Attorney General Turns to Tennessee Supreme Court in Appeal of a Black Inmate’s Commuted Death Sentence

FILE – In this Aug. 28, 2019 file photo, Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman attends a hearing in Nashville, Tenn. A Nashville judge on Friday, Aug. 30 approved an agreement between prosecutors and attorneys for Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman that converts his death sentence to life in prison. The agreement comes after Abdur’Rahman petitioned to reopen his case, presenting evidence that prosecutors at his trial treated black potential jurors differently from white potential jurors.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee’s attorney general wants the state Supreme Court to fast-track his office’s appeal of a black inmate’s commuted death sentence, a case that has gained attention after concerns were raised that racism tainted his jury selection pool and prompted his pending execution to be converted to life in prison.

In a filing this week, Attorney General Herbert Slatery contended that the Supreme Court should take over the case and bypass a lower appeals court because it is “of unusual public importance” after he said a jury’s verdict was “so easily nullified and subverted.”

If the agreement with prosecutors to drop this death sentence ends up standing, Slatery contended that final judgments in other cases would not be safe from being changed merely because the parties and the court agree to do so.

“In the absence of guidance from this Court, the practice of modifying final judgments threatens to undermine the public’s trust in the integrity of the criminal justice system,” Slatery wrote to the high court Wednesday.

Slatery filed his original appeal last week, arguing that the recent decision of a Davidson County judge to reduce inmate Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s (ah-BOO’-ah-LEE’) (AHB’-dur-RAK’-mahn) death sentence circumvented certain legal procedures.

The same day, he asked the state’s high court to set nine more execution dates, a move that would continue the quick pace that placed Tennessee second to only Texas in carrying out death sentences last year. Texas had 13 executions; Tennessee had three.

Abdur’Rahman was within eight months of his scheduled execution in April when he signed an agreement with prosecutors on Aug. 28 to change his sentence. Under the order, Abdur’Rahman was to remain on death row for 30 days before the order would become final before being reclassified and moved.

The agreement came after Abdur’Rahman, who is black, petitioned to reopen his case. He presented evidence that prosecutors at his trial treated black potential jurors differently from white potential jurors.

Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender on Abdur’Rahman’s legal team, responded Friday by saying it’s “unfortunate that the appointed Attorney General is attempting to usurp the power and discretion that belongs solely to the elected district attorney general.”

Tennessee’s attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court. The district attorneys general are elected.

Slatery wrote that the Abdur’Rahman decision also has implications for the separation of powers, saying the governor has sole authority under the Tennessee Constitution to grant reprieves and pardons.

Abdur’Rahman was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of Patrick Daniels, who was stabbed to death. Norma Jean Norman was also stabbed but survived. The stabbing took place in Norman’s house while her two young daughters, Katrina and Shawanna, huddled in a back bedroom.

Tennessee has executed five people since August 2018, including three by electrocution — an option for inmates convicted of crimes before January 1999. However, the state also has the option of using the electric chair should it not have access to lethal injection chemicals.

Two more executions are scheduled for the coming months.