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New Documentary Looks At Flaws In A High-Profile Nashville Death Penalty Case

Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman is waiting for a judge to decide if he'll be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. A new documentary shows how he ended up on death row.
Courtesy Justice for Abu
Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman is waiting for a judge to decide if he'll be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. A new documentary shows how he ended up on death row.

More than 30 years ago, a Nashville man was sentenced to death for a stabbing that he says he can’t remember. Now, a court must decide whether or not he’ll face execution.

A new documentary that debuted last week at the Nashville Film Festival sheds light on mistakes made at trial that could cost him his life.

Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s defense attorney says he knew he’d messed up when his client took the stand at his 1987 sentencing.

“It was one of the most pitiful things I had ever seen,” Sumter Camp says in an interview with documentarians Jon Kent and Lisa Goodpaster. “He literally at the end ends up pleading, begging for his life.”

At a clemency hearing in 2002, Camp testified that he and his colleague, Lionel Barrett, had no trial strategy. And that every judge who had reviewed the case had found them incompetent.

“I mean, that was our job. That was our failing,” Camp tells the filmmakers. “When he looked at the jury and said: ‘I don’t know you and you don’t know me,’ that defined our failure in that case.”

The documentary reveals the many ways Camp and Barrett may have erred.

They never told the jury that their client suffered from mental illness, after enduring severe abuse as a child. And they never mentioned that no blood was found on his coat after the stabbing.

Multiple legal experts say details like that could have saved Abdur’Rahman from death row. Such mitigating factors could mean the difference between a juror’s vote for life imprisonment or a death sentence.

And multiple jurors have since testified that they regret their decision. Had they been given the chance to do it over, they say, they would have voted differently.

“The picture upon which this jury must make a decision is not a proper picture,” says Brad MacLean, the defense attorney who has represented Abdur’Rahman through years of appeals. “The jury never learned anything about Abu or his life or his mental condition or the circumstances surrounding the crime. They didn’t learn anything about that, so they never got to know Abu-Ali.”

Abdur’Rahman has never denied that he was at the scene of the crime. But he says that he blacked out during the stabbing, and he’s not sure if he was the one who stabbed a man to death and injured his girlfriend, or if it was the other man who was with him. Abdur’Rahman says his blackouts stem from years of abuse.

Nashville’s district attorney overturned Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence last summer, citing misconduct and racial bias during his trial. The state has appealed that decision and is waiting for the court to weigh in.

In archival footage from his 2002 clemency hearing, Abdur’Rahman says no one truly listened to him. But his pleas were in vain. The parole board voted to deny his petition, and the governor decide not to grant him clemency.

“Every time I open my mouth to anybody to try to explain myself, ‘I don’t want to hear it,'” Abdur’Rahman tells the parole board. “Nobody ever don’t want to hear what I have to say.”

“Part of what we were trying to do in the film is to make sure that people know who Abu is and know about his past,” says Kent. They called it “You Don’t Know Me,” as a nod to the many people in the story they say have been misunderstood: Abdur’Rahman, his attorneys and the others involved in the stabbing who walked away without a death sentence.

“I think we should know who somebody is before we, as a state, decide we’re going to put them to death,” Kent says.

Meanwhile, Barrett, who was the lead attorney at Abdur’Rahman’s trial, says he’ll blame himself if his former client is executed. Barrett says this is one case from his decades-long career that he wishes he had never taken on.

“I do not think it will drive me over the edge. It might,” he says. “I might just not get over it.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.


Copyright 2020 WPLN News

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.