NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It took more than 20 years for Paul Shane Garrett to clear his name, now we’re taking an in-depth look into the Conviction Review Unit that helped make it possible.
Every time there’s an exoneration, Sunny Eaton understands that people have a lot of questions. As director of the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in Metro Nashville, she told us how her last case was unlike most others.
Garrett’s case was first brought to her attention in November of 2020. He was cleared of his manslaughter conviction by a judge in August 2021.
“That’s lightning speed. It was. Especially considering a pandemic, a bombing, a snowstorm, and a variety of issues,” Eaton said.
Eaton says cases hardly ever process that fast, but a few things worked in Garrett’s favor. There was DNA evidence pointing to another suspect, testimony from well-respected detectives speaking out and another suspect arrested just months earlier. Not to mention, Garrett had the assistance of the Tennessee Innocence Project who work closely with the CRU.
In late July, detective Mike Roland of the Metro Nashville Police Department testified at a hearing that he watched all the interviews between Garrett and detectives at the time. Roland claimed that not once did Garrett confess to killing Velma Tharpe in 2000. Investigators at the time say Garrett did confess, but only during an interview that wasn’t recorded.
Garrett later plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter but claims he only did so after detectives convinced him he could face the death penalty if the case went to trial. Garrett was never released on bond, so he spent 11 years in custody before he was released in 2011.
Around the same time, that new DNA evidence found on the Tharpe’s shorts pointed to another suspect according to TBI forensics. Investigators found no evidence of Garrett’s DNA.
“The reality is it’s rare when we have evidence that’s so clear,” Eaton said.
It took eight months from start to finish for Eaton to clear their third case since inception in 2017. As the only unit of its kind in Tennessee, you have to compare it to the other 88 around the country. Less than half (40) have at least one exoneration. Eaton says this speaks to how much goes into setting up a unit like this.
Eaton is the only full-time attorney working for the CRU, but she’s aided by a team of interns and an investigator to help vet each case. She says some CRU cases around the country take up to 2-3 years to complete. 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.
She’s heard from attorneys, convicted felons, and everyone in between who send messages hoping for a conviction to be investigated. She says sometimes people will say they’ve changed or that their rights were violated because police conducted an improper search. Eaton says those are all matters for an appellate court, but not necessarily a CRU.
That said, Eaton says everything they do in her office is done with urgency. She knows that every day they spend on a case is another day someone has to live with a crime they never committed.
“When we put innocent people in prison, we’re creating new victims and we have to provide them support as well,” Eaton said.
That doesn’t exclude the victims of the crimes themselves. Eaton says she has a responsibility to them as well, so she considers it for every new case. Typically for Eaton to pursue a case, she says there must be some new evidence that a jury hasn’t seen. After all, these are cases with convictions already on the books. This means an extra level of diligence any time you’re attempting to right what you believe to be wrong.
“What we don’t want to do is create a unit that acts like a thirteenth juror. We don’t want to disturb the final decisions of a court unless we’re certain there’s a reason to do so. So our investigations can take longer,” Eaton said.
Critics suggest there undoubtedly has to be bias when investigating cases prosecuted by another attorney down the hall. Eaton says it’s a “fair” and “valid” question, “but people need to keep in mind that we don’t get in the way of the process.”
Eaton says when she’s not actively investigating a case, she’s enrolled in bias training. As a former defense attorney, she understands the bias that comes with assuming innocence.
If she leaves you with one thing, Eaton says we need to remember that it’s not a perfect process. It’s run by human beings after all, so it’s unrealistic to expect investigators, attorneys, and even judges to get it right all the time.
She says it’s not about placing blame but creating a safe space where more people can come forward. “We have to create a safe space for admitting mistakes and correcting them,” Eaton said.
Calvin Atchison now faces charges of first-degree murder for the 2000 murder, with a court date yet to be determined. Atchison is currently out on a $50,000 bond.