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Shelby County D.A.'s Justice Review Unit ready to investigate wrongful convictions and sentences

The office is now accepting applications to correct mistakes that cost innocent people years in prison.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Shelby County District Attorney’s new Justice Review Unit officially launched Thursday and is now accepting applications to investigate possible wrongful convictions and sentences.  

District Attorney Steve Mulroy made the announcement outside the National Civil Rights Museum, where he also introduced JRU Chief Lorna McClusky and Dr. William Arnold, head of the Post-Conviction Justice work group.

Mulroy created this unit as part of his on-going effort to “restore public trust in the system’s fairness.” 

According to the Tennessee Innocence Project, the non-profit legal team gets more letters from people in Shelby County claiming they were falsely imprisoned, than anywhere else in the state.

“Having been in prison…it’s a very dark and horrible place,” Dr. Arnold says. “It's because of a broken, man-made system…This is an opportunity to restore some humanity to the system.”

In 2013, the Memphis native was wrongfully convicted in Nashville and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“I spent six years and nine months in the state penitentiary and then my case was unanimously overturned on post conviction appeal in February of 2020.”

The Shelby County JRU joins the Nashville Conviction Review Unit as the only such organizations in the state.

The unit includes an investigator and attorneys McClusky and Assistant Chief Robert Gowen, each with at least 24 years of high-level criminal defense experience in the county.  

“We will be the ones looking at the cases, establishing the criteria for determining whether or not we'll take the case, and then we'll be the ones investigating the cases,” McClusky said. 

She said the unit had already received applications as of Thursday afternoon, some going back 20 or 30 years.

“We will start all over,” she said. “We will investigate the case, we will conduct interviews, we will have the discovery. We'll figure out if there's more discovery out there and we'll find it.”

It was thanks to McClusky’s work with the Innocence Project that uncovered DNA evidence leading to the 2009 release of Lawrence McKinney, a Memphis man who spent more than 30 years behind bars for rape and burglary charges from 1977.

But it still took years after that for McKinney to be exonerated. 

“Lorna took that evidence to the court, and the district attorney said, ‘Oh my goodness, we've made a mistake,’ and the judge granted him a new trial,” Nashville criminal defense lawyer David Raybin said. “We took that evidence to the parole board and said, ‘Great, we got this DNA evidence, you need to issue a certificate of exoneration that we can get to the Governor.’ The parole board said ‘no.’”

Raybin has been involved in three successful exonerations during more than 40 years practicing law in Tennessee. 

He says it’s a very slow and cumbersome process. 

“We waited until the next governor came in, which was (Bill) Haslam, and we started all over again and had another hearing,” Raybin said. “The Parole Board still said no.”

Gov. Haslam eventually exonerated McKinney in 2017.

Raybin says that McClusky is the “very best choice” to lead the JRU, adding that a review program with the authority of the district attorney’s office should go a long way towards ending the wait for justice. 

But McCluskey says that to this right, they will have to wait just a little bit more.

“What we're looking for is the truth,” she said.

The application forms can be found at: www.shelby.jru.com 

Contact the district attorney's office for more information: 

Phone: 901-222-1300
Email: info@scdag.com

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