Photo courtesy of Bradley MacLeanAs the country convulses with protests against police brutality and racism, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery will head to court to argue for the execution of a Black Nashville man despite clear evidence of racist conduct by the prosecutor in his case.
The problems in Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s trial are so pervasive that two judges have set aside his death sentence. His attorney, Bradley MacLean, has noted that every judge and court that has reviewed the case has acknowledged the woefully inadequate work of Abdur’Rahman’s defense attorney. Sixth Circuit Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. wrote that the prosecutor in the case, then Nashville Assistant District Attorney John Zimmermann, “desecrated his noble role” and that “justice will bear a scar” as a result.
The evidence of prosecutorial misconduct is so clear that Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk asked a Nashville court last year to approve an agreement vacating Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence, citing Zimmermann’s strategy of racial discrimination in jury selection during the 1987 trial. Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins signed off on that deal. But in an extraordinary move, Slatery is asking the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to nullify that decision and keep Abdur’Rahman on his way to the execution chamber.
Oral arguments are set for tomorrow morning, June 9, at 9 a.m. The court will provide a livestream of the hearing.
Abdur’Rahman has been on death row for 32 years, since he and an accomplice were convicted of killing Patrick Daniels and stabbing Norma Jean Norman during a robbery. Norman survived. Her two daughters, Katrina and Shawanna Norman — both of whom were present during the attack — attended the August 2019 court hearing where Funk said he could not stand by Abudr’Rahman’s death sentence because it was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The Norman sisters, who are Black, told reporters that they’d never be fully free from the trauma of the night when they, then ages 8 and 9, hid in their bedroom as their stepfather was stabbed to death. But they also said that they felt justice was served by the decision to replace Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence with a life sentence. They said John Zimmermann was responsible for the fact that they’d been dragged to court yet again, and that he should be disbarred.
The assertion that Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence is tainted by racism — a position now officially shared by Abdur’Rahman’s attorneys as well as the elected district attorney in the county where he was convicted — is based largely on the way the prosecution kept Black people off the jury. In particular, Funk and MacLean highlighted two prospective Black jurors by relying on racist stereotypes. In one instance, a college-educated Black pastor was struck because Zimmermann said he “appeared uneducated” and “had a reduced intellect.”
Zimmermann’s record more recently does nothing to refute allegations of racism. In a November 2015 letter to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, Funk disavowed comments by Zimmermann — who had since moved on to Rutherford County — at an annual conference. During a discussion about jury selection, Funk wrote, Zimmermann “described prosecuting a conspiracy case with all Hispanic defendants. He stated he wanted an all African-American jury, because ‘all Blacks hate Mexicans.’”
More recently, a lawsuit accused Zimmermann of targeting Egyptian business owners, falsely claiming they were selling illegal “marijuana derivatives.” All charges related to the bogus busts — known as “Operation Candy Crush” — were later dropped. The lawsuit is still pending.
But even during the Abdur’Rahman trial, Zimmermann did not do much to conceal his ideas about Black people. At a hearing during the 1987 trial, at which Abdur’Rahman’s attorney argued that the prosecution was improperly excluding Black people from the jury, Zimmermann outlined his “trial strategy” with respect to selecting jurors. According to transcripts from the hearing, he defended himself against charges of racial bias by telling the judge that he and the prosecutor working with him on the case “wanted some blacks on this jury who could understand the facts, particularly the fact that the victim was selling marijuana, that would understand that, not be offended by that and be able to explain it to other jurors.” Later on, under questioning about the reasoning, Zimmermann reiterated the idea before immediately contradicting himself.
“You have to understand that the idea is, when people on here from what I call some of these white communities — selling marijuana is not something that they ever see,” he said. “And I’m not saying it’s prevalent in black communities versus white.”
When Slatery announced that his office was challenging the decision to replace Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence with a life sentence, he called the court order “unlawful” and unprecedented. But he did not specifically address any of the evidence of racism and misconduct by Zimmermann.
In his arguments emphasizing the deep problems with Abdur’Rahman’s case, and the severity of Zimmermann’s misconduct, MacLean has often referred to Cole’s opinion at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The prosecutor desecrated his noble role,” Cole wrote. “He failed grossly in his duty to act as ‘the representative of a sovereignty whose interest in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.’ Abdur’Rahman may face the ultimate penalty as a result; Justice will bear a scar.”
Abdur’Rahman was set to be executed on April 16. With the legal fight over his sentence ongoing, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted him a stay in December, calling off his execution less than four months before it was to take place. But Abdur’Rahman has been closer to death before.
In 2002, he came within two days of his execution. He was on death watch, sitting in a small cell next to the execution chamber, when the Supreme Court of the United States issued a stay. A little more than a year later, he came within 12 days of execution before he was spared by a stay from the Sixth Circuit.
Published at Mon, 08 Jun 2020 09:18:00 +0000