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Paul Shane Garrett

Other Tennessee exonerations
Shortly after 6 a.m. on June 15, 2000, police in Nashville, Tennessee were summoned to a grass alley behind 1209 Meharry Boulevard after a caller reported finding the body of a woman.

The woman was identified as 30-year-old Velma Tharpe, who was a sex worker. She was only partially clad—her underwear and shorts were next to her body and her bra and shirt were pushed up above her chest. A forensic pathologist performed an autopsy and concluded that Tharpe suffered blunt force trauma to the head and neck, suggesting she had been strangled. An ultraviolet light was used to identify fluids on Tharpe’s body and samples were collected from her face and body. A rape kit was taken as well.

Detectives suspected that Tharpe was among several sex workers that had been murdered in Nashville. More than a year later, police focused on Paul Shane Garrett, a tow truck operator who turned 27 just a few days after Tharpe’s body was found. He came under scrutiny after a sex worker who was staying in a home across the street from where Garrett lived accused him of raping her a year earlier. The woman claimed that he solicited her for sex and when she only wanted to engage in oral sex, he raped her in the front seat of his tow truck and forced her out onto the street.

The woman, an admitted user of crack cocaine, made the accusation to a police officer when the residence where she was staying was being searched and she was facing arrest on drug charges.

On August 8, 2001, Garrett gave the first of four electronically recorded statements and two unrecorded statements to Detective Roy Dunaway, who was accompanied by Detective E.J. Bernard and other detectives. In addition, the detectives secretly recorded a conversation between Garrett and his wife after promising him it would not be recorded.

In this first interview, Garrett admitted that he saw prostitutes and willingly gave a blood sample. Dunaway falsely told Garrett that witnesses placed him at the scene of Tharpe’s murder. In response, Garrett accused Dunaway of lying and left the station.

On August 12, 2001, Garrett returned to the station for a second interview. He was questioned about whether he picked up sex workers in his tow truck and whether he used condoms. Garrett made no admissions to murdering or assaulting anyone. He was shown photographs, one of which was the woman who had accused him of raping her. Garrett denied raping the woman and said she was a sex worker who hung out in the neighborhood. He said that she was angry at him because he called the police to report her and others for crack cocaine activity near his home.

He was arrested that day. The warrant said he “gave statements implicating himself in the homicide” and “identified a photograph of the victim and stated he had sex with her and choked her.” Those statements were false.

Garrett was interviewed again on August 13, 2001. He again denied killing anyone. He told the detectives to check his DNA and offered to take a polygraph examination. Detective Dunaway asked about the murders of other sex workers and Garrett denied he killed anyone. Dunaway and Bernard then took Garrett out of the jail for a drive around North Nashville and returned to the station to conduct another interview.

Garrett continued to deny involvement in the murder, but at some point, he said he thought he might have had sex with the victim near Jefferson Street. Dunaway said, “You choked her.” Garrett said he did not. Dunaway then said that “[y]esterday, you told us she had a seizure.” Garrett denied saying that and said that Tharpe got out of his truck, squatted at the side of the road (as if to urinate) and that she was alive when he drove away.

Detective Bernard then administered a polygraph examination and told Garrett that he had failed. Years later, the examination charts were not in the police file and the time stamps shown in recorded interviews indicated this polygraph would have taken place in an extremely brief timeframe, inconsistent with accepted practices. Detective Bernard said that after the exam, during a post-test interview that was not recorded, Garrett “admitted he had lied…he stated they did have sex in his wrecker” and during the sex act, Garrett choked her.

On August 14, 2001, Garrett was allowed to meet with his wife in the station. He was told their meeting would not be recorded, but in fact it was recorded on video. During their meeting, Garrett told his wife that the police told him his DNA had been found on the victim, but he couldn’t understand how that occurred. He told her, “[t]hey said it did, I don’t know. They couldn’t tell me for sure. I don’t know….They showed me a picture…but I can’t 100 percent swear that was the lady I was with.” Garrett told his wife that he believed Dunaway was going to help him and knew that Garrett didn’t murder anyone.

Later that night, Dunaway and Bernard interviewed Garrett again. They focused on getting Garrett to admit to Tharpe’s murder as well as numerous other unsolved cases. Bernard said that if Garrett did not believe in God, they had nothing to talk about. “Roy and myself know that you killed Velma Tharpe. Now whether you did it on purpose or not, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…”

Bernard said everyone knew that Garrett choked Tharpe to death. “You are a choker…Velma Tharpe is not the first woman you were with when she died,” he said.

