Tennessee Man’s Death Sentence Vacated After Racial Discrimination and Prosecutorial Misconduct


Last Friday, the trial court in Davidson County, Tennessee, granted District Attorney Glenn Funk’s request to vacate the death sentence imposed on Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman because of prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias at his 1987 trial.

Mr. Abdur’Rahman, 68, who had been facing an April 16 execution date, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Brad MacLean, a lawyer for Mr. Abdur’Rahman, argued that lead prosecutor John Zimmerman “engaged in a pervasive pattern of suppression and deception” during Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s trial.

He said that Mr. Zimmerman used racist stereotypes as a pretext to strike prospective African American jurors. One of three Black potential jurors struck by the prosecutor was a Black pastor with a college degree who was barred from jury service because the prosecutor said he seemed “uneducated” and lacked “communication skills.”

Illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases. EJI found that prosecutors often give reasons for striking Black potential jurors that are obviously a pretext for discrimination. A juror’s alleged “low intelligence” or “lack of education” is a startlingly common reason given by prosecutors for striking Black prospective jurors, EJI reported.

Mr. MacLean also highlighted how Mr. Zimmerman — who is still a prosecutor in Rutherford County — withheld evidence from the defense.

Mr. Funk condemned Mr. Zimmerman’s conduct in a 2015 memo, in which he wrote that Mr. Zimmerman “encouraged unethical and illegal conduct” during a 2015 lecture to other lawyers and “gave blatant advice to use race in jury selection.”

Mr. Funk asked the court to vacate Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence last Wednesday pursuant to an agreement with Mr. Abdur’Rahman that ends all appeals in the case.

“Overt racial bias has no place in the justice system,” Mr. Funk said. “Further, and most importantly, the pursuit of justice is incompatible with deception. Prosecutors must never be dishonest to or mislead defense counsel, courts or juries.”

The trial court approved the agreement on Friday, saying the law gave Mr. Funk standing to “remedy a legal injustice under circumstances such as these.”

Mr. Abdur’Rahman was convicted for attacking a woman and her boyfriend, who was killed. She survived and later forgave Mr. Abdur’Rahman. Her daughters, who were in the house and heard the attack, were in court on Friday. They shook hands with Mr. Funk and said he had done the right thing in light of Mr. Zimmerman’s misconduct.

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong,” Katrina Norman said, observing that Mr. Zimmerman was not honest. “Because he wasn’t we still have to endure this pain.”

Shawanna Norman said Mr. Zimmerman’s behavior warranted one response: “Shame on you.”