In 1968, after four years at The University of the South and a law degree from Vanderbilt University, I moved to Paducah, Kentucky, where I became an associate in a law firm representing people who had been injured in accidents. Since there were no Public Defenders in Paducah, the young lawyers were appointed by the Circuit Court Judge to represent indigent criminal defendants. I did not want to engage in criminal litigation, so on each Arraignment Day, I would go to the local courthouse and announce publicly that anyone who is indicted by a grand jury must be guilty. By uttering that prejudicial statement, I was never appointed to represent an indigent criminal defendant.
In 2011, after more than forty years of being a lawyer without any interest in criminal law, my life changed. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocence, spoke at Christ Church Cathedral. I was so overwhelmed by the message of Sister Helen that I contacted the Very Reverend Timothy Kimbrough, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, for guidance. He referred me to the Reverend Joe Ingle, who has dedicated his life to prison ministry.
Joe and I met and had a lengthy discussion. He then took me to a meeting of the Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman clemency team, which is led by Attorney Brad MacLean. I became a member of the team, and Brad introduced me to Abu, a Tennessee death row inmate scheduled for execution in October, 2015. I now visit Abu on a weekly basis.
In the summer of 2014, during a visit with Abu, he asked me, “Would I be accepted in The Episcopal Church?” While I did not know the basis for the question, I responded, “Absolutely, Abu. I have told your story, Joe Ingle has told your story, and we would let you tell your own story.” Later in the conversation, Abu said, “I need to tell you something. Last week when you visited me, you called me ‘brother’. After you left, I returned to my cell and thought about that. I thought about the number of Episcopalians who have helped me.” Then, he named the Episcopalians who had helped him, including me.
He stated that he knew that some churches would not accept him, but he wanted to know if he would be accepted in The Episcopal Church. I was so impacted by this discussion that I contacted the Rev. Joe Ingle and suggested that we should have the Very Reverend. Timothy Kimbrough visit Abu. Joe made the arrangements, and Timothy visited with Abu. Timothy then had two books about The Episcopal Church sent to Abu.
After considerable study, Abu announced to me that he wanted to convert to Christianity and that he wanted to become an Episcopalian on October 15, his birthday. Joe, Timothy, and I met with Abu on several occasions and determined that we would attempt to honor his request.
Although the Bishop of Tennessee was on sabbatical, Rev. Kimbrough contacted him. The Bishop agreed to conduct Abu’s confirmation. Rev. Kimbrough also sent a Abu a Book of Common Prayer, which we spent time studying together.
On the October 15, Bishop John Bauerschmidt and seventeen others, including Abu’s lead attorney, went to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, where we were escorted to death row. Abu, who has a beautiful voice, sang a hymn for us. Bishop Bauerschmidt conducted the confirmation of Abu and celebrated the Eucharist. During the homily, the Bishop offered Abu an opportunity to speak. He spoke for only a few minutes, during which he thanked all of us for our support. Preceding the benediction, Abu sang “Amazing Grace.” Following the confirmation, we sang “Happy Birthday” to Abu. This may have been the happiest birthday celebration he had ever experienced in his sixty-four years of life.
In closing, I can tell you that Abu is my “brother” and that – even though he was at the scene of a murder and did commit a crime – I do not think that he committed the murder for which he was sentenced to death. Everything seems to have gone wrong in Abu’s case: ineffective defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, including lying by the prosecutor, and jurors who have stated that they would not have sentenced Abu to death if they had heard all of the relevant evidence.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a part of the Organization of American States (OAS), has ruled that Abu has been denied due process and that he should be awarded a new trial or be released from prison. Unfortunately, rulings of the IACHR are not binding on the courts of the United States.
Abu should have his death sentence commuted to a lesser sentence, and he should be released from prison. Upon his release, he can work with parents who are experiencing difficulties with their children and help them avoid the mistakes that were inflicted upon him. Abu suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder due to being severely abused by his parents as a child. If Abu is given the opportunity to work with parents, I believe that he can help them avoid costly mistakes that have long-term effects. The net result will be a reduction in crime and a smaller number of people sentenced to prison.
I will go any place at any time to tell the story of Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, an Episcopalian and my brother.