As district attorney general, the city’s top prosecutor manages a roughly 100-person office of victim advocates, administrative personnel and dozens of assistant district attorneys across several different units. The office determines whether, why and how to bring charges on behalf of Nashville, dealing with cases that range from marijuana possession to domestic violence to police shootings.
Much of this year’s Democratic primary race has focused on how each candidate conceives of the office’s responsibilities and to what extent those responsibilities extend beyond managing each day’s volume of cases. All three candidates have articulated a vision for the DA’s office that includes community involvement, centers victims, reserves prosecution resources for violent crimes, seeks alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenses, and untangles the legacy of systemic racism and mass incarceration in Nashville’s legal system.
P. Danielle Nellis grew up in North Nashville and attended local public schools, graduating from Hume-Fogg High School. She went on to Spelman College in Atlanta and Boston University Law School before returning to Nashville to start her own criminal defense practice. She served as an ADA in current District Attorney Glenn Funk’s office from 2014 to 2018. Nellis worked mostly on domestic violence cases, one of few Black women in a predominantly white office, leaving in 2018 to clerk for Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton.
Sara Beth Myers started her career as a prosecutor with DA Torry Johnson, Funk’s predecessor, and was among a small group of prosecutors immediately fired when Funk took office. She worked briefly with Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and recently completed a four-year stint at the U.S. Attorney’s office. She was discussed as a pick to fill the vacant U.S. Attorney’s position for the Middle District of Tennessee, but that went to Mark Wildasin as interim. Myers left her job in November to run against Funk.
Funk has presided over concrete shifts in the DA’s office as well as controversial legal decisions that reflect his position as both prosecutor and public figure. Since 2014, Nashville has eased up on prosecuting nonviolent offenses and jailed fewer people. Funk’s office has abandoned harsh penalties for drug possession in school zones and driving on a revoked license. Funk has utilized diversion programs and worked with defendants for bail reductions, though Nashville’s cash bail system remains in place. His office has never pursued the death penalty.
There have been substantive changes under Funk, though individuals charged and incarcerated are still disproportionately Black, brown and poor — as is the case across the nation. Nellis and Myers argue the DA’s office can do more, faster.
Funk has handled many cases that have roiled Nashville, like the 2013 rape perpetrated and documented by Vanderbilt football students, and the 2018 mass shooting at an Antioch Waffle House. When Metro Nashville Police Department Officer Joshua Lippert killed Jocques Clemmons in 2017, Funk declined to bring charges, anticipating Lippert’s “reasonable claim of self defense” and all the ways police officers manage to evade criminal accountability. A year later, 25-year-old MNPD Officer Andrew Delke killed Daniel Hambrick at Cayce Homes in East Nashville. Last summer, Funk offered Delke a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter and a three-year prison sentence, which Delke accepted. Despite viewing the incident as first-degree murder (and amid international protests against racist police violence) Funk chose to pursue what he considered a more assured conviction. Both Hambrick and Clemmons were Black. Both officers are white.
In January 2018, then-Mayor Megan Barry acknowledged a romantic relationship with MNPD Officer Sgt. Rob Forrest, the head of her security detail. Funk called in the TBI to probe any legal implications. Questions about overtime for Forrest became sticking points, amounting to a misuse of public funds. Funk offered Barry a plea deal for felony theft, conditioned on her resignation, which Barry took. The charges were expunged in 2021.
Seen purely through fundraising numbers, Myers has mounted the bigger challenge against Funk. Her platform introduces a community prosecution model that would assign ADAs to police precincts, aiming to identify root causes of violence and crime. To address and prevent crime, she says she plans to leverage the services of area nonprofits. Her campaign has rallied several former county prosecutors, lawyers and familiar political figures, like Barry, who have reason for dissatisfaction with the incumbent.
Nellis proposes specific changes in diversion programs, pretrial services, and rights restoration among a litany of potential DA initiatives organized in an 18-page policy book.
“The best way to get people out of the system is to keep people out of the system in the first place,” Nellis tells the Scene.
Nellis left the DA’s office a few months after presenting Funk with proposals for increased efforts to directly engage the community. According to Funk, the proposals would have come with a restructuring of Nellis’ professional responsibilities, straining an already understaffed office. To Nellis, the incumbent seemed resistant to certain types of change.
The 2014 county primary tallied a little more than 30,000 votes for district attorney. Funk won with 40 percent of that. Even with an incumbent advantage, a low-turnout election can mean small margins. As Nellis and Myers work to convince voters, Funk touts and defends his record.
Recent candidate forums are available to watch online. Those can get wonky — lawyers are involved — but they’re worth tuning in to. Few elected officials wield as much power as Nashville’s prosecutor-in-chief.