An effort to overturn a Tennessee man’s death sentence appears to be headed back to trial. The state Court of Criminal Appeals has struck down a deal with Nashville’s district attorney that would have changed Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s sentence to life imprisonment.
Monday’s ruling came at the request of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office, which argued that Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk didn’t have authorization to ask on his own for Abdur’Rahman’s sentence to be overturned.
Abdur’Rahman has argued that the prosecutor in his murder trial three decades ago showed racial prejudice by striking Black candidates from the jury pool. Funk and a Nashville judge agreed, and a year ago they moved to throw out Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence.
But the appeals court says the state attorney general has a right to overrule local district attorneys. It says a hearing should now be held on the merits of Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence.
Abdur’Rahman was convicted over three decades ago for the 1986 killing of a man and attack on his girlfriend. Abdur’Rahman doesn’t deny being at the scene of the crime, but he says he was blacked out at the time and couldn’t recall whether he participated.
He’s lodged numerous appeals over the years, and his case seemed to receive a boost four years ago. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a Georgia man who showed that prosecutors had discriminated against him by striking all four Black potential jurors.
Weeks later, Abdur’Rahan’s attorneys filed a motion alleging a similar pattern of discrimination. After reviewing the evidence — which included the prosecutor’s notes, an affidavit from one of the stricken jurors and comments made by the prosecutor at a 2015 seminar that appeared to suggest using racial stereotypes in jury selection — Funk offered Abdur’Rahman a deal: He would ask the court to throw out his death sentence if Abdur’Rahman would waive future appeals.
Judge Monte Watkins approved the agreement, but Slatery’s office intervened. The attorney general argued that letting local district attorneys overturn a death sentence would set a bad precedent — a viewpoint that the appeals court essentially endorsed.
“In this court’s experience, it is not uncommon for the state attorney general to take a different position on appeal from the one held by the district attorney general in the trial court, even when such position is contrary to an agreement between the district attorney general and the defendant,” Judge Timothy L. Easter wrote on behalf of the court.
“We conclude that the state had a right to appeal, that the state attorney general had the authority to bring the appeal, and that the jurisdictional issue raised on appeal was not waived by the agreement of the parties in the court below.”
But the court stopped short of determining whether Abdur’Rahman really was the victim of discrimination. That, judges said, should be determined through a trial, noting that by throwing out the deal between Funk and Abdur’Rahman, they had essentially reset the clock to a year ago.
“The post-conviction court never made a finding of a constitutional violation as required to grant relief,” they wrote. “The proper remedy in this case is to vacate both the amended judgment and the [order], thereby placing the parties back into the positions they occupied at the time of the evidentiary hearing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the court that ruled on Abdur’Rahman’s case Monday. It was the Criminal Court of Appeals, not the Tennessee Supreme Court.