The first time I visited Abu Ali Abdur’ Rahman on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, I was nervous. But he was not what I expected. Immediately, Abu impressed me as polite, intelligent, and curious. I knew that Abu was someone I wanted to know better. At the time, his lawyers believed he would be executed in six months.
That was 17 years ago. Because of multiple stays and appeals, Abu’s case continues. And over those 17 years, Abu has continued to impress me. I consider him to be a dear friend. I am his spiritual advisor, and he continues to be my spiritual teacher. Since he lives on Death Row, however, in the public eye his story is frozen in time. And that story, told at trial, is a false narrative filled with lies.
In 1986, Abu (then known as James Lee Jones) became involved in an organization known as the Southeast Gospel Ministry. The leader of this organization was his boss at work. This organization had a ‘para-military’ group dedicated to “cleaning up” the Black community by getting rid of drugs and prostitution. Because of his own childhood of extreme physical and sexual abuse, Abu was determined to stop predators, especially those who preyed on children. A plan was put together by the group to visit and intimidate a known drug dealer named Patrick Daniels, whom Abu had observed selling drugs to minors. There was no intent to actually harm Daniels, so even though Abu and another group member, Devalle Miller, were given guns, they were not loaded. The plan went terribly wrong. Daniels was stabbed to death and the woman who lived with him was severely injured. Two children were hiding in a back bedroom when all of this occurred.
Abu was arrested two days later. He has never denied that he was there. He has always asserted that he blacked out during the crime and does not know who did the stabbing. This makes sense, because he has been diagnosed with PTSD and has a documented history of blackouts.
His partner, Miller, received money from the SGM group and left town. Miller was not apprehended until a year later. Once arrested, he made a deal with the prosecutor to testify against Abu in exchange for a plea to a lesser offense to avoid the death penalty. He served eight years in prison for his testimony against Abu. Abu was sentenced to death.
The prosecutor fabricated a tale full of lies. He made up a story that Abu planned to take over the drug trade in Nashville. He told the jury that there was no Southeast Gospel Ministry and no effort to rid the community of crime.
The Prosecutor falsely told the jury that Abu had no history of mental illness, even though he was aware that Abu had a long documented history of mental illness. These are not just opinions; these are facts documented in court filings.
Worst of all, the prosecutor never told the jury that no blood was found on the clothes Abu wore at the time, even though the TBI crime lab confirmed that there were no blood stains on any of Abu’s clothes.
Years later, a medical examiner said that because of the blood evidence, which the jury never heard about, Abu could not have been the one who killed Patrick Daniels.
The leader of the SGM promised Abu’s lawyer $15,000 to represent Abu. But the attorney only received $5000 and never started work on the case, because he had not been paid what was promised. He did nothing toward Abu’s defense and nothing to counter the lies told by the prosecution. His performance was so bad that he himself publicly admitted that he completely failed his client. The details of his failures are documented in the lawyer’s own files. Later, this lawyer lost his license to practice law.
Abu was wrong to try and ‘clean up’ the community through the use of fear and intimidation. He knows that now. But he has always wanted to improve the world. He has dedicated his life in prison to making a difference and is completely committed to non-violence. He spends his time on Death Row learning, writing, creating, and serving. He wants to reduce violence in the prison and all forms of domestic violence in communities. The prison authorities look to Abu to help keep peace in the prison.
Abu has been an active participant in courses offered by professors from Vanderbilt, Watkins, Lipscomb, and Belmont. He studies philosophy, religion and ethics—and he has earned degrees from his prison cell. His profound spiritual journey resulted in his confirmation in the Episcopal Church by Bishop Bauerschmidt in 2015. That was the first time the Bishop had visited death row. Abu has successfully completed the Lipscomb Certificate Program in Conflict Resolution and uses his mediation skills to settle disputes between inmates. He now teaches the program to other inmates and hopes to offer it throughout the prison. He has written articles and short stories that have been published in journals, newsletters, and books. He creates beautiful works of art that have been shown in galleries in Nashville, New York, Los Angeles and Germany.
He is not what you would expect. He is a kind, sensitive, spiritual person. His greatest wish is to devote the rest of his life working to reduce violence in the home, the streets, and in prisons. He has spent 30 years on Death Row, making a positive difference.
His execution would serve no purpose.