Career civil rights prosecutor joins race for Nashville district attorney seat

·5 min read
Sara Beth Myers, a former civil rights prosecutor and community advocate with a long track record of public policy achievements and major courtroom victories, announced her campaign for Davidson County District Attorney on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Sara Beth Myers, a former civil rights prosecutor and community advocate with a long track record of public policy achievements and major courtroom victories, announced her campaign for Davidson County District Attorney on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

A new progressive challenger has thrown her hat into the ring for Nashville's district attorney race next year.

Sara Beth Myers, a longtime prosecutor in state and federal courts, announced her candidacy Wednesday.

To Myers, the last eight years of current DA Glenn Funk's tenure have been about surface level changes, not systemic shifts, she told The Tennessean.

"The role of the prosecutor is to build bridges, not to burn them. It has to include law enforcement at the local, state and federal level, but it also has to include nonprofits, community stakeholders, neighborhood associations, churches — the places where people are doing the living in our community," she said. "Those are the most important stakeholders and we have to rebuild a system that is very clearly broken."

Myers left her job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Middle Tennessee to run for the DA seat. Prior to her time at the federal level, she worked at both the Tennessee Attorney General's office and under former Davidson County DA Torry Johnson.

She said she's the "clear choice" against incumbent Funk, believing her approach to be truly progressive for Nashville.

Her experience in varied courtrooms is key to her campaign, she said.

"I have prosecuted and successfully taken law enforcement officers to trial and that's involved a wide variety of of cases," she said.

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Victims' rights front of mind for Myers

"DAs are public servants first," she said.

Part of that service is focus on victims, said Myers, a long time civil rights prosecutor.

Earlier this year, Funk's office agreed to a plea deal with former Metro Nashville Police Department Officer Andrew Delke, charged with murder in the on-duty shooting of Daniel Hambrick in 2018. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for jail time.

Funk said the case was complicated and taking it to trial was not a sure win for prosecutors. The deal, he has said, was in the best interest of the city and still held a police officer accountable for an on-duty shooting.

Hambrick's family slammed Funk for the short notice he gave them on the last-minute deal ahead of an expected lengthy trial.

"When people come to court, they're at their most vulnerable," Myers said. "When they're (DAs) not keeping the victims updated, not consulting with the victims and getting them the resources that they need, then they're doing a huge disservice to the people they're supposed to be serving."

Myers steps into a race already in the spotlight from state lawmakers.

State keeping close watch on Nashville DA

Last month, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill allowing the attorney general to step in and ask the court to remove a prosecutor from some cases. Although narrowed to cases in which the local DA "peremptorily and categorically" decides not to prosecute under a state law, the bill was a clear sign that the state is watching how prosecutors use their discretion.

Funk has notably released statements on his decision not to bring charges under anti-abortion and anti-transgender laws that are currently blocked by the courts, as well as pulling resources from chasing low-level marijuana charges.

He's not the only one to make such pronouncements — Coffee County DA Craig Northcott came under criticism in 2019 for his decision not to prosecute same-sex couples the same as other married people under domestic violence laws.

But Myers says for her it's a non-issue.

She's used to dealing with the legislature through her nonprofit, Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality, she told The Tennessean.

"I know when to talk and when not to talk, I'll put it that way," she said.

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Criminal justice issues align

But on some key issues, Myers and Funk align. Funk has not sought the death penalty during his tenure, a policy Myers also said is her goal.

"I will not seek it," she said. "It really is antiquated, and I don't believe that its effective in the least."

She also believes both in a robust conviction review unit and police oversight groups, she said.

The Community Oversight Board, created by referendum in 2018, has been slow to find its footing, but under a new mayor and new police chief seems to be coming into its own in recent months. A part of Metro government, it operates independently to the DA's office, but Myers said they're part of the collection of stakeholders in the community needed to make change going forward.

Under Funk, a new quasi-independent department to review previous convictions has flourished. The Conviction Review Unit has released reports on six cases since its creation in 2017. Two of the convictions have been overturned, a high rate of exonerations in comparison to other nationwide review departments.

"No one is above the law. It's that simple," Myers said. "That includes law enforcement officers, public officials. That includes the DA herself."

Three candidates in primary so far

Funk was first elected in 2014 and prosecutors serve eight-year terms in Tennessee.

Also in the race for the Democratic nomination is former Assistant District Attorney Danielle Nellis, who announced her candidacy in October. Nellis previous clerked for Nashville Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton.

The Democratic primary is set for May ahead of the general election in August.

Funk is touting his work championing progressive shifts as part of his reelection campaign.

In an ad shared with the Tennessee Democratic Party in October, he cited his decisions to reallocate resources toward violent crime. Campaign materials point to his work on building a more diverse office and a rehabilitation-focused approach to prosecution.

Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Career prosecutor joins race for Nashville district attorney seat

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