Travis Lollier | Contributor
Nashville, TN (AP) — A Tennessee inmate is leaving death row eight months before what would have been his execution date, after a judge approved an agreement Friday to convert his death sentence to life in prison.
Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman (ah-BOO’-ah-LEE’) (AHB’-dur-RAK’-mahn) signed the agreement with prosecutors Wednesday, but Nashville Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins did not announce his approval until Friday morning.
The agreement comes after Abdur’Rahman, who is black, petitioned to reopen his case, presenting evidence that prosecutors at his trial treated black potential jurors differently from white potential jurors.
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.
Speaking to news reporters on Friday, the sisters said they were relieved that the legal maneuverings in the case are finally over.
Abdur’Rahman has been on death row 32 years and seen three previous execution dates cancelled thanks to various appeals.
“I’m actually glad today that we won’t ever have to endure this again,” Katrina Norman said.
Shawanna Norman said they remember the attack on their mother and stepfather like it was yesterday.
“I still go to counselling now on a regular basis because I have recurring nightmares that he is released and he stabs me to death and we’re having a funeral in my grandmother’s house,” she said.
Shawanna Norman also said she still feels guilty that she didn’t think to crawl out a window and seek help. She was 9 years old at the time and Katrina was 8.
Over the past year, Tennessee’s condemned inmates have had little success in the courts. Tennessee has executed five people in just over a year with two more executions scheduled in the coming months.
Abdur’Rahman’s execution date was to be April 16, and Shawanna Norman said they had been looking forward to it.
“We’re still OK, because he’s never going to see the light of day,” she said, calling Abdur’Rahman “pure evil.”
They also had harsh words for the lead prosecutor in the case, John Zimmerman, who no longer works in Nashville, calling him dishonest and saying he should be disbarred.
In a phone interview Friday, Zimmerman said he did not try to keep African Americans off the jury.
“There were two African American victims and two African American defendants,” he said. “There’s no way we wanted an all-white jury.”
One black person did end up serving on the jury, but several others were excluded, according to court records.
Abdur’Rahman’s attorney, Brad MacLean, said in an interview after the hearing that he hopes other prosecutors will follow the example of Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, who signed the agreement to convert Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence to life.
“This is exactly the way the system is supposed to work,” he said. “Every system is a human system and subject to human error. The true test of a fair and just system is its capacity to correct itself.”
Speaking briefly from the bench earlier, Judge Watkins explained his delay in accepting the agreement by saying he wanted to be sure it was legal for the parties to set aside a jury verdict. Watkins said he found support for the action in both state and federal law.
Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Faith Seifuddin said in an email that Abur’Rahman will remain on death row for 30 days, the time it will take for Watkins’ order to become final, before he is reclassified and moved.