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Man convicted of 2000 murder could be exonerated after another man is arrested for the crime

calvin atchison
Posted at 8:48 AM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 11:48:07-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department arrested a man for a murder on Tuesday that another man has already served time for. But this time, police say they finally have the guy who did it.

Just before 11 a.m., SWAT officers and detectives arrested 51-year-old Calvin Atchison at a home in the Bellshire neighborhood for the 2000 murder of Velma Tharpe.

A known sex worker, Tharpe's half-naked body was found in an alley in North Nashville. An autopsy showed the 30-year-old had died from blunt force trauma to her head and she'd also likely been strangled. It appeared that she'd also been sexually assaulted.

But what makes Atchison's arrest so unusual is that a year after the murder, police arrested a 28-year-old tow truck driver. Paul Shane Garrett later pleaded guilty and served 15 years for the crime, even though there was no evidence or witnesses linking him to it.

But police and District Attorney Glenn Funk both now say Atchison is the one who really killed Tharpe and that it was his DNA that was found all over Tharpe's body.

And, it turns out, that before Garrett pleaded guilty, detectives and the DA's office knew that the DNA evidence found on the victim did not match Garrett. And a year after Garrett went to prison, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation notified detectives and the DA that they had identified Atchison as the DNA match.

But neither police nor the DA's Office followed up on the new information.

And, incredibly, the lead detective in the case, Roy Dunaway, repeatedly lied in court about things Garrett did and did not say.

Now, Metro cold case detectives and Funk say that the DA's office at the time and police totally bungled and botched the case.

Fast forward to 2011 and Cold Case Detective Mike Roland and Pat Postiglione stumbled onto the DNA match 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 DA'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.

But Detective Roland couldn't shake the feeling that the wrong man had been convicted. And last fall, he 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.

Funk wrote in a court briefing asking the court to vacate or throw out Garrett's conviction because there is "clear and convincing evidence establishing Mr. Garrett was convinced of a crime he did not commit."

The DA also recently presented the case against Atchison to the grand jury which led to his arrest, facing first-degree premeditated murder charges.

Paul Shane Garrett, meanwhile, served his full sentence and was released.

He is now asking to be exonerated and the DA's office is supporting his efforts to clear his name.

The Tennessee Innocence Project is representing him in that effort.

Executive Director Jessica Van Dyke released this statement following Atchison's arrest:

"The Tennessee Innocence Project, a non-profit law firm, represents Paul Shane Garrett in his petition for post-conviction relief, asserting new scientific evidence of his actual innocence, unknown when he was convicted. Exposing a wrongful criminal conviction is not only the first step at bringing justice to an innocent person and their loved ones, but also often aids in seeing that the truly guilty are brought to justice. We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Davidson County District Attorney General's Office to reveal the truth. To date, more than 2,700 people have lost nearly 25,000 years due to wrongful convictions across the United States. Launched in February 2019 as the first full-time innocence organization in the state, the Tennessee Innocence Project works to free wrongfully convicted Tennesseans. The Tennessee Innocence Project has three primary areas of focus: 1) investigating and litigating wrongful conviction cases for those in Tennessee prisons to obtain exonerations, 2) training law students and attorneys about how to litigate these cases and how to prevent future wrongful convictions, and 3) effectuating changes that facilitate the discovery of wrongful convictions and remedies to the wrongfully convicted."

This story was originally published by Jennifer Kraus at WTVF.