Monday, June 01, 2009
Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman: A case of ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and severe mental illness
Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman was convicted in 1987 of the murder of Patrick Daniels, who was stabbed to death in 1986.
The quality of Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman's representation at the guilt/innocence stage of his trial as well as the sentencing phase have been called into questions when his lawyers were supposed to defend him from the death penalty.
At the sentencing phase, the defense presented none of the abundant mitigating evidence available. As a child, Abdur'Rahman had suffered appalling abuse at the hands of his father, a military policeman. This included being stripped, tied up, and locked in a cupboard; being struck on the penis with a baseball bat; and being made to eat a pack of cigarettes as punishment for smoking, and when he vomited, forced to eat the vomit. The jurors were also left unaware that Abdur'Rahman had suffered serious mental health problems, as had his brother and sister. His brother committed suicide as an adult. His sister attempted suicide many times. Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman has been diagnosed as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In 1998 a US District Judge overturned the death sentence, writing that Abdur'Rahman had been "seriously prejudiced by utterly ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing hearing". He is the only judge to have heard live testimony from the numerous defense witnesses who were not called at the original trial. He said the "overwhelming" nature of their testimony and other evidence "compels" the conclusion that the death sentence "cannot stand". In Tennessee, only a unanimous jury can pass a death sentence. If the trial lawyers had presented the mitigating evidence, the judge wrote, "there is more than a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have voted for a life sentence rather than the death penalty".
It would seem that he was right. Eight of the nine jurors contacted by the appeal lawyers now say that they might or would not have voted for death if they had heard the evidence in question. In his affidavit, for example, the foreman of the jury states: "It is my belief and opinion that this evidence would have made a significant difference in the sentencing phase of the trial. Further, given the nature of the evidence I would further offer for consideration that the death penalty be overturned in this case".
The death sentence has nevertheless survived the appeal process. In 2000 a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Judge's 1998 ruling and reinstated the death sentence. One of the three judges issued a strong dissent, citing the "constitutionally inadequate" defense Abdur'Rahman had received at the sentencing phase.
Doubts persist as to whether Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman was the person who actually stabbed Patrick Daniels. The Davidson County prosecutor mainly relied on the testimony of Abdur'Rahman's co-defendant, Devalle Miller, to persuade the jury that Abdur'Rahman had wielded the knife. Miller avoided the death penalty in exchange for his testimony and a guilty plea to second-degree murder, for which he was paroled after six years in prison. The unreliability of such testimony is reflected in rules recently adopted by the Davidson County prosecutor's office: "The death penalty will not be sought in cases where the evidence consists of the uncorroborated testimony of a single eyewitness or of a cooperating codefendant or accomplice". Under these rules, it is unlikely that the prosecutor could have sought the death penalty for Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman in the first place.
Addtionally, the coat Abu Ali wore when the offense occurred was tested by the state and was found to have no blood stains. The prosecutor, and a forensics expert, both have said that the person who killed the victim would have had blood stains on his clothes. It appears, therefore, that Abu Ali was not the assailant.
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