The Cases

Nick Sutton:  Law Enforcement, Victim’s Family, Jurors Support Clemency for Death Row Inmate Nick Sutton Who Saved the Lives of Three Correction Officials

Correction Officer States Mr. Sutton Deserves Clemency More than Anyone Else on Tennessee’s Death Row

(Nashville, TN, January 14, 2020) Calling Tennessee death row inmate Nick Sutton “the most rehabilitated prisoner that I met…[in] 30 years,” asserting that his “‘execution would be a grave injustice,” and stating, “I owe my life to Nick Sutton,” (Affidavit of Correction Officer Tony Eden) at least seven current and former Tennessee correctional professionals support a petition for clemency filed today with Governor Bill Lee. In addition to the correction officials’ advocacy for Mr. Sutton, members of the victim’s family have also expressed their wish for clemency. Rosemary Hall, eldest daughter of victim Carl Estep, has stated that her family hopes to see him get off of death row. (clemency petition, p. 5). Five members of the jury that sentenced Mr. Sutton to death and one alternate juror are now in favor of sparing his life. Mr. Sutton is currently scheduled to be executed on February 20, 2020.

The clemency petition provides details about Mr. Sutton’s selfless actions to save the lives of three different correction staff. A correction officer, whose life Mr. Sutton saved during a prison riot, states: “Nick risked his safety and well-being in order to save me from possible death. I owe my life to Nick Sutton. . . . It is my opinion that Nick Sutton, more than anyone else on Tennessee’s Death Row, deserves to live.” ( p. 2)

The clemency petition (pp. 9-10) also includes correction professionals describing Mr. Sutton as:

  • Not the same man who committed those crimes;
  • The most rehabilitated prisoner that I met working in maximum security prisons over the course of 30 years;
  • One of the finest inmates that I have had the privilege to know;
  • A positive role model and positive influence;
  • Someone who has worked harder than any inmate I have known to better himself. He has learned from his mistakes, has grown and matured, and he has become one of the most influential inmates, inspiring other inmates to better themselves;
  • Living proof of the possibility of rehabilitation and the power of redemption;
  • An honest, kind and trustworthy man who has used his time in prison to better himself and show that change is possible;
  • A man who has not only rehabilitated himself but works to help other inmates improve their lives;
  • Someone whose honesty and life experiences make him the perfect person to positively mentor younger inmates and to be a role model for all of those on the compound;
  • A man whose efforts at self-improvement and willingness to embrace change are an inspiration;
  • Having an ability to reach people through his calm and thoughtful communication with others;
  • Inspiring other inmates to better themselves while on death row;
  • Posing no danger to the prison staff or other inmates; and
  • Someone whose presence among the younger inmates throughout the prison will make a huge difference, not only in improving the prison culture, but in helping to repair the lives of those who have the opportunity for a second chance.

“Nick has worked tirelessly to change his life during his 34 years on death row and his transformation is nothing short of extraordinary,” says Kevin Sharp, former federal district court judge and pro bono attorney for Mr. Sutton. “We should trust the correction professionals who have seen how Mr. Sutton behaves and are taking the highly unusual step of personally advocating for clemency in his case. Their support demonstrates that justice and the public good would be best served through granting Nick executive clemency,” said Mr. Sharp.

Although his jury never heard about it, Mr. Sutton was raised in an environment of neglect, abandonment, instability and violence. As a result of his catastrophic childhood and adolescence, Mr. Sutton, described as a “kind and sweet boy,” (p. 18) went on to struggle with trauma and addiction from a young age. He was abandoned by his mother as an infant and then subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his biological father—a violent, abusive, and unstable man who suffered from severe mental illness, struggled with substance abuse, and was repeatedly institutionalized. His father introduced him to drugs and alcohol when he was just a boy and encouraged dangerous drug abuse by his young son.

As one of the judges who presided over Mr. Sutton’s appeal stated, “[Counsel’s] failure to obtain and present to the jury evidence regarding Sutton’s awful early life robbed Sutton of his clearly established right to show himself as a human being in the jury’s eyes and made easier what should be the most difficult decision a jury can make.” Sutton v. Bell, 645 F.3d 752, 771 (6th Cir. 2011) (Martin, J., dissenting). Despite such trauma, Mr. Sutton has undergone a sincere and dramatic transformation while on death row and has dedicated his life to redeeming himself and serving others.

Mr. Sutton was tried and sentenced in shackles and handcuffs due to the poor quality of his legal representation. The prejudicial nature of this practice should have been raised on appeal, but in his own words, Mr. Sutton’s appellate counsel showed “breathtaking stupidity” (p. 15) by failing to raise the issue. A juror, who now supports clemency for Mr. Sutton, has stated that the security precautions in court were “a big cause of my fear.” (p. 16). (To read more about the five jurors and one alternate who sentenced Mr. Sutton to death but now support clemency in his case, see pp. 7-8)

Mr. Sutton’s genuine remorse, rehabilitation, and impeccable disciplinary record led to his role within the prison as a trusted caretaker. In the words of one correction official, he “makes the prison a safer and more secure place.” (p. 2) This caretaking extends to other inmates, including now exonerated Paul House, who developed multiple sclerosis while on death row. As Mr. House was not issued a wheelchair, Mr. Sutton carried Mr. House when he could no longer walk and spent years caring for him. Mr. House’s mother, Joyce, describes Mr. Sutton as her son’s “saving grace” (p. 3) and “the only reason Paul is alive today.” (p. 3). Mr. Sutton also saved the life of a fellow inmate who had collapsed in his cell from a punctured intestinal tract, regularly helped a blind inmate to ensure his safety, and consistently puts others’ needs before his own.