“You choked these women,” he declared. “You choked them! You choked them and they died!...You have got to answer to that. Now, God is not here. You have to answer to God at some point.”

Garrett was steadfast in his denials. “If I killed anybody, I think I would know if I killed anybody,” he said. During the one-hour interrogation, Garrett denied killing Tharpe nearly 30 times. Four times he implored the detectives to do DNA testing or insisted that his DNA would not match any of the unsolved crimes.

When Garrett refused to agree with what the detectives said, they called him a “jerk” and accused him of lying. They suggested he was facing the death penalty. But Garrett denied committing any murders.

A preliminary hearing was held on August 30, 2001. Detective Dunaway testified that Garrett told him that he had sex with Tharpe and then choked her “until she twitched.”

"He pretended that he didn't know that she was dead but that she was twitching when he left,” Dunaway testified. He added that Garrett said, “Roy, I’ve got a real problem with choking women.”

In addition, Dunaway testified that when Garrett met with his wife, he said, “I was present at the time of [the victim’s] death” and then demonstrated a choking gesture on his wife which caused her to gag.

However, the recordings of the interrogations had no such statements or admissions by Garrett and showed no such demonstration by Garrett.

The sex worker who claimed that Garrett had raped her more than a year before she made the allegation to police testified, but she was vague on where and when it happened. She testified she had picked two people out of a photo lineup and neither was Garrett. She also testified that detectives paid her $250 from Crime Stoppers and promised more that was never received.

The hearing judge ruled there was probable cause to send the case to the Davidson County grand jury. Garrett remained in custody, unable to post bond.

Six days later, on September 5, 2001, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) notified Dunaway that DNA testing excluded Garrett from biological evidence collected in the rape kit.

On November 5, 2001, Dunaway met with a man who had been confined in the jail at the same time as Garrett and had been a confidential informant for police in the past. The man claimed that Garrett told him that he killed Tharpe, but that there would be no DNA linking him to the crime because he wore a condom. Another jailhouse informant also told the prosecution that Garrett had implicated himself in the crime.

Garrett was represented by Laura Dykes, a public defender. After a grand jury indicted Garrett on charges of rape and murder in March 2002, Dykes filed a motion to have any additional evidence submitted for DNA testing. On November 22, 2002, the TBI reported that further DNA testing on swabs taken from Tharpe’s face and abdomen again excluded Garrett as the source of the DNA.

Because the public defender’s office had previously represented one of the informants, creating a possible conflict, a private attorney, Kymberly Haas, was appointed to represent Garrett.

On June 20, 2003, Garrett pled guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. The rape charge was dismissed. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

On December 9, 2004, Detective Dunaway and the Davidson County District Attorney General's Office received a third report from TBI that the DNA profile present in the vaginal swab and stomach swab had been matched through CODIS, the FBI’s DNA database (Combined DNA Index System), to 35-year-old Calvin Atchison, who had prior convictions for aggravated assault and domestic violence.

The report requested that a sample be collected from Atchison and submitted for comparison. However, Dunaway never submitted a comparison sample, and no action was taken by the District Attorney's Office at that time.

In 2011, Nashville police Detective Michael Roland and Sergeant Pat Postiglione, who were in the Cold Case Unit, began reviewing unsolved murders of sex workers. As part of the investigation, they looked at the Tharpe case file. They discovered the letter to Dunaway and the District Attorney’s Office of the DNA match.

On June 28, 2011, Roland and Detective Lee Freeman met with Atchison. Atchison denied having ever killed anyone but admitted that he had interacted with sex workers in the Nashville area around the time Tharpe was killed. Atchison agreed to give oral swabs for DNA testing.

On July 13, 2011, Roland and Postiglione met with Garrett in prison. Garrett said he was innocent and that he pled guilty because he was unable to make bond and after nearly two years in the Davidson County jail he was "worn down." Garrett said that Dunaway had falsely testified about what transpired during the interrogations. At the end of the interview, Garrett asked, "Guys, what took you so long?"

The following day, TBI reported that the DNA profile from the swabs provided by Atchison was the same profile that came from the rape kit and swabs taken from Tharpe.

On August 2, 2011, Roland and Postiglione interviewed Atchison again. Atchison "wasn't saying he did anything but also wasn't saying he didn't," they reported. Asked about Tharpe, he said, "I might have done it, but I wouldn't have left anybody anywhere." He admitted that he once had choked his wife until she passed out.

On August 10, 2011, Roland met with the jailhouse informants. One said he tried to get an admission from Garrett because his grandmother had died, and he wanted to get out of jail. He claimed Garrett told him that he hit Tharpe in the head with a "J hook" and put the body under a house—neither of which was true. The second informant said Garrett admitted killing four or five sex workers and that he strangled Tharpe with a chain—which also was untrue.

