealing movie protagonist ultimately prompted the prosecution to develop the theory that Abu-Ali meant to kill Daniels so that he could muscle in on the local drug trade. Abu-Ali’s lawyers, however, contend that there is no evidence whatsoever that their client ever sold drugs.
But the man who prosecuted the case disagrees. “Don’t you think there is significance to [Abu-Ali] calling himself Scarface in the mid-’80s during an attack that deals with drugs?” says assistant district attorney John Zimmerman, the lead prosecutor in the 1987 case who is now being accused by Abu-Ali’s lawyer of prosecutorial misconduct.
After Abu-Ali’s alleged Scarface remarks, he then headed toward the kitchen and came out with a knife in his hand. Daniels was sobbing. According to Miller’s testimony, Abu-Ali approached the victim and started stabbing him and stood there and watched as Daniels went into convulsions and kicked his feet. “You could actually hear his heart just pumping blood,” Miller recalled on the stand.
Miller would go on to testify that after Daniels stopped flailing, Abu-Ali walked over to Norman and stabbed her two or three times. Miller says he ran over and pulled Abu-Ali away.
When Abu-Ali was tried for murder in July 1987, he seemed to face almost insurmountable odds: He admitted to being at the scene of the crime, his accomplice was saying that he did it, and Abu-Ali himself claimed to have blanked out during the murder. On top of that, his current lawyers, Bill Redick Jr. and Brad MacLean, claim that at the time of the trial, their client was under the impression that blood had been found on his pants. Investigators would later determine that what looked like blood was merely red paint, but neither Abu-Ali, nor his trial lawyer, Lionel Barrett, managed to find that out in time to tell the jury.
Of all the factors that seemed to doom Abu-Ali, few would plague him more than the ineffectiveness of his own counsel. In 1987, perhaps no criminal defense attorney in the city was as revered as Lionel Barrett. Known as an outstanding courtroom lawyer and a friend to rich and poor clients alike, the affable Vanderbilt Law School graduate was well known in state courts from Memphis to Johnson City. In fact, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Award for outstanding work in a death penalty case is named for Lionel Barrett.
But Barrett would not win any awards for his defense of Abu-Ali. After the trial, Abu-Ali dumped his trial counsel; ever since then, his revolving cast of lawyers all have contended that Barrett’s defense was so shoddy that it prevented Abu-Ali from receiving his constitutional right to a fair trial. In brief after brief, they have claimed that Barrett was incompetent. And both state and federal courts have agreed.
“He simply didn’t do anything,” says Brad MacLean, who, ironically enough, won the Lionel Barrett Award in 1998 for his work on the Abu-Ali case. “He never reviewed any of the forensic evidence, was totally unfamiliar with the blood evidence and never investigated the crime scene. He did no investigative work whatsoever.”
Even Barrett looks back on the case with regret. “Of all the death penalty cases I have tried, this was the one that, in retrospect, I probably would have done more things differently,” he says.
Overlooking the blood evidence, or lack of blood evidence, might have been Barrett’s most significant failing. During the trial, both eyewitnesses testified that Abu-Ali was wearing a long wool coat when the murder was committed. The prosecution even used the wool coat as physical evidence in support of their case that Abu-Ali was the murderer. They picked up on Norma Norman’s description of it as a “gangster coat,” and repeatedly raised the fact that Abu-Ali was wearing it at the time of the crime.
But according to the lab report, which was available to Barrett at the time, the TBI found no traces of blood on Abu-Ali’s coat. And at no point in their testimony did the two eyewitnesses claim that Abu-Ali removed his coat before the stabbing. It is also worth noting that Zimmerman knew full well that the “gangster coat” the prosecution was talking about had no traces of blood.
A forensic pathologist testified on appeal that the stabbing of Daniels was so incisive that blood would have to have splattered on the perpetrator’s clothing. Since Abu-Ali’s conviction, jurors at the original trial have signed affidavits saying that if they had been presented with this evidence, they might have voted to give Abu-Ali life in prison instead of the death penalty.
