The Tennesseean


Hindsight is 20/20. Unless you are the victim of a wrongful execution. It is only useful to those who live long enough to decipher the lessons of history. Unfortunately Tennessee has much to learn from the unjust executions of our past.

Respected Nashville journalist and author John Egerton researched statistics compiled at Tuskegee Institute and reveals in his book Shades of Grey that 1,799 blacks and 196 whites were lynched in the United States between 1900 and 1962. An overwhelming majority of those lynched were black males killed in the nine Southern states. Out of those nine states, Tennessee is one in which over 200 lynchings have occurred (204 black and 47 whites).

Egerton states that ”since 1919, the state of Tennessee which is 85% white has legally executed 86 blacks and 38 whites all of them males from the bottom of the socioeconomic scale.” The last execution of a black man in our Volunteer State took place just over 40 years ago. There was scant evidence to prove that William Tines actually raped Bertha Riggs, and the victim herself could not remember the assault. Though Tines had previously been convicted of a double murder, it was the rape charge for which he was executed. Amid the tension and publicity surrounding the trial, the court failed to admonish the jury to look solely at the evidence presented. And unfortunately for Tines, one of the jurors was a co-worker of the victim’s brother. William Tines died in the electric chair in 1960.

Most of us would rather not acknowledge that many a black man has unjustly lost his life for being accused of defiling a white woman in spite of the fact that most rapes committed against white woman are by white men. Egerton writes about a dubious 1921 execution in Knoxville. Maurice Mays, a light-skinned black man (rumored to be the illegitimate son of a prominent public official) was accused of shooting Bertie Smyth Lindsey and fondling her cousin. There was no evidence to support the accusation years after the execution, a guilt-ridden Sadie Brown Mendil walked into a police station in Norton, Va., and calmly told the officer in charge that she murdered Bertie Smyth Lindsey because the victim was having an affair with her husband.

Mendil’s written confession revealed that she disguised herself by dressing in men’s clothing and blackening her face, confident that authorities would readily suspect a black man. Although the Virginia authorities found Mendil’s confession to be credible, the Knoxville police chief discredited her story, stating that ”confessions” were common after sensational crimes. Mendil was ignored, and no one ever questioned her about the crime again.

All of this begs the question: What has Tennessee learned from its past? If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the state scheduled to execute a mentally ill black man named Abu-Ali Abdhur’Rahman April 10. He was charged and convicted of murdering a drug dealer in spite of the fact that the only person to testify against the defendent was DeValle Miller, a co-worker and co-conspirator in the crime.

The execution date is set despite the facts that:

  • The state’s prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John Zimmermann neglected to inform judge, jury and defense counsel of Abu-Ali’s long history of abuse and mental-illness or the forensics report which determined that no blood evidence was ever found on Abu-Ali’s clothing in what was a particularly bloody crime.
  • Devalle Miller who immediately fled Nashville after the crime cut a deal with Zimmerman after being apprehended a year later thereby trading his testimony for a lesser charge.
  • After federal Judge Todd Campbell reviewed this case in 1998 and determined Abu-Ali was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial. (The State Supreme Court overruled the decision.)
  • Since the facts of this case surfaced, eight of the 12 jurors signed sworn affidavits stating they should have known all the information in Abu-Ali’s case before delivering a verdict. Some expressed anger, and several said it was devastating to have unjustly sentenced a man to death.

Chris Armstrong, a criminal defense investigator specializing in death-penalty cases explained that typically there are one or two jurors who feel bad about killing someone. In Abu-Ali’s case, Armstrong said, jurors were ”horrified” when they ”realized that if the attorneys in this case had done their work, Abu-Ali would not be on death row.” Armstrong also stated that ”once someone is convicted, it’s ‘all up stream.’ At that point, a defendant’s innocence is irrelevant. If more people understood how the death penalty worked they would never be in favor of killing anyone.”

If Abu-Ali is executed April 10, those looking back will wonder about the questions raised and dismissed in the case. They will wonder about such an egregious example of injustice.

For Tennessee, 20/20 hindsight will come in the form of embarrassment and shame for having executed a mentally ill black man who never received a fair trial. Sometimes the old adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Molly Secours is a writer, activist and videographer in Nashville.