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Condemned Tennessee inmate spared execution over alleged "legal injustice" at 1987 trial

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 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. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk agreed to the deal, saying prosecutors in Abdur'Rahman's 1987 trial sought to keep African Americans off the jury, reports CBS affiliate WTVF.

Watkins said the ruling would "remedy a legal injustice."

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In this Aug. 28, 2019 photo, Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman attends a hearing in Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Abdur'Rahman was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Patrick Daniels, who was fatally stabbed. Norma Jean Norman was also stabbed but survived. The incident 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 nine years old at the time and Katrina was eight.

Funk said in a statement that  Abdur'Rahman is not an innocent man and chose not to challenge the life sentence in an agreement that ensures he will die in prison. Funk said he has also spoken to the sisters and their mother, the surviving victim, who also agreed to the deal. According to Funk, Norma Jean Norman said she forgives Abdur'Rahman but never wants him to leave prison.

"A prosecutor's job is to pursue justice and to do so with honesty, integrity and fairness," Funk's statement read in part. "District Attorneys hold immense power over life and liberty. Overt racial bias has no place in the justice system."

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 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. Zimmerman did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

Abdur'Rahman's attorney, Brad MacLean, said in an interview after the hearing that he hopes other prosecutors will follow Funk's example.

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 spokesperson 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.

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