Yet another important piece of evidence the jury never heard was Abu-Ali’s history of abuse and mental illness. To say that Abu-Ali had a troubled childhood is an understatement. Years after Abu-Ali’s conviction, a Knoxville psychologist compiled an extensive social history of the defendant, interviewing him and his half-sister Nancy Lancaster. The psychologist also examined the defendant’s institutional records. According to the report, Abu-Ali’s brother Mark told Lancaster: “You don’t know what kind of hell we lived in.” A few years later, Mark committed suicide.
Abu-Ali’s father was a military policeman who ruled his home with an iron fist. When his son Mark kept wetting his bed, the father put a rubber band around his penis before bedtime. The father began beating Abu-Ali before his 10th birthday. The child was once left naked and bound in a closet. For no apparent reason, the father had tied a piece of leather around the head of his penis and attached it to a clothing hook. According to the report, it was while abandoned in the closet that Abu-Ali learned to disassociate, or black out, when in extremely upsetting or stressful situations. He later received psychological counseling.
Following his childhood, Abu-Ali suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder, conditions that his lawyers contend caused him to black out during or before the murder of Patrick Daniels.
But the jury never heard about Abu-Ali’s horrific childhood, even though that history might have spared him the death penalty. Abu-Ali’s lawyers say that was a grave error.
“In the course of the jury’s deliberation concerning whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment or death, according to the United States Supreme Court it is the jury’s obligation to appraise the moral culpability of the defendant,” his lawyer Redick says. “Any criminal acts that are attributable to factors in the defendant’s social history, such as a disadvantaged background, emotional or mental problems, or good character traits may be a basis for the jury to determine that the defendant is less culpable and thus can be a basis for the jury to impose a sentence of less than death.”
In its post-trial brief filed with the federal court, the state attorney general’s office, which took over prosecution of the case after the first appeal, said that Barrett had good reasons for not utilizing a mental health defense during the trial. Among them was that such a defense might portray the defendant as a “mean” and “dangerous” person. The attorney general’s office also pointed out that when the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute (MTMHI) evaluated Abu-Ali, it determined that the defendant was not suffering from any mental illness.
But in an interview with the Scene, Everett C. Stone, the original jury foreman, says that the jurors should have been presented with the defendant’s background. Stone still believes that Abu-Ali committed the crime, but says that he should not have received the death penalty. “The defense gave us nothing,” he says. “If they gave us Abu-Ali’s social history, I think we would have given him life imprisonment.”
In April 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell deliberated over the issue of Lionel Barrett’s trial counsel. In a fleeting victory for the defense, Campbell threw out the jury’s death sentence, ruling that Abu-Ali’s lawyer did not offer him the effective legal assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. He ordered a new sentencing trial. The judge, however, retained the conviction.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed Judge Campbell’s decision to overturn the death sentence. Abu-Ali’s lawyers have filed new pleadings with the 6th Circuit and are awaiting a ruling.
In a motion also filed before the 6th Circuit, Abu-Ali’s lawyers contend that John Zimmerman was guilty of prosecutorial misconduct during the trial. They made those same claims before Campbell the first time around, and he dismissed most of them on procedural grounds.
Hoping that a court will one day give all their claims a full hearing, Abu-Ali’s lawyers are on the offensive. Describing Zimmerman as a prosecutor with a “long history of engaging in various forms of misconduct and deceptive practices”and including ample documentationthey contend that he painted a negative and inaccurate portrait of Abu-Ali in a letter to the staff at MTMHI, thereby making it difficult for their client to receive an accurate evaluation. For example, in the letter, Zimmerman wrote that Abu-Ali did not raise an insanity defense in his 1972 trial for killing an inmate. That was not the case. The lawyers also claim that Zimmerman misled Lionel Barrett and did not turn over to him the transcript of the 1972 trial. In that trial, not only did Abu-Ali raise an insanity defense, but a psychiatrist also testified that Abu-Ali was “mentally ill” and “unable to control himself under times of stress.”
In post-conviction testimony, Lionel Barrett maintained that he would have handled the case differently if he had seen the transcript. Interestingly, the state’s response was that Barrett could have reviewed the trial on his own, since it was a matter of public record. In a way, that response affirms Abu-Ali’s lawyers’ earlier argument that the trial counsel was incompetent.
