Lionel Barrett

Lionel R. Barrett

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Cellmates at the Nashville jail where Abdur'Rahman was being held told him there was only one lawyer to call: Lionel Barrett.
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 confirms. "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." Now Barrett 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 says. 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 after Barrett 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 name. Barrett's professional successes extended beyond the criminal defense arena. He 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." Barrett 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. He insists he's never had problems with alcoholism or drugs, and no one contends otherwise. Barrett originally agreed to represent Abdur'Rahman for the entire death penalty case for $10,000, later asking for an additional $5,000, which he never collected. Barrett, now 69, hasn't practiced law in more than a decade. He 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. "Lionel 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. Barrett 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. He 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. Barrett 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. His 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 wrote. 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 directed his 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. Barrett interviewed his client for the first time on July 1-five days before jury selection. He 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. Since Barrett 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 says. "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. Instead, he let Camp help pick Abdur'Rahman's jury. Barrett no longer recalls why he missed that final day of jury selection. He 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 opening statement. According to his own notes, he had yet to interview a single witness or conduct any type of independent investigation on his client's behalf. His opening statement was three paragraphs long, taking less than a page of the trial transcript. But Barrett 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 says. Again, 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 says he 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 says, he finally demanded all documents rela

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Lorna S. McClusky | The Law Office of Massey McClusky McClusky & Fuchs | Memphis Tennessee

Lionel R. Barrett, Jr. Award for Outstanding Work in the Death Penalty Arena, 2001
Outstanding Service Award, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 2004 Who's Who in American Colleges, 1992 - 1994 Who's Who in American Law, 2004 Who's Who in the World, 2004

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| The Malefactor's Register

Looper's attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as "an institution around the criminal courts" and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.
Barrett was an ardent death penalty foe: "No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty," he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association's award for "extraordinary effort" in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears his name. (It is appropriate to point out that Barrett's management of a Tennessee death row inmate's was heavily criticized by the American Bar Association in a 2011 Journal article. The piece blamed Barrett's lack of attention to the case as the major reason the convict could be executed. In the article Barrett agreed to the allegations made by the ABA Journal.) Gibson chose not to put farm hand Wesley Rex on the stand because his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency. After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case.

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