Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nashvillian of the Year Tom Nelson: Jekyll or Hyde?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 29, 2011 at 6:42 AM

In last week's issue, the Scene chose Tom Nelson — the night court magistrate who defied Gov. Bill Haslam and ordered the release of 20-some arrested Occupy Nashville protesters, including Scene reporter Jonathan Meador — as Nashvillian of the Year. The selection has been greeted with a range of reactions, from hearty approval to vocal condemnation.

One reader, Karl Meyer, had a more than casual interest in the story: He was among 16 protesters who were arrested in 2007 for holding an all-night vigil to raise awareness of the plight of Nashville's homeless population.

But according to Meyer, instead of releasing these obviously well-meaning protesters, Nelson "arbitrarily set a $2000 bail/bond for each one of us, in effect sentencing us to a night in jail, without trial." Among those spending the night in jail were two former Nashvillians of the Year: Fr. Charlie Strobel and Clemmie Greenlee.

Here's the full text of Meyer's letter:

The Scene has named Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson as “Nashvillian of the Year” for upholding the constitutional right of peaceable assembly for Occupy Nashville protesters arrested at Legislative Plaza in October.

I agree this was a valuable and significant judicial action to defend civil liberties for all of us, but from personal experience I hesitate to verify the legal integrity of Commissioner Nelson.

In your story, you mention the 180 degree disparity between his actions in this case and a very similar 2007 case in which he upheld the arrest of 16 upstanding Nashville citizens conducting an all night vigil outside the Metro Courthouse and City Hall, in behalf of homeless peoples’ needs. I was one of those defendants. He arbitrarily set a $2000 bail/bond for each one of us, in effect sentencing us to a night in jail, without trial. The next morning, Judge John Aaron Holt appropriately dismissed all charges against us, on motion of an attorney without even bringing us to court.

In the American system all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The purpose of bail/bond is never to be punitive. Its only purposes are to insure that defendants return to court for hearings and trial, or to protect the public from defendants who may pose a threat to the safety of other people. Article I, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution says “That excessive bail shall not be required... .” The U.S. Constitution, Amendment VIII uses exactly the same words. Setting prompt bail, or release, is the basic purpose for the existence of Night Court.

The 2007 arrestees included such distinguished and trusted Nashville advocates for homeless people as two former “Nashvillians of the Year”, Fr. Charlie Strobel and Clemmie Greenlee, and the Rev. Don Beisswenger. There was absolutely no reason to believe that we might not appear for trial, even less that we posed a threat to the safety of others; yet Commissioner Nelson ordered grossly excessive bail, without even inquiring about our background and status in the community. The appropriate action under General Session Court guidelines would have been to release us promptly on our own signatures, without setting any cash bail requirement.

Following our release by Judge Holt, 13 of us filed a formal complaint about the excessive bail to the Judges of General Sessions Court. On May 24, 2007, Presiding Judge Gloria Dumas, on behalf of the General Sessions Court Judges, sent Commissioner Nelson a letter of correction reminding him to follow “criteria for pretrial release” and “the directive set by the Judges in regards to Pretrial Release Services.”

The idealist in me would like to believe that over the last four years Commissioner Nelson has carefully reconsidered his judicial conduct and responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all people appearing before him. The realist thinks it possible that the huge disparity in his conduct in these two cases might be due to differences in his political relationships with the Democratic Mayor, Bill Purcell, under whom we were arrested, and the current Republican dominated Legislature and the Republican Governor, Bill Haslam, who had the Occupiers arrested.

Sincerely, Karl Meyer, Nashville

1) City Paper, June 7, 2007 — “Sessions judge warns colleague about excessive criminal bonds.”

2) Tennessean, April 10, 2007 — “Protesters complain about Metro Judge." [The Scene was unable to locate this story online.]

3) Judge Dumas, May 24, 2007 letter to Commissioner Nelson (available from Karl Meyer)

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