Who should be Nashville's top prosecutor? Three vie for post as May primary race heats up

·13 min read
Former assistant district attorney turned defense lawyer P. Danielle Nellis, Incumbent Glenn Funk, federal prosecutor Sara Beth Myers are running to be  Nashville's next district attorney
Former assistant district attorney turned defense lawyer P. Danielle Nellis, Incumbent Glenn Funk, federal prosecutor Sara Beth Myers are running to be Nashville's next district attorney

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The once-quiet race for Nashville's next district attorney kicked into high gear in recent weeks as the Democratic primary next month inches ever closer.

But even for a seat often credited with steering the state's granular approach to criminal justice, candidates expect a small turnout that could hinge, as it did last time, on Black and other minority voters.

Incumbent Glenn Funk, federal prosecutor Sara Beth Myers and former assistant district attorney, now labor issues litigator, P. Danielle Nellis each recently sat down with The Tennessean to discuss their platforms and why the race matters to Nashville voters.

No Republican primary is scheduled, all but guaranteeing the winner of the May primary will take office for an eight-year term after the Aug. 4 general election. Early voting in the May primary begins Wednesday and runs through April 28.

A flurry of fundraising, back-and-forth statements on high-profile cases and a marathon of candidate forums in recent weeks have pitted the trio against each other more sharply than before.

The three are running on largely similar progressive platforms, but they notably differ on what a prosecutor's role is in controversial cases — charging police officers or nurses — and when the more conservative state legislature acts in contradiction to Nashville's voting base.

Funk's 2014 win over then-incumbent Torry Johnson's hand-picked successor was unexpected but decisive. His victory at the time was tied to his appeal in areas like North Nashville and endorsements from prominent Black leaders.

He's courting the same now, dropping by barber shops on Jefferson Street and Kurdish community festivals.

Nashville Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk meets with The Tennessean Friday, April 1, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Nashville Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk meets with The Tennessean Friday, April 1, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Funk's opponents are pushing for change and reform, the same as he did in 2014, and say he's a symbol of the status quo that needs to be cleared out.

"People say over and over, 'We do not trust the system.'" Nellis said. "My opponents represent the status quo, and the status quo doesn't work for us."

Funk said he's the reason Nashville is in the progressive spot it already is.

"My approach toward criminal justice was criminal justice reform before that was even a term," Funk said. "Now that I've been doing this for eight years, I've got a tremendous amount of traction.

"I was serious about it in 2014. I'm serious about it in 2022. And I've got the results to prove it."

To Myers, a name change isn't enough.

"Nashville wants criminal justice reform," she said. "This current DA has had the office for eight years. It's time for new ideas and a fresh perspective."

Is the DA tough enough on crime?

In recent weeks, Myers' messaging has taken a hardline pivot relying on Metro Nashville Police data that suggests crime is skyrocketing and the DA's office is dismissing violent cases recklessly.

Data she shared from MNPD sources claims 65.1% of weapon law violations from January to September 2021 were dismissed or retired by the DA's office, essentially unprosecuted.

The same numbers Myers quoted allege 86.7% of domestic violence related assaults were dismissed.

Those numbers dangerously miss the big picture, Funk said.

Davidson County District Attorney candidate Sara Beth Myers addresses worshipers after a prayer service at the Islamic Center of Nashville Friday, March 25, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Davidson County District Attorney candidate Sara Beth Myers addresses worshipers after a prayer service at the Islamic Center of Nashville Friday, March 25, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

He drew a hypothetical where, when four people were caught smoking marijuana together in a car, police also found a gun under a seat.

Each of the four would be charged initially with possession of a weapon under the influence but, if when the group got to court the gun's owner confessed to it, the weapons charges would likely be dismissed against the other three.

"Is that a 75% dismissal rate on guns? No, it's a 100% conviction rate because we convicted the guy that had the gun while he was under the influence," he said.

In many domestic violence cases, Funk said, a dismissal on a court record could actually indicate a successful prosecution by the terms of his office.

"What we call a successful prosecution is where something has been done. Where not only is the victim supported, but the defendant has either had education or some type of sanction. Where both sides — accountability through conviction, accountability through probation, accountability through successful completion of classes — can lead to cases being dismissed," he said.

Myers argued internal data can be manipulated to "say anything you want."

A recent TV ad from the Myers campaign cited half of Nashville's homicides in 2021 remain unsolved, a number that mirrors previous Tennessean reporting from the past few years. But Myers places the fault of that disconnect at Funk's feet, not the police department.

