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Tennessee Kangaroo Court


Any romantic illusions about fairness in the American Criminal Justice System disintegrated at Riverbend Prison in Nashville last Thursday.

What was billed as a clemency hearing for the African-American death-row inmate, Abu-Ali Abdhur Rahman, turned out to be a perverse draconian nightmare. Not just for Mr. Abdhur Rahman but for anyone with anything remotely positive to say about him.

Those not believing in the existence of good and evil might well have been converted after observing this charade of justice on Holy Thursday. The eight-hour proceedings began at 8:30 am. By 8:45, the hostility of the board was palpable. At. 9:05 I scribbled “it’s over”. Unfortunately it was seven more grueling hours of mocking and jabbing before these character assassins announced the verdict. The vote was 6-0 against clemency. No surprises, no suspense.

The kangaroo court consisted of six seemingly self-righteous, arrogant, mercenaries who were obviously confused about the role they were elected to perform. Perhaps in a former life they were employed by the Marquis de Sade? Certainly their method of disemboweling Mr. Abdhur Rahman of any trace of dignity was reminiscent of medieval torture and mayhem. Observing this so-called hearing was a violent experience–even without the blood.

A clemency hearing is meant to be just that–a hearing. Unfortunately there was no listening on the part of this pious and holy panel of judges. The message clearly conveyed was that nothing said could sway the board from the loathing and disgust they felt for a convicted killer–regardless of evidence that suggests he did not receive a fair trial. . The issue that should have concerned the panel was not whether or not Abdhur Rahman was guilty but whether he should receive mercy by a life sentence instead of death. Their charter was to determine if the unfairness of his first trial and the person he has become since the crime would warrant benevolence by the State. But this didn’t stop the panel from playing judge and jury. Over and over again the defense team was forced to remind the panel that Abdhur Rahman would continue to pay for his crime by life in prison. And continually the board attacked, provoked and cajoled anyone brave enough to come forward.

Not even the two attorneys who originally represented Abu-Ali at trial; Lionel Barrett and Sumpter Camp were spared. These established lawyers humbled themselves publicly for the first time and confessed that indeed they had failed to gather evidence that might have helped Abdhur Rahman’s case. They admitted not having prepared for the trial until a week before. Mr. Barrett, the lead counsel, conceded he barely knew anything about his former client and most everything he’s learned since was from Abdhur Rahman’s current lawyers. Both asked the panel for mercy.

Rather than ingesting the emotional testimonies of the lawyers, some of the panel members spewed vile accusations and chastised them for not coming forward sooner. Then in a rather audacious declaration, Mr. Larry Hassell, a sort of grandfatherly panelist contradicted Mr. Barrett’s self-assessment by saying he thought that Mr. Barrett had done a fine job.

The head kangaroo in this court was Mr. Charles Traughber.. Whenever positive statements were made on Mr. Abdhur Rahman’s behalf, Mr. Traughber was quick to point out that good intentions, mental illness and abuse were no excuse–only his actions counted.

Sheila Holt Swearingen, the only female panelist, scoffed at assertions made by spiritual advisor and Vanderbilt Psychologist Linda Manning. Dr. Manning described how Abdhur Rahman’s mental illnesses caused him to dissociate on the night of the crime explaining why he could not recall the actual murder. Swearingen later callously taunted Abdhur Rahman about his habit of dissociating under pressure and then chided “so are you dissociating now”?

It was evident the panel believes we humans are no better than our worst deed–even if we don’t remember it. And it is noteworthy that the board equated Mr. Rahman’s inability to remember with guilt–in spite of his painful and lengthy history of mental illness.

Interestingly enough even Mr. Traughber’s personal experience with faulty memory did not inspire empathy for Mr. Rahman’s lack of recall. In the late 70’s Traughber seemed to have significant memory problems himself when questioned by Fred Thompson during the Marie Ragghianti/Ray Blanton Parole and Pardon scandal.

Mr. Traughber–who was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie “Marie”–had great difficulty remembering details about any of the candidates who received pardons in exchange for money while he was on the Board of Paroles. Several times when Mr. Thompson queried him about various parolees he stated that he did not recall. Are we to assume that Mr. Traughber’s faulty memory indicates guilt?

The board’s own transgressions seemed far from their minds as they excoriated Mr. Abdhur Rahman. Many in the room–including several members of the press–were astonished at the hostile prejudice that the board never bothered to disguise.

Abdhur Rahman is a mentally ill man already condemned to die on April 10th. Denying clemency would have been traumatic enough without all the humiliation and degradation before killing him.

If Governor Sundquist denies clemency to Abdhur Rahman, public outcry will most certainly warrant another national scandal for Nashville. Abu Ali Abdhur Rahman will become a household name and perhaps Morgan Freeman will come back to Tennessee for the movie of the week.

Molly Secours is a writer, activist and videographer in Nashville. She can be reached at mollmaud@earthlink.net

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