Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $372,927)
Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP) serves the wrongfully convicted throughout Tennessee and seeks to continue casework that has been accomplished from the BJA-2021-03612 award, which emphasized collaborative justice with the Davidson County/Nashville Conviction Review Unit (CRU). New funding will collaboratively remedy the voluminous and long-standing injustices witnessed in Shelby County/Memphis, with its new Justice Review Unit (JRU). TIP gets more applications from Shelby County than any other jurisdiction, and anecdotal observations since 2019 show alarming rates of negligence and misconduct within its criminal justice system. TIP seeks to impact racial equity - 101 of 107 innocence applications from Shelby County are Black.
TIP’s mission is to represent indigent incarcerated people convicted in Tennessee whose claims of innocence have gone unheard. In partnership with the Davidson County’s Office of the District Attorney and CRU, TIP has exonerated four people since 2021 (three additional cases are under review). TIP uses collaborative methods developed with this CRU with every Tennessee prosecutor’s office–even those without a CRU. This collaborative process focuses on truth-seeking and uses research-based data-driven strategies for joint reinvestigations. This request seeks funding to focus those collaborative justice efforts in Shelby County/Memphis.
Since 1989, more than 3,300 people have been exonerated in the U.S. Despite ranking 18th in the U.S. for prison population by state, Tennessee only has 38 state court exonerations (four accomplished by TIP). This number is a fraction compared to other states with well-established innocence representation and CRUs. Wrongful convictions lead to a distrust of the criminal justice system overall, erode the ability to protect communities, and let real perpetrators evade justice.
The available legal mechanisms for overturning a wrongful conviction in Tennessee are extremely challenging and limited. In a contested case, a person’s actual innocence claims may be easily thwarted based on procedural defaults and limitations–either by a District Attorney or judge. By partnering with the Shelby County JRU, TIP can focus on and address the critical, substantive question—is this person actually innocent? Through the success of this project, TIP seeks three primary goals: 1) exonerate innocent people in Shelby County, 2) identify patterns and practices that led to wrongful convictions, and 3) prove that wrongful convictions happen across Tennessee, not just in Nashville. TIP’s partnership with the Davidson County CRU served as a model of collaborative justice, leading to the creation of the Shelby County JRU. These are transformative for innocence work in Tennessee.