This change is remarkable considering Mr. Sutton’s history of addiction and crime in his teens and early twenties and the pain he caused to many, including Carl Estep’s family, who now supports clemency. Mr. Sutton was sentenced to death after his 1985 killing of Mr. Estep, for which he feels profound regret. Mr. Sutton is the only person on Tennessee’s death row for the killing of another inmate.

Mr. Sutton is a striking example of remorse, rehabilitation, and redemption and is a man who has repeatedly risked his own life to protect correction staff. His exemplary prison record demonstrates that commutation of his death sentence is appropriate in this case.

To learn more, see photos, and to read Mr. Sutton’s Clemency Application, visit


Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman and Sedley Alley

Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman

Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman has been on Tennessee’s death row for over 30 years. His capital murder trial, held in Nashville in 1987, lacked both crime scene evidence and presentation of his history of mental illness because of the violent abuse he endured as a child. Eight of the twelve trial jurors now say that they no longer have confidence in their sentencing verdict.

Abu has never received a fair trial.

In 1998, a Federal District Court overturned his death sentence finding “ineffective assistance of the counsel at sentencing. In other words, the court found that Abu did not have the proper help from his attorney as the Constitution mandates. Then in 2000,  in a split decision, the Sixth Circuit court reversed and reinstated Abu’s death sentence.

After years of execution dates, stays of execution, and more litigation, in 2019, Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins approved a deal agreed on by Abu’s attorney, the victim’s family, and the Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk to remove Abu’s death sentence and replace it with three life sentences. The Davidson County Criminal Court hearing that led to this agreement focused on the misconduct of the original prosecutor, John Zimmerman, including when he improperly blocked three black members of the jury pool.

A few weeks later, the State of Tennessee Attorney General’s Office appealed the order from Davidson County Criminal Court. Abu’s legal team responded: “The Tennessee Constitution gives the District Attorney the exclusive authority to handle criminal cases within his district…The Attorney General  is not seeking to uphold our most cherished constitutional principles. Instead, [he] is taking a stand for racism and a prosecutor’s violation of his constitutional and ethical duties.”

During his time on death row, Abu Ali has earned a paralegal degree, private investigation degree, and Rule 31 mediator degree. He is a senior mediator for his prison unit. He serves as the elected representative of his unit, negotiating with the prison administration on behalf of his fellow prisoners.

His execution date of April 16, 2020, was removed and exchanged for a sentence of  life in prison sentence by the Davidson County Criminal Court, but now, with the State’s appeal, Abu’s execution date could be reinstated.

Please visit for more information on this case.


Sedley Alley

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley on June 28, 2006, after Tennessee courts refused to conduct DNA tests on crime scene evidence that could have proved Mr. Alley’s innocence and identified the murderer. Five years later, in 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court acknowledged that the ruling in his case was wrong and overruled it in State v. Powers.

On April 30, 2019, April Alley, the daughter of Mr. Alley and the executor of his estate, asked the Criminal Court for Shelby County in Memphis for the post-conviction DNA testing that should have been conducted before Mr. Alley was executed. She has also requested that Governor Lee order the DNA testing in light of his executive power to grant posthumous pardons.

Mr. Alley was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins, but reinvestigation of the case over the years has shown that the evidence against Mr. Alley was weak. There are items of evidence, including men’s red underwear found near Ms. Collins’s body that police believed were worn by her attacker, that could provide proof of Mr. Alley’s innocence and help to identify the real assailant. Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false, as key details in Mr. Alley’s statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence.

In addition to the potentially problematic confession, other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts do not match Mr. Alley. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s vehicle. Recovered shoe prints did not match Mr. Alley’s shoes.  Also, a key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described that man as 5’6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-length hair, and a light complexion.

In 2006, the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Parole recommended that then-Governor Bredesen stay Mr. Alley’s execution and order DNA testing. Instead, the governor directed Mr. Alley’s defense team to present their request for testing to the Tennessee courts, which refused the testing and allowed his execution to proceed.

In 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly overruled the decision that denied Mr. Alley’s request for testing. If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be granted DNA testing.

After learning about a new lead in this case, April Alley decided to move forward with this request for DNA testing.  Innocence Project attorneys, who are representing Ms. Alley, along with Tennessee attorney Stephen Ross Johnson, received a letter in the spring of 2019 from law enforcement sources in St. Louis, informing them that they had indicted Thomas Bruce, a suspect in a homicide and rape, who they believe might be a serial offender. After looking into his history, law enforcement discovered that Mr. Bruce was taking courses at the same Avionics Training School in Millington as Ms. Collins in the months prior to the homicide.

Given this new lead, the State of Tennessee has the opportunity now to find the truth. The truth is all that April Alley wants and is what the justice system should demand. The public’s interest in having the right defendant brought to justice extends beyond Mr. Alley. If Tennessee executed the wrong person in 2006, the actual perpetrator may still be free to harm other people. This is a matter of public safety, and the testing must be conducted.

Upcoming Execution Dates:

  • Lee Hall, December 5, 2019
  • Nicholas Todd Sutton, February 20, 2020
  • Abu-Ali Abdur’ Rahman, April 16, 2020

Tennessee resumed execution in 2018 after nearly a decade without one. Since 2018, Tennessee has executed:

  • Billy Ray Irick, August 9, 2018
  • Edmund Zagorski, November 1, 2018
  • David Miller, December 6, 2018
  • Don Johnson, May 16, 2019
  • Stephen West, August 15, 2019

Each of these men had spent more than 30 years each on Tennessee’s death row before their executions.