NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After years behind bars, Paul Shane Garrett could once and for all have his name cleared for a murder he says he didn’t commit.
Garrett pleaded guilty to the voluntary manslaughter of Velma Tharpe in 2000, but has maintained that he did not kill Tharpe. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents now say DNA evidence points to a Calvin Atchison, who was arrested in May.
We never saw much emotion from Garrett, during Thursday's hearing, other than one moment where it appeared as if he couldn’t believe he had come this far. He was released from prison in 2011, around the same time TBI agent Laura Boos received more evidence from Tharpe’s case.
GARRETT'S DNA WAS NOT FOUND ON THE VICTIM:
She testified that several key pieces of evidence were never offered to her for testing until 2011. Tharpe’s shorts were among the items where she says she found DNA from a man, but it was not a match for Garrett. Boos said there were seven stains on the shorts and by now she had the DNA sample of Atchison. It was a match.
Boos went on to say not one piece of evidence she tested could be traced back to Garrett. Which is far from the story investigators told Garrett during the several hours of interviews. Metro Nashville Police Detective Mike Roland watched all the interviews and said at one point investigators lied about finding Garrett’s DNA on Tharpe’s body.
He says in all the recorded interviews, Garrett never admitted to killing Tharpe. Investigators at the time say Garrett did confess, but only during an interview that wasn’t recorded.
Roland said the same investigators including detective Roy Dunaway, convinced Garrett to take a plea deal and avoid the death penalty.
DNA DISCREPANCY BROUGHT TO DA IN 2011
Jessica Van Dyke is lead counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project and represented Garrett. She called it a travesty that it took this long for the state to acknowledge that the wrong man served time for such a heinous crime.
“It took 20 years to get results in this case. What we now know your honor is that Mr. Garrett’s DNA is not anywhere on the crime scene, on the victim’s body and the most relevant samples, in this case, are unequivocally tied to a different person altogether,” Van Dyke said.
Atchison is in custody as he waits on his trial. Judge Angelita Dalton said she will have a written ruling soon, which may include vacating Garrett’s guilty verdict. Doing so would make way for a new trial if the state elects to pursue charges against Garrett.
State’s attorney Sunny Eaton, who serves on the Conviction Review Unit with the DA’s office, ended her closing arguments by suggesting that her office should have acted sooner.
“It is inexcusable that past that in 2012, the DA’s office, my office, continued to defend the conviction of Mr. Garrett despite having evidence demonstrating clear and convincing support for his innocence,” Eaton said.
Eaton asked Roland if he believed Garrett was wrongfully convicted to which he said, “yes.” Roland also agreed that at no point was there any evidence to suggest that anyone else was involved.
At the end of the hearing, Van Dyke asked Garrett if he had anything to do with the death of Velma Tharpe. Garrett quickly replied, “no, I did not.”
ARRESTING A NEW SUSPECT:
Metro Nashville SWAT officers arrested 51-year-old Calvin Atchison for Tharpe's murder on May 25, 2021.
In 2011, Cold Case Detective Mike Roland and Pat Postiglione stumbled onto the DNA match to the DNA found on Tharpe while investigating a series of unsolved murders. After doing some digging, both long-time detectives were convinced that Garrett was innocent and Atchison was the killer.
They took their findings and shared their concerns with the District Attorney's Office which conducted its own investigation. Then-ADA Kathy Morante urged then-District Attorney Torry Johnson to move to exonerate Garrett. But Johnson said while he no longer had confidence in Garrett's conviction, his office argued that Garrett had agreed to plead guilty and fought to exonerate Garrett.
In 2020, Detective Roland asked the DA's new Conviction Review Unit to take another look at the case. Their investigation found convincing evidence that Garrett did not commit the murder and Atchison did. DA Glenn Funk asked the court to vacate or throw out Garrett's conviction and presented the case against Atchison to the grand jury which led to his arrest.