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The Case of Abu-Ali, Racism, Misconduct and the Death Penalty

Some people are born victims. As in the case of Abu-Ali Abdhur Rahman who, beginning at age three, was a victim of extremely violent and horrific sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his parents. Often times he would be hung and locked in a closet with torture devices attached to his genitals and beaten until he could no longer cry.

The irony cuts deep. I first learned of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s debauched trial and possible execution the same week my niece asked me to be her birthing coach. Reveling in the excitement of greeting a new life, I am also struck by the randomness of birth and how one’s family, race and class is clearly the luck of the draw.

After reading the transcripts of his trial, it seems Abdur’Rahman drew a bad hand. As an innocent child who endured atrocious acts of sexual and physical violence, Abu-Ali’s early years served as a precursor for the unfairness he later endured by the criminal justice system.

Recently I discussed the troublesome particulars with a friend who is compassionate, middle-class, professional and white. She was interested in the case but curious why anyone might suspect this man had been treated unjustly. We discussed the racial makeup of the judges, counsel and jury (mostly white) as well as the substantial prosecutorial misconduct and the revolving door of inept counsel throughout Abdur’Rahman’s trial. And I shared his story.

Before Abdur’Rahman was born, his mother left three of his half-siblings to die in the woods. A cab driver rescued the siblings who were then dispersed into various foster homes. Although not abandoned, Abu-Ali is, and has always been, a throw-away child. And now the State of Tennessee would like to dispose of him too.

At 18, he was convicted of a robbery charge in an altercation instigated by a racial slur and was sent to a juvenile reform facility. Diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome, he never received treatment. While incarcerated Abdur’Rahman mortally wounded an inmate who orchestrated brutal gang rapes against him. Charged with 2nd degree murder, his trial lasted one day with no appeal. His inept counsel never mentioned his sexually abusive childhood, mental illness or the repeated rapes in prison.

After being released on parole in 1984, Abdur’Rahman lived in Chicago while working with the Quakers developing programs for underprivileged children in the Cabrini Green Projects. During that time and the time he lived in Nashville until the murder charge in 1996, he lived an exemplary life with a perfect employment record.

After moving to Nashville Abdur’Rahman was recruited by his employer/mentor Alan Boyd to join the Southeastern Gospel Ministry (SGM), a paramilitary organization. Dedicated to removing negative influences from the Black Community, one of the groups first missions to intimidate a drug dealer turned fatal. Abdur’Rahman was not alone at the crime scene. The man with him (an SGM member and co-worker) disappeared two days after the murder and was apprehended by the authorities a year later.

With incompetent counsel and 11 white jurors, Abdur’Rahman received the death penalty after two hours of deliberation.

Abdur’Rahman’s case was so bungled and mishandled that it took attorneys Bill Redick and Bradley MacLean years to unravel the criminal negligence of his legal representation. After reviewing the facts, five prominent constitutional-law scholars, joined the U.S. Supreme Court appeal to overturn the death penalty verdict. It wasn’t enough. Although the current record demonstrates the facts of Abdur’Rahman’s case have never been heard before a jury, the state of Tennessee intends to kill him.

Reading through the court transcripts many questions arise:

How did a jury convict a man with no physical evidence linking him to the crime? How was Abdur’Rahman’s conviction based solely on the statement of the only other person present at the crime scene–a man exchanging a 1st degree murder charge for his testimony? Why did his attorneys fail to learn about and present to the jury his documented mental disorder–an illness that causes blackouts during moments of stress? Why did John Zimmerman, the state’s prosecutor, and Abdur’Rahman’s defense counsel fail to present crucial blood evidence to the jury demonstrating he was not the murderer? Why have eight of the jurors signed sworn affidavits stating they should have heard about the lack of blood evidence and the defendants history of mental illness before making a life or death decision.

After briefing my associate, I then asked her a few questions. Did she think it possible for a mentally impaired, Afrcian American/Cherokee/Muslim to receive a fair trial in a criminal justice system comprised of predominately middle-upper class whites? Does the system work better for us rather than economically disadvantaged non-whites? And considering statistics that indicate non-whites (and poor whites) receive harsher sentences for lesser crimes than middle-upper class whites, I asked if it were possible that the death penalty was designed to dispose of “undesireables”–those without economic resources?

She stared at me as if I had asked if she believed God was a card-carrying atheist living in Beverly Hills. She couldn’t imagine that anyone in the U.S. wouldn’t receive all the same rights guaranteed by the founding fathers. Really? Even when the slave-owning founding fathers didn1t include non-whites (or non land-owning whites) when tossing around the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–or the right to a fair trial?

She said it was too painful to think that race and class could negatively influence judges and juries in their decisions to administer the death penalty. Or that a Muslim name might alter a sentence in light of September 11th. She vowed to have complete faith in the system–until minutes later when she confessed she had never seriously contemplated the issue because it doesn’t really affect her. I appreciated her honesty.

When our conversation ended she said what many whites say when confronted with the disquieting issues surrounding race, class and the death penalty. She said that “playing the race card” is dangerous and unfair. But what about knowing the deck is stacked and pretending not to notice? Isn’t that more dangerous and unfair when a human life is at stake? Last week my precious nephew arrived into this world greeted by two loving parents who will no doubt cherish him and protect him throughout his life. He is one of the lucky ones.

Abu-Ali however, has never been as lucky. Yesterday the State of Tennessee granted him an execution date of April 10th.

To learn more about Abu-Ali’s life visit Abu-Ali.org or to write Abu-Ali Fund, PO Box 121754, Nashville TN 37212 or

Molly Secours is a writer, activist, videographer in Nashville TN. She can be reached at mollmaud@earthlink.net

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