Nov 10, 2021 - News
Death Row reprieve for 1987 murder trial
A headshot of smiling inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman.
Inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman. Photo courtesy of Abdur'Rahman's legal team

Nashville judge Monte Watkins on Tuesday ordered inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman off of death row after his legal team argued prosecutorial misconduct tainted his 1987 murder trial.

  • The judge vacated the original conviction and accepted a new plea deal that replaced Abdur'Rahman's death sentence with three consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder and other charges.
  • District Attorney Glenn Funk supported the move in court, telling Watkins such actions were justified in the face of "the smoking gun of racial bias."

Why it matters: Court debates over the death penalty typically turn on obscure legal technicalities. This case, however, directly confronts allegations of racism within the criminal justice system.

  • It also puts Funk at odds with state officials who have fought death penalty challenges in recent years.

Yes, but: Watkins initially ordered Abdur'Rahman, 71, off death row in 2019. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery appealed, and a higher court overturned the deal last year.

  • Tuesday's order attempts to address the issues discussed in the appeals court ruling. It remains unclear if Slatery will pursue another challenge.
  • Spokesperson Samantha Fisher tells Axios the office is "reviewing the Judge's order and considering next steps."

Between the lines: Abdur'Rahman's defense team argues the prosecution violated his constitutional rights by improperly blocking Black members of the jury pool.

  • The attorneys cite newly discovered trial notes and trial prosecutor John Zimmermann's 2015 remarks on race and jury selection.
  • Zimmermann, who now works as a prosecutor in Rutherford County, referred Axios to a past court review that rejected arguments of racial bias during jury selection. He did not comment on Watkins' order.

The background: Abdur'Rahman was charged with first-degree murder in the 1986 stabbing death of Patrick Daniels. He was also charged in the stabbing of Norma Jean Norman, who survived.

  • Abdur'Rahman pleaded guilty Tuesday to the murder charge as well as charges of armed robbery and aggravated assault with intent to commit murder.

Flashback: Tuesday's proceedings follow a long legal battle.

  • Funk initially agreed to remove Abdur'Rahman from death row in 2019. Watkins signed off on the deal, but the Tennessee attorney general appealed his decision.
  • A state appeals court overturned the deal last year, saying Watkins could not approve it without first finding there were constitutional grounds to vacate the original convictions.
  • Watkins' latest ruling sought to address that. He first granted the defense's motion, which argued a U.S. Supreme Court ruling provided the precedent needed to reverse the death sentence. Then he accepted the new plea deal.
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