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We fill our juvenile and death row cells with lost childhoods

The Tennessean, March 9, 2003
By Molly Secours, of Nashville, a writer, speaker and activist

While walking the halls in juvenile prison each week, there is an eerie sensation of bearing witness to childhoods sent up in flames. Peering deeply into the ashen masks worn by these young offenders, I look for vital signs indicating it isn't too late for an infusion of hope.

It's not that faith is a foreign concept, but too many have already learned the risks of optimism. For some, too much damage has already been done to imagine anything different. Many were abused and neglected by parents, guardians or society in general and can recount unthinkable tales of violation in a flat cadence of someone reciting the phone book.

Their innocence has been burned out of them. My mission on most days is to ignite a spark from the embers in hopes they will envision another self, another life as someone worthy of respect. Often I leave feeling a failure and swear not to return. But I do anyway.

Most of the youth I work with are poor blacks or Latinos hailing from neighborhoods that most folks I know have never even driven through and wouldn't even consider it. I don't recall having ever met a young inmate from Belle Meade or Forest Hills. It's not surprising considering that African Americans, while comprising 13% of the national population, make up 53% of the prison population. This figure clearly illustrates the racial disparities prevalent in our criminal justice system.

As I drive away, I am reminded of a classic example of racial injustice: Abu Ali Abdur'Rahman, a 52-year-old death-row inmate at Riverbend Prison. Like many of the young offenders I meet, Abu Ali's childhood was snuffed out at an early age. In addition to various physical and sexual tortures, Abu Ali's parents used his person as an ashtray (literally) extinguishing cigarettes on his 4-year-old body and beating him until he ceased to scream. The abuses were countless and hideous, and like many of the incarcerated youth I encounter, his pleas for help were ignored.

Abu Ali developed severe emotional and psychological disorders over the years and began running away at age 8. By the time he was a teenager, he lived in a correctional institute where, again, he was subjected to sexual abuse adding to his mental instability, Again, Abu Ali re-ceived no help from authorities.

Fast forward to 1986: As an adult, Abu Ali was involved with a vigilante group whose mission was to stop the selling of drugs to children in the black community. The group planned to accomplish this task by intimidating local drug dealers. The misguided mission went awry, and a known drug dealer was stabbed to death.

Although Abu Ali was present at the crime and clearly involved, no evidence was presented to prove him guilty of 1st-degree murder for which he received a death sentence.

State prosecutor John Zimmerman knew of blood evidence that could have exonerated Abu Ali, but it was never presented to the jury.

Abu Ali, a poor, mentally ill black man, relied on Allen Boyd, his former employer and co-member of the vigilante group, to pay for legal fees. Abu Ali was represented by trial attorneys Sumpter Camp and Lionel Barrett, who later admitted they did no preparation on this capitol murder case until a week before trial. They called no witnesses for Abu Ali and failed to explore his lengthy history of mental illness.

Although the state prosecutor was aware of the mental illness and abuse, the jury was never given a social history of the defendant. The judge presiding over Abu Ali's trial concluded that the attorney's performance was substandard. And in the last year and a half, 8 out of the 12 jurors signed sworn affidavits saying had they known any of the evidence or mitigating circumstances, they may not have given the death penalty.

For many of us, it is difficult to comprehend how under such spurious circumstances, Abu Ali's appeals for life are denied. But it is only difficult to imagine if you are accustomed to fairness. As a middle-class white woman I expect to be dealt with fairly and justly. Most of us do.

Some suggest the case is complicated, but the simple questions are asked: If Abu Ali were white, educated and middle-class, would he have received the same substandard legal treatment at trial? If Abu Ali were a prominent member of the community, would not the lack of evidence and ineffective counsel create a public outcry so deafening that our governor's only choice would be to grant clemency?

If we are honest, the answers are clear. Watching television teaches us it is far easier to kill those who are "not one of us."

When young offenders ask me if I believe things will ever be any different, I wince. Some of them already know that for those sitting in the judges' chambers, the prisons are full of those who are "not one of us."

I look them squarely in the eye and say: "Justice always prevails in the end." They rarely believe me, and unfortunately, neither do I.

To help save Abu-Ali's life write: shmcbride@comcast.net or contact the governor.)

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