NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville attorney David Raybin was working with the Tennessee Attorney General’s office 42 years ago when he helped draft the state’s death penalty statutes.
Now in private practice, he looks over his old office’s latest request: the state’s top cop wants the state’s highest court to set execution dates for nine additional Tennessee death row inmates.
Raybin offered this assessment about the state Attorney General's office: "I see this as some sort of preemptive strike."
The state has already executed five inmates in just more than a year, and the Tennessee Supreme Court has already scheduled at least two more executions. But Raybin says he thinks the reason Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is asking for nine more execution dates stems from a death row deal that Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk organized last month.
In August, Nashville Judge Monte Watkins accepted that deal struck by convicted killer Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, which replaced his death sentence with life imprisonment. Abdur’Rahman’s attorneys had asked Watkins for a new trial because of racial discrimination concerns during jury selection prior to Abdur’Rahman’s original trial. Funk and Abdur’Rahman agreed to convert his death sentence to life imprisonment in return for the inmate dropping his request for a new trial.
The state's ask for the additional execution dates came three weeks later. It included all four remaining death row inmates who committed their crimes in Nashville.
“I see a connection there, and that does concern me,” Raybin said. “[The Tennessee Attorney General’s office] is concerned the District Attorney [Funk] might agree to reduce them to life.”
Included in the state's execution date request is a Davidson County-based inmate who was sentenced as recently as 1992, according to a TDOC list of death row inmates. While the state’s request includes inmates from other counties, several inmates from outside Nashville remain without execution dates, including inmates who were sentenced as early as 1983.
Raybin says he sees the move as a sign of growing tensions between state prosecutors in Slatery’s office and local district prosecutors in Funk’s office; two groups who are traditionally supposed to work together.
"Here I see an antagonism going on that is somewhat unprecedented in my experience," Raybin said.
It’s an antagonism that Raybin says was exacerbated last week, when Slatery announced he would sue to uphold Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence. Slatery said neither Funk nor Watkins had the authority to make or approve the deal.
Slatery filed for the nine new execution dates on the same day.
"It’s very rare for the state to have appealed the district attorney's agreement with the defense attorney," Raybin said. "It’s not illegal what Judge Watkins did, there's plenty of precedent for ruling the way that he did."
Slatery’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening. In legal filings, the state argued that it was appropriate for the Tennessee Supreme Court to set execution dates for the nine inmates because their court appeals had finished without a reversal of their death sentences and because there were no judicial or executive orders staying their executions or granting reprieves.
The request for execution dates for nine more Tennessee death row inmates bucks the national trend as states nationwide are carrying out fewer executions.
"Most of the states are reducing the number of death penalty cases," Raybin said. "Many states still have the death penalty, but you still have an overall reduction."
"We soon could become the new 'Texas' as far as that's concerned," Raybin said. "I don’t think that's a great thing to be known for."
Raybin says he thinks the recent legal successes the state has seen in death penalty appeals has encouraged state officials to ramp up its execution schedule.
"I think the state has been emboldened, perhaps by the rulings in these death penalty cases,” Raybin said. "They feel like there's nothing that's going to stop them."