Re-elect Glenn Funk Our District Attorney

DA Glenn Funk Established TN's Only Conviction Review Unit

“Establishing a Conviction Review Unit serves the goal of implementing best practices in the criminal justice system. The Nashville community deserves a prosecutor’s office that will seriously and conscientiously consider claims of actual innocence where newly discovered evidence exists.”

– District Attorney Glenn Funk
Office of the District Attorney

NewsChannel 5:  Many have asked. Now we’re learning more about one group responsible for clearing the name of Paul Shane Garrett. He’s the man who spent 11 years in custody then waited another 10 years before a judge determined he was not responsible for the death of Velma Thorpe.

 

Tonight, NewsChannel 5’s Levi Ismail takes an in-depth look into the conviction review unit was capable of.

 

Levi Ismail: The case of Paul Shane Garrett is unique, but it also showed us a lot about what the conviction review unit was capable of.

 

Sunny Eaton: Every single thing that my unit does, we do with urgency.

Levi Ismail: Because for every day that passes, it’s another day someone has to live with a crime they never committed. 

 

Sunny Eaton: When we put innocent people in prison, we’re creating new victims, and we have to provide them support as well.

 

Levi Ismail: Sunny Eaton is the director of the Conviction Review Unit in Nashville, the only unit of its kind in Tennessee. Now compared to the other 88 around the country, only half have even won exoneration. Eaton’s office now has three.

 

Sunny Eaton: This isn’t something we’re trying to hide. This is not a mirage. We’re doing real work here.

 

Levi Ismail: Paul Shane Garrett was the last name they cleared. He was convicted of manslaughter for the 2000 murder of Velma Tharpe but never admitted to the crime. Nearly 10 years later, and DNA evidence pointed to a new suspect who was arrested this year.

 

Sunny Eaton: The reality is it’s rare when we have evidence that’s so clear.

 

Levi Ismail: It took eight months from start to finish which Eaton calls lightning quick. Some CRU cases around the country have been known to last two to three years.

 

That’s not to discourage you if you’ve got a real claim of innocence. Just know, these cases are held to a higher standard.

 

Sunny Eaton: There’s always diligence in every case, but this is a different level of diligence, because there’s already been a court disposition.

 

Levi Ismail: Eaton will usually bring a case forward if there’s new evidence that a jury hasn’t seen. Critics suggest there’s bias when what you’re investigating was prosecuted by another attorney down the hall.

 

Sunny Eaton: I think that’s fair, that’s valid. But what people need to keep in mind is that we don’t get in the way of the process.

 

Levi Ismail: It’s not a perfect process, because we’re people, and we make mistakes. So it’s not about who to blame. Eaton says it’s about creating a safe space.

 

Sunny Eaton: for admitting mistake and for correcting it.


“This office strives to do justice always. That includes recognizing wrongful convictions occur and to remedy them when possible. We can not give Joyce Watkins or Charlie Dunn back time, but we can restore their names. Their innocence demands it,” said Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk.  

Judge Declares Wrongfully Convicted Couple Innocent
The Tennessee Tribune | January 12, 2022


 

NewsChannel 5 | August 26, 2021

Conviction Review Unit
Office of the District Attorney – Nashville 

WKRN’s Nickell Smith interview with Davidson County Assistant District Attorney Sunny Eaton, director of the Conviction Review Unit

 

Nickell Smith: The Conviction Review Unit in Davidson County takes a look at cases that may need to be overturned. I’m now joined on the phone by the Davidson County Assistant District Attorney Sunny Eaten with more on some of the work they do.

 

Good morning, Sunny.  We appreciate you joining us to talk about this. I know it’s something that’s important to DA Funk since he took over. So this program has been in place now for 3 years.

 

Tell us how exactly it works. How do you find the cases that possibly need to be overturned or reviewed?

 

Sunny Eaton: “Good morning. Thank you for having me.

 

You’re right. The unit has been around for just over 3 years, and cases come to variety of ways. Sometimes they’re self-initiated. Sometimes, there are what we call sentinel events where something comes up with a former officer or a change in the law that makes us need to go back and look at cases.

 

But usually these are applications that come into our office either from someone who’s convicted themselves or from their attorney.

 

Nickell Smith: How do you measure the unit’s success?

 

Sunny Eaton: You know, we really work hard to stay in line with best practices, and we spend a lot of time talking with units across the nation that have good reputations about what their policies or practices are. And we measure success, frankly by our professionalism and by transparency. We build public trust, because we publish our final report when we want to overturn a conviction or when I say we want to bring something to the Court. There’s no question about the work we’ve done, because it’s all there in usually a very lengthy report about the work we’ve done on a case.

 

Nickell Smith: And sunny, you’ve been telling me just how many cases you review. Give us an idea of what that’s like.

 

Sunny Eaton: You know, it changes over time how many applications we get per month. I can only really speak to the number of cases that cross my desk since I took the job just over a year ago. It’s been about 15 months.

 

And all in all, we’ve probably looked at between 90 and 100 applications since that time. We have several stages of review. And although we try to err on the side of inclusion at the beginning stages. Still, our basic guidelines with that, a lot of those cases get knocked as ineligible at that very first stage, because what we’re looking for are actual innocence.  We’re not trying to get in the way of decisions that juries have already made unless there is what we call ‘clear and convincing evidence’ giving us a reason to do that.

 

That can be new science. That can be new evidence that we didn’t have before. That may be different understandings of the evidence than there was before.

 

But it had to be incredibly strong. And we go through a lengthy internal investigation before we can get to a conclusion where we’re asking the court to vacate the conviction.

 

Nickell Smith: Okay. And i just wanted to ask you really quickly why is this so important? Why do you think this unit is so important for the DA’s office?

 

Sunny Eaton: Well, when I think when we talk about the role of a modern district attorney’s office, when we’re talking about the mission of a modern district attorney’s office, like in Nashville, our mission is to do justice always.

 

We’ve come to understand that that does not just mean securing convictions. That’s not where our duty lies. Our duty is to get it right. We have a duty to crime victims. We have a duty to defendants to make sure that work that we’re doing, and the convictions that we secure are the right ones with the right people. Because if we can convict the wrong people, we’re doing everyone a disservice.

 

We’re creating new victims in the in people who are wrongfully convicted, and we’re not securing justice for a victim of a crime if we haven’t gotten the right person.

 

So, I think that this work is not just important, but it’s imperative. It’s essential to the work of the district attorney’s office. It builds public trust.

 

The public needs to know that we are willing to admit mistake when we made it. That we’re willing to be diligent. That we’ll be transparent, and that if we’ve gotten something wrong, we’re going to fix it.

 

This is relatively new across the country. When General Funk started the unit, there were only about 25 of these units nationwide.

 

Now there’s close to a 100, because people are starting to understand how important it is to the work of the district attorney’s office.

 

Nickell Smith: Well, we appreciate taking the time to share this with us, Sunny. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. Thank you.

 

Sunny Eaton: No problem. Thank you for having me.


“Our mission is to do justice always. We’ve come to understand that does not just mean securing convictions. That’s not our duty. Our duty is to get it right.”

– Sunny Eaton, Conviction Review Unit
WKRN News 2


 

LATEST SUCCESS

Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn Exonerations (video) | January 2022