Cellmates at the Nashville jail where Abdur'Rahman was being held told him there was only one lawyer to call: Lionel Barrett.
, they said, never turned down a client in need, no matter how controversial the case was, how bad the facts were and how impossible the defense seemed.
"I never said no," Barrett
"I took cases no one else would.
Everyone deserves representation."
But in 1987, Barrett
should have said no. Because he
didn't, Abdur'Rahman's life now hangs in the balance.
"It was the perfect storm," Barrett
says, looking back on the case some 24 years later.
"Everything I could have done wrong, I did."
is pleading for forgiveness from his
former client and apologizing to his
colleagues in the bar.
The case, he
says, is "a daily burden" and was one of the key factors that drove him from law practice a decade ago.
"It is every lawyer's nightmare to have a case like this in their life, a case they screwed up so badly.
This case is my nightmare," says Barrett, who now works as a nonlawyer adviser for the Davidson County (Tenn.) Election Commission.
"Abu-Ali is on death row because of me.
I failed him," he
Photo of Lionel Barrett by Jim McGuire
During the 1970s and '80s, Lionel Barrett
was widely recognized as the premier murder defense attorney in Middle Tennessee.
When the state brought back capital punishment, Barrett was the first lawyer in his region to handle a death penalty case.
He tried more murder and death penalty cases during those two decades than any other lawyer in Nashville, according to colleagues, and is credited with saving several clients from the electric chair.
A few of his
murder defendants walked free.
One grateful client even named a son Lionel
successfully defended the man against murder charges.
Known for powerful closing arguments, Barrett
won honors from the bar association and civil liberties groups, and the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
created an advocacy award in his
Barrett's professional successes extended beyond the criminal defense arena.
successfully challenged the state's mandatory moment of silence in public schools and sued the state to allow the Communist Party's political candidates to be on the election ballot.
"Lionel was a damn good lawyer," says Nashville defense lawyer William Redick.
Redick is a former colleague of Barrett's
who now represents Abdur'Rahman
"Abu-Ali believed he
really got lucky when Lionel
agreed to defend him in 1987.
But Lionel's defense-or lack thereof-is unquestionably the reason why Abu-Ali may be put to death."
is a soft-spoken, kindhearted man who will do anything to help friends and neighbors, say those who know him.
A leader in pro bono, he
tutored many of Tennessee's brightest lawyers, including Redick.
In interviews he
has expressed obvious sorrow and regret, and he
comes across as a truly sympathetic character.
never had problems with alcoholism or drugs, and no one contends otherwise.
originally agreed to represent Abdur'Rahman
for the entire death penalty case for $10,000, later asking for an additional $5,000, which he
, now 69, hasn't practiced law in more than a decade.
has forgotten much about his
defense of Abdur'Rahman
, which he
admits is "quite ironic" because his
client's primary defense was that he
didn't remember committing the crime.
probably doesn't remember much because, honestly, he
didn't do that much.
He was detached from this case," says Redick, who still considers Barrett
a good friend.
first met Abdur'Rahman-before converting to Islam, his
name was James Lee Jones-in the Nashville jail in winter 1986.
Abdur'Rahman had a lawyer for his initial court hearings, but he wanted someone with more experience.
At the time, Barrett's
practice was bustling.
had several other trials under way, including another death penalty case in a neighboring county scheduled to go to trial a few weeks after Abdur'Rahman's
did not file an appearance on the case for several months after he
was retained-in March 1987, according to court records.
During that gap, Abdur' Rahman
was, in effect, unrepresented.
The prosecution and the court did not consult with Barrett
on anything related to the case.
Barrett's own files show that he
did no work on the case until May 11.
first documented activity occurred on June 1, when he
wrote a letter to the trial judge apologizing for missing a court-ordered deadline for filing pretrial motions.
"Some how I had failed to note this date on my calendar," he
At that point, Abdur'Rahman's
trial was five weeks away.
Nine more days slipped by without work on the case when on June 10, according to Barrett's personal notes, he
staff to get a copy of the state's mental evaluation of Abdur'Rahman
The judge signed an order turning over the records on June 15.
client for the first time on July 1-five days before jury selection.
wrote an internal memo to his
staff assistant: "I think it is fair to say that probably between now and Monday, including part of this weekend, that you, Sumter and I are going to have to spend a lot of time together getting ready for this death penalty case since we have a lot of work to do on this case.
had offered no evidence to support a mental illness defense, the judge ruled for the prosecution.
LOSING TIME AND MONEY
Realizing that the defense was completely unprepared for trial, Sumter Camp, a lawyer Barrett recruited to help with the Abdur'Rahman case, drafted a motion for a continuance, as well as a motion to declare the defendant indigent.
If successful, the motions would have provided both the time and the funds for investigation and experts.
Camp, now a federal public defender in Nashville, later testified that Barrett
didn't file either motion with the court.
"I just didn't spend enough time on the case," Barrett
says looking back.
Tennessee mental health evaluators were told nothing about Abdur'Rahman's
turbulent psychological past because Barrett
didn't know and never asked.
"My biggest failure was that I did not explore more into the facts of his
mental illness and mental history," says Barrett
"Again, I have no excuse for how I mishandled this case," Barrett
"I was never able to establish a bond with Abu-Ali, and that was more my fault than his
Jury selection began on July 6.
Four days later, on the final day of voir dire, Barrett
didn't show up.
let Camp help pick Abdur'Rahman's
no longer recalls why he
missed that final day of jury selection.
suspects that he
had a conflicting court date in another pending death penalty case in a nearby county.
Three days later, Barrett
stood before the jury to give his
According to his
own notes, he
had yet to interview a single witness or conduct any type of independent investigation on his
opening statement was three paragraphs long, taking less than a page of the trial transcript.
never requested the initial case file from the lawyer and never checked the public court files.
As a result, he
allowed a critical piece of exculpatory evidence to become the most damning evidence at trial.
Compounding the oversight, Miller's clothes were never tested for blood, either by Barrett
or the police.
"Knowing about the coat would have gotten me at least one or two jurors," Barrett
never knew about these conflicting statements because he
never asked for them and prosecutors never disclosed them.
After the prosecution rested, Barrett
called no witnesses, presented no evidence and offered jurors no alternative theories.
"A lot of defense attorneys back in the 1970s and 1980s, myself included, got away with just walking in and trying a case," says Barrett
"But I didn't recognize that times had changed.
I put too much emphasis on closing arguments.
There used to be a time when a strong closing argument would convince a couple jurors."
In hindsight, Barrett
should have focused more on jury selection, mental illness and other issues that started being raised at the time in death penalty litigation.
Before the end of the trial, Barrett
finally demanded all documents rela