MNPD recently reverted to a centralized homicide unit after reporting showed a precinct-divided approach to investigations did not return significantly better results. It may be too soon to measure the effectiveness of the new unit.

"The DA can choose to pursue policies that will make our city safer through reducing the loss of life and the amount of crime that people are experiencing on a daily basis," Myers said. She has pitched a precinct-specific audit of all elements of the criminal justice system in Nashville to identify any breakdowns.

Nellis said there's a bigger question lingering in the statistics.

"What we want has nothing to do with the statistics of dismissal, or incarceration, or whatever. What we want is justice," Nellis said.

"I don't think we can use the traditional metrics to determine whether our process is effective, but we know right now, it's not working," she said. "As we reimagine, we need to look at what we what we actually want to measure."

P. Danielle Nellis, candidate for District Attorney, is photographed in Germantown Friday, April 1, 2022.
P. Danielle Nellis, candidate for District Attorney, is photographed in Germantown Friday, April 1, 2022.

What do candidates 'bring to the table'?

Some worry being a "progressive prosecutor" is a contradiction.

In that contradiction is where Nellis prefers to sit.

"If you are a progressive prosecutor what you are doing is ceding power to the community," she said. "Not just minority communities, members in the LGBT community, immigrant communities, people whose relationship with this system for generations has been has been unjust.

"That's something that, unfortunately, my opponents simply don't understand. I bring to the table the stories that others cannot tell," she said. "And I do not take it lightly that I carry those stories with me to the table."

Funk touts his experience on both sides of the courtroom, too. He's the only DA in the history of Nashville who has worked as an assistant public defender, he said at a recent forum.

"My time as a public defender made me a better assistant district attorney," he said last month. "It made me understand the real needs and the collateral damage" of the entire cycle of arrests, charges and convictions on victims, defendants and their families.

Myers leans into her prosecutorial experience, specifically in the federal civil rights and human trafficking arenas. She also created a nonprofit, Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality, which she says helped usher in nine laws through the state legislature.

"I don't just talk the talk, I walk the walk," she said. "I'm a member of the nonprofit community — not just on boards, but who has built one from the ground up. And the only one who has gotten real systems change accomplished the legislation."

Nellis, if elected, would not only be Nashville's first female DA, but also the first Black DA to hold the position.

"I am not a politician. But this isn't just an academic exercise," she said. "This is for a position for the city I love, for the future, for my 6-year-old son."

She took a rare moment this week to issue a statement on a point of contention between her opponents. In essence, she said they both took the wrong approach.

"They're playing politics when our city doesn't have time to play politics right now," Nellis said. "This election is asking the voters in eight years: What do you want our criminal justice system to look like? Do you want it to look the same? Do you want it to be the status quo? Do you want it to be a Band-Aid solution?"

Legislature always eyes limits on DA power

Nashville's DA has been in the hot seat when it comes to the relationship between Nashville's largely progressive approach and the conservative state legislature and attorney general's office.

Last year, a new law provided a way for the state to circumvent local prosecutors they say go "rogue."

It gives the attorney general the power to go to the state Supreme Court in the hopes of temporarily replacing local district attorneys on cases they refuse to prosecute.

If a district attorney “peremptorily and categorically” refuses to prosecute charges under a certain criminal offense regardless of the facts, the new bill would allow the attorney general to ask the court to install that temporary prosecutor to handle all cases charged under that offense.

Nashville Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk meets with The Tennessean Friday, April 1, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Nashville Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk meets with The Tennessean Friday, April 1, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Although he was not alone in his decision to announce he would not prosecute under laws he saw as unconstitutional or legislating hate, the state-level push clearly targeted Funk — a fact his opponents have made sure to remind voters.

Funk, for his part, stands by his decisions. "Making those categorical statements are important messages for people who live in this community, and for people who are thinking about moving to this community or want to visit our community," he said. "The resources of this office need to be focused on violent crime. And that's what we do."

But Myers, for one, argues his decision may have come from the right place but was used as political grandstanding with unintended consequences.

"He chose to be loud instead of being effective," she said. "Simply don't prosecute cases that are unconstitutional, that violate people's civil rights...With all of those statements that he chose to make and be loud about, he directed the General Assembly to take away his power which is exactly what happened.

"He endangered all of those civil rights and his ability to use his discretion, which is the most important tool that a prosecutor has."

Constituents will know the policies of the department without announcements, she said.

