A Nashville judge has for a second time approved a plea deal that would remove Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman from Tennessee’s death row and resentence him to life without possibility of parole. On November 9, 2021, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins entered
an order overturning Abdur’Rahman’s 1987 conviction based on former
Davidson County Assistant District Attorney General John Zimmerman’s
unconstitutional use of discretionary strikes to remove African
Americans from the jury. The court then accepted a negotiated plea
agreement between local prosecutors and the defense that withdrew the
death penalty from Abdur’Rahman’s case.
Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk told the court
that newly discovered prosecution notes from jury selection in the case
and comments Zimmerman made during a jury selection training session in
which he advocated race-based use of jury strikes amounted to a “smoking
gun of racial bias” in Abdur’Rahman’s case. The state’s “interest in
the finality of convictions and sentences,” Funk said, asking the court
to overturn Abdur’Rahman’s conviction, “is outweighed by the interests
of justice, and in some situations by recognition of the sanctity of
Under the plea deal, which had the support of the victims’ family
members, Abdur’Rahman admitted guilt on three charges — murder,
attempted murder, and armed robbery — and waived his right to future
appeals. In exchange, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms.
Watkins had vacated Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence
and approved a similar deal in 2019, while a death warrant for
Abdur’Rahman’s execution was pending. However, Tennessee Attorney
General Herbert H. Slatery III intervened in the case,
claiming that Funk and the trial court had no authority to vacate
Abdur’Rahman’s sentence in the absence of a proven constitutional
violation. Abdur’Rahman was procedurally barred from claiming jury
discrimination in his case, Slatery said.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals struck down the first plea
deal and returned the case to Judge Watkins with directions on how to
proceed. Counsel for Abdur’Rahman argued that new evidence of jury
discrimination permitted him to challenge his conviction. In his ruling,
Watkins agreed that a constitutional violation had occurred and
overturned Abdur’Rahman’s convictions. The plea agreement then obviated
the need for conducting a new trial.
The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office has 30 days to determine
whether to appeal. Slatery issued a statement through an office
spokesperson that state prosecutors were reviewing the order and “we are
considering next steps.”
Abdur’Rahman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for the
stabbing death of Patrick Daniels. As her two young children cowered in
an adjacent room, Norma Jean Norman was also seriously wounded but
survived. Abdur’Rahman argued that his conviction should be overturned
because trial prosecutor John Zimmerman discriminatorily struck two
Black potential jurors based on racist stereotypes. Zimmerman attempted
to justify his strike of one Black juror by asserting that the
college-educated Black pastor seemed “uneducated” and lacked
Abdur’Rahman’s lawyers had filed previous pleadings highlighting
other misconduct by Zimmerman, including a false statement that
Abdur’Rahman’s coat had been stained with the victims’ blood.
Abdur’Rahman’s court-appointed trial counsel — who had not talked to a
single eyewitness, conducted any independent investigation of the crime,
or explored evidence of his client’s mental illness — never ordered testing
on the coat, which become the most convincing evidence of his guilt.
Later testing of the coat determined that the stains were not blood at
all, but red paint from Abdur’Rahman’s workplace.