A condemned Tennessee prisoner is waiting to hear whether he will be spared the death chamber after he claimed prosecutors illegally excluded African Americans from the jury pool.
Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman (ah-BOO’-ah-LEE’) (AHB’-dur-RAK’-mahn), who is black, faces an April 16 execution date for the 1986 murder of Patrick Daniels.
Nashville’s district attorney agreed on Wednesday to convert Abdur’Rahman’s sentence to life, but Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins still has to sign off on the agreement. He said he would decide by Thursday, but no decision was announced by the close of business.
Abdur’Rahman, 68, has seen three previous execution dates come and go, once coming within two days of execution, as various legal appeals worked their ways through the courts.
Those appeals were all denied. Although courts more than once found misconduct by the prosecutor, each time they decided the harm done was not enough to justify a new trial.
Then, in May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a black death row inmate in Georgia, finding prosecutors had illegally excluded African Americans from the all-white jury that determined Timothy Foster’s fate.
The following month, Abdur’Rahman filed a motion to reopen his case.
The Supreme Court had made clear in 1986 that potential jurors cannot be eliminated merely because of their race, but those claims have been difficult to prove.
In Foster’s case, Justice Elena Kagan said it seemed as clear a violation “as a court is ever going to see.” Yet Georgia courts had consistently rejected his claims.
Foster’s lawyers had argued that notes written by prosecutors during jury selection proved discrimination. Among other evidence, there was a list of “Definite No’s” naming six people, of whom five were the remaining black prospective jurors and the sixth was a white woman who opposed the death penalty.
Prior to the Foster decision, Tennessee had not allowed prosecutors’ notes to be used as evidence of racial bias. Foster’s case made it clear that such evidence could be used to reexamine a case even where the appeals had been exhausted.
Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the Supreme Court has generally been making it tougher for defense attorneys to overturn verdicts because of mistakes made at trial. But “jury selection is a countertrend,” said Baumgartner, who has written a book on the death penalty.
Racial bias in jury selection is “endemic throughout the system” he said, so there could be thousands of people with similar claims. But even a successful claim doesn’t guarantee a reduced sentence.
In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court is currently weighing the case of several death row inmates who made claims of racially biased juries under a 2009 state law.
The state’s Racial Justice Act allowed condemned prisoners to challenge their death sentences by using statistics to show that race tainted their trials. Four inmates who did so had their sentences converted to life, but that judgment was later overturned and their death sentences reinstated. In 2013, the law was repealed.
Meanwhile, Foster himself remains behind bars as Georgia seeks to retry him for a 1986 slaying. Prosecutors have said they will again seek the death penalty.
Speaking at Abdur’Rahman’s hearing Wednesday, attorney Brad MacLean said prosecutors’ notes from his client’s trial showed they treated black potential jurors differently from white potential jurors. For example, prosecutors told the judge one African American man, a college educated preacher, appeared uneducated and uncommunicative.
Meanwhile, white jurors who truly were uneducated were allowed to serve.
Nashville’s District Attorney General Glenn Funk did not address the specific claims, but before signing an agreement to convert Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence to life he said that “overt racial bias has no place in the justice system.”
If Watkins approved the agreement, Abdur’Rahman’s new life sentence would run consecutively with two other life sentences, so he would have no possibility of leaving prison.
In return, Abdur’Rahman will abandon any further legal challenges.
This story has been corrected to show that the North Carolina death row inmates whose sentences were converted to life based on Racial Justice Act claims had their death sentences reinstated before the law was repealed.