Funk shrugged off the idea he could gain community trust without sometimes announcing his intentions.

"I was asked the question by people who deserved answers," he said. "We're not gonna use the resources of this office to be used as a as tools of hate."

Nellis, for her part, argued both her opponents were making the same mistake in broadcasting their intentions on wide swathes of cases instead of individual case assessment.

Following a verdict last month in a case that drew nation-wide attention, Myers issued a statement that Nellis characterized as also making blanket, prejudged decisions on a wide swathe of cases.

P. Danielle Nellis, candidate for District Attorney, is photographed in Germantown Friday, April 1, 2022.
P. Danielle Nellis, candidate for District Attorney, is photographed in Germantown Friday, April 1, 2022.

Funk's decision to file criminal charges against a former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse who mistakenly gave a patient the wrong medication, contributing to the woman's death.

The nurse was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult, for her failure to catch the mistake at several points. Nurses and other health care workers across the country are concerned the case could have an unintended chilling effect on reporting errors in the future.

Myers, just hours after the verdict in that case, released a statement decrying the decision to prosecute.

“As your District Attorney, I will not criminally charge medical professionals for mistakes that amount to civil medical malpractice," she wrote. "The DA's decision to charge this nurse is just one more example of how his misjudgments continue to make our community more divided and less safe. It's time for change.”

Although Myers later clarified she was not saying she would never prosecute criminally negligent homicide, Nellis said it was an example of the same type of thinking she criticized Funk for doing.

"I try not to issue pithy statements," she said. "I try not to give knee-jerk responses. I think if we're going to have these conversations, if we're going to talk really about reforming criminal justice system, we have got to recognize all the nuances."

Branches of law enforcement

Prosecutors and police often work hand in hand, but the relationship between MNPD and Funk's team has been complicated in recent years.

A new police chief seems to have calmed the waters somewhat, but the DA was once accused of launching a "war on police" officers after charging one with first-degree murder after an on-duty shooting.

Andrew Delke formally pleaded guilty to manslaughter in July after killing Daniel Hambrick.

Delke, 28, who is white, shot Hambrick, 25, who was Black, three times in the back as he ran away after a North Nashville traffic stop on July 26, 2018. The shooting kicked off an ongoing conversation about policing and racial bias in Nashville.

Delke was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting. Under the terms of the plea agreement, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Davidson County District Attorney candidate Sara Beth Myers talks with Sabina Mohyuddin after a prayer service at the Islamic Center of Nashville Friday, March 25, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Davidson County District Attorney candidate Sara Beth Myers talks with Sabina Mohyuddin after a prayer service at the Islamic Center of Nashville Friday, March 25, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Once lauded by some progressives and decried by conservatives for the choice to charge the officer, Funk has since taken significant flack from notable Black activists and community organizers for his decision to accept the plea on the eve of a jury trial in the case.

Myers maintains his decision to offer the plea was a sign of poor judgement.

In a December statement, Myers slammed the decision yet again.

"Daniel Hambrick’s family is in this position because Glenn Funk mishandled the entire case," she wrote in December. "We need a district attorney who cares about equal justice under the law and communicating with victim’s families instead of generating publicity for himself.”

But overall, her approach to the seat suggests she would work closely with police.

She aims to physically reorganize the DA's office and put assistant district attorneys in police precincts.

"Hopefully the end result will be they'll be spending less time prosecuting people and in court because there won't be as many people to prosecute," she said. "It's really just shifting the mentality and how we work with law enforcement, which I think we can all agree needs to change."

At a forum last month, Nellis disputed that a "precinct model" is the same as effective community or neighborhood engagement.

Law enforcement are partners in the work of justice, she said, but doubling down on the existing framework of policing is not the answer to solving old problems, she said.

"Everybody's gotten used to it, but what we know about it is it doesn't work. And it is flawed deeply, particularly as it relates to the impact on marginalized communities — Black, brown, poor communities," she said. "We know indeed, that Black and brown bodies have been the currency of our criminal justice system and public safety for generations. "

Funk stands by the relationships he's built with stakeholders across Nashville, including in law enforcement and the judiciary.

"Some things I can do fast. And some things — especially when I'm having to collaborate with judges, the mayor's office, the sheriff, the police department — sometimes those can be slow," Funk said.

"I've done one term and when I took office, I radically changed the way that this office approached its mission. Our mission statement is now 'do justice always.'

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

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee primary 2022: Nashville district attorney race heats up