Prosecutors agree to vacate death sentence for Tennessee inmate; judge has to approve deal

Posted at 10:42 AM, Aug 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-28 19:41:37-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Convicted killer Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman had less than eight months to live on Tennessee’s death row.

In April 2020, he was scheduled for execution -- an ultimate fate he had spent more than 30 years anticipating. But now, his death sentence will be vacated -- pending a judge’s final approval -- amid concerns of a prosecutor’s alleged racial discrimination before Abdur’Rahman’s 1987 trial.

Instead, Abdur'Rahman will face three back-to-back life sentences. Prosecutors say he will die in prison for the stabbing death of Patrick Daniels and the stabbing of Norma Jean Norman, who survived.

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk struck the deal with Abdur’Rahman’s attorneys after Abdur’Rahman asked Nashville Judge Monte Watkins for a new trial, saying the prosecutor in Abdur’Rahman’s original trial, John Zimmerman, discriminated against African American potential jurors during jury selection by keeping them off the jury. Abdur’Rahman, who is black, agreed to drop his request for a new trial in exchange for the life sentences.

Judge Watkins still has to sign off on the deal to take Abdur'Rahman off death row. In court Wednesday, Watkins said he would have a final decision by late Thursday morning.

A 2016 legal filing cited Zimmerman's “racist motivations” in his challenges to keep two African Americans off the 1987 jury that would try and later convict Abdur'Rahman.

In court Wednesday, Abdur'Rahman's attorney Bradley MacLean read from Zimmerman's notes he wrote during the jury selection process before Abdur'Rahman's original trial, referring to one particular African American potential juror.

MacLean said the notes included phrases like "appeared uneducated," "slow intellectual individual," and "less in communicative-type skills and intellect skills."

"Your Honor, these are pernicious, widespread racial stereotypes," MacLean said to Judge Watkins.

MacLean argued that during jury selection, Zimmerman never asked about the African American potential juror's education, and he never asked him open-ended questions that would have given him an opportunity to express his communication skills.

In fact, MacLean argued, the juror was a college-educated church pastor.

"He was far from being uncommunicative, he was far from being uneducated," MacLean said.

Abdur’Rahman’s attorneys had made the legal challenge to push for a new trial in 2016, shortly after obtaining Zimmerman’s notes from jury selection. A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Foster v. Chatman, opened the door for similar legal challenges surrounding racial discrimination in jury selection if new evidence becomes available after a conviction.

In court, Funk said he had consulted with the victims and their families in Abdur’Rahman’s case. Funk said Norma Jean Norman, the surviving victim in the stabbing, had forgiven Abdur'Rahman, but did not want him ever to be released from prison. Others like George Daniels, the brother of murder victim Patrick Daniels, told Funk that he still wanted the state to “burn his ass.”

Despite the deal, Funk said Abdur'Rahman was plainly guilty of first-degree murder, describing in the courtroom how Abdur'Rahman and an accomplice Devalle Miller went to the home of Daniels and Norman in 1986 armed with a shotgun. Funk said once there, they told Norman to put her two young daughters in a back bedroom before binding and stabbing both Norman and Daniels.

Funk told Judge Watkins that Norman's daughters still require counseling to this day as a result.

"They still bear the emotional scars of being children, cowering in a bedroom and hearing the murder of Patrick Daniels and then having to see their mother crawl into their bedroom with the butcher knife still stuck in her back," Funk said.

Wednesday’s legal maneuver placed Funk in a unique position. While representing the state that had originally imposed the death sentence upon Abdur’Rahman, some of Funk’s own previous statements critical of prosecutor Zimmerman were used by the defense in support of a new trial.

In a 2015 letter, Funk raised concerns about a comment Zimmerman made at the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference that year. Funk told the conference director that Zimmerman gave an audience at the conference "blatant advice to use race in jury selection" while sitting on a panel discussing the issue.

Read the full letter here

In the letter, Funk says Zimmerman told the audience he once tried a conspiracy case with all Hispanic defendants, saying that he "wanted an all African-American jury, because 'all Blacks hate Mexicans’."

Before announcing Wednesday’s agreement in support of vacating Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence, Funk told Judge Watkins that “overt racial bias” has no place in the legal system.

"The pursuit of justice is incompatible with deception," Funk said. "Prosecutors must never be dishonest to -- or mislead -- defense attorneys, courts or juries."

Zimmerman has also faced more recent controversy. He was the prosecutor behind the botched Operation Candy Crush raids in Rutherford County last year, when investigators seized what they thought were candies containing a form of marijuana from convenience stores. In fact, those candies contained CBD, a legal form of hemp.

Zimmermann is currently being sued by the store owners. In the lawsuit, he's accused of telling one of the candy manufacturers that "all the people selling CBD in Rutherford County are foreigners."