Zimmerman defends his prosecution of the case, saying that Redick and MacLean “aren’t trial lawyers; they are lawyers on a cause.” He says that the two attorneys have falsely accused him of lying to the staff at MTMHI about Abu-Ali’s 1972 trial when, in fact, at the time he wrote the letter, he didn’t have the transcript in his file.
During the course of an interview with the Scene, Zimmerman repeatedly points out that Abu-Ali confessed during the sentencing phase. “He didn’t just admit it in passing; he said it three or four times,” Zimmerman says.
At first, Abu-Ali’s lawyers told the Scene that their client confessed in the midst of relentless cross-examination by Zimmerman. But in fact, Abu-Ali volunteered his guilt under direct examination from his own counsel. Still, the confession came under desperate circumstances, was rather vague and offered no real details about Patrick Daniels’ murder.
“I can’t give you detail to detail on how things transpired insofar as Mr. Daniel Patricks’ (sic) death and Ms. Norman’s assault,” Abu-Ali testified during his sentencing hearing. “When I say that, I meanI’m saying that my mindnot telling you that I was crazyI’m not saying I am crazy. But what I am saying is, I’m going to submit to the fact that I am the individual that committed these particular felonies or assaults upon these two people. But I don’t rememberyou know, I don’t remember too much of why that all of a sudden came to me. All I know is that I’m the man that stabbed Mr. Daniel Patricks (sic), and I’m the man that assaulted Ms. Norma Norman.”
During the April 1998 hearing before Judge Campbell, Abu-Ali’s lawyers presented a videotape of their client under hypnosis. In the tape, Abu-Ali recounts that it was his accomplice, Devalle Miller, who committed the murder. The judge did not accept the tape as evidence of the defendant’s innocence, and even the forensic psychiatrist who arranged the hypnosis couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of Abu-Ali’s supposed revelation. Still, the psychiatrist did testify that Abu-Ali at least thought the memory was real.
Abu-Ali’s lawyers provided the Scene with a videotape of their client under hypnosis, in which the convicted murderer seems to be in an altered state. His speech is halting, and he talks with a street dialect that he doesn’t use in normal conversation. In addition, unlike his 1987 confession, in which he couldn’t provide specific details about the murder, he provides under hypnosis a far more specific narrative of his accomplice committing the crime:
Abu Ali: Fear came over me. Things were moving too fast in my head. Nothing must happen to the children. I stood up. I took the shotgun and placed it in my hands in the guard position. I stood up over the door. I looked. There he was. I see him.
(Abu-Ali starts to cry a bit. He pauses.)
Hypnotist: What do you see?
Abu-Ali: Everything is blurry at first. I had to protect the children. They weren’t supposed to be there. [Miller] was getting angry. I looked over, and there he was. He blamed it on me.
Hypnotist: What is he doing?
Abu-Ali: He was on his knees
Hypnotist: Why was he on his knees?
Abu-Ali: He was going up and down. Up and down. Up and down. I must protect the children. I must protect the children.
Hypnotist: Why was he going up and down?
Abu-Ali: He had an object in his hand.
Hypnotist: What was in his hand? Take a look. What was in his hand? You can see. What was in his hand?
Abu-Ali: It was flashing. It was flashing.
Hypnotist: What was it?
Hypnotist: What was it?
Abu-Ali: It was a knife.
Hypnotist: And whose hand was it in now?
Abu-Ali: He blamed it on me.
Hypnotist: And whose hand was it?
Abu-Ali: It was Devalle’s. It was in Devalle’s hand.
Hypnotist: What was he doing with that knife?
Abu-Ali: He killed Patrick.
Hypnotist: What else do you want to tell me?
Abu-Ali: He gets up, goes over to Norma and he hits her two times in the back.
Hypnotist: He hits her with what?
Abu-Ali: The same knife. He gets up. He goes to the door and gives me a nod. The children are safe. So I left. I was the last one to leave.
Since the hypnosis, Abu-Ali has returned to his earlier contention that he blacked out around the time of the murder and does not remember who killed Patrick Daniels.
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