Roland and Postiglione reviewed the tapes of the interrogations of Garrett and discovered that Dunaway had testified falsely. They concluded that Garrett was innocent. They presented their findings to Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson and then, accompanied by Anderson and Police Communications Director Don Aaron, they presented their findings to Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson and Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman. After that meeting, Johnson assigned Assistant District Attorney Kathy Morante to look at the evidence.

Postiglione sent a letter to Morante saying “it is my humble opinion that Paul Garrett did not kill Velma Tharpe.”

“I did not see any evidence that connected Paul Garrett to this victim,” Postiglione wrote. “Contrary to what the homicide warrant reads, I did not hear Paul Garrett admit to killing anyone. I did hear investigators convince Garrett that he had sex with the victim. I did hear investigators suggest to Garrett that he strangled the victim during sex. I feel that the personality and interview techniques of the two investigators involved, along with Paul Garrett's willingness to be manipulated allowed this to occur. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Garrett was involved in this murder.”

After her investigation, on August 20, 2011, Morante sent a report to District Attorney Johnson and Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman. “I do not believe that we can permit Garrett’s conviction to stand,” she said. “At best, we can have no confidence in it. At worst, the investigation conducted by Pat [Postiglione] and Mike [Roland], along with a review of the original file, leads to the conclusion that he is innocent.”

Morante recommended that all of Dunaway’s homicide cases be reviewed “as soon as possible” because she agreed that Dunaway had testified falsely in the preliminary hearing.

Morante reported that she interviewed Assistant District Attorney Pam Anderson, who said she had watched the recorded interrogations after the case was bound over to the grand jury. Anderson claimed she realized at that time that Dunaway had testified “incorrectly,” Morante reported. Anderson said she discussed these concerns with the District Attorney General Johnson and his chief deputy Thurman. Morante found a handwritten note in the case file from Assistant District Attorney Jon Seaborg saying that Anderson would sign off an indictment, but added, “I don’t think we can make a case.” Morante also noted only two of the recorded interviews with Garrett were present in the DA file.

However, the case apparently got new life when the two jailhouse informants claimed Garrett admitted involvement in the murder.

Morante interviewed Assistant District Attorney Dan Hamm, who was assigned the case after the indictment was returned. Hamm could not remember the entirety of the recorded statements. Hamm recalled that the detectives believed Garrett was guilty and the primary evidence was his own statements.

Morante concluded “there is no credible evidence that Garrett murdered Tharpe.” She characterized Garrett’s statements in the interrogations: “They are not confessions. While they may be inculpatory because Garrett admits having sex with Tharpe, Pat and Mike are not even sure this is true.” Morante said that much of Garrett’s responses were the result of highly suggestive interrogation techniques so much so that it “cannot be determined from watching the interviews what information is truly the product of Garrett’s recollections.”

Morante suggested options, such as persuading Charles Traughber, chairman of the Board of Probation and Parole, to grant Garrett parole, noting that Garrett’s next appearance before the board was not scheduled until February 2012. She suggested that the office could ask the governor to pardon Garrett. “The Governor can do so for any reason,” she said. “The decision does not have to be based on finding that Garrett is innocent” although he would have to enter his reasons “in a public record.”

She said the office could recommend exoneration to the Governor. “It is my opinion that exoneration should be recommended,” Morante wrote. “I believe that Garrett is not guilty of this murder. Garrett deserves to be released immediately with no conditions and to have his record clear.”

On October 13, 2011, District Attorney General Johnson sent a letter to the parole board saying that while the office was not prepared to conclude Garrett was not responsible for the crime, there were significant enough questions about the evidence to warrant immediate release.

Garrett was released on December 18, 2011.

By that time, the two detectives, Dunaway and Bernard, had been accused of other fabrications. In 2005, Bernard resigned after he was accused of lying during a homicide investigation. In 2006, Dunaway was shifted to patrol officer duties after testifying falsely that a defendant had confessed. He later said the testimony was the result of being on cold medication and ultimately left the department.

Meanwhile, Detective Roland, dissatisfied with the response of the District Attorney General’s office, then approached Laura Dykes, who was the original attorney for Garrett before the conflict required that a private attorney be appointed to represent him. On August 6, 2012, Dykes filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis. The prosecution opposed the petition.

At a hearing in September 2012, Detective Roland and Sgt. Postiglione testified that the police investigative file was incomplete, reports were missing, and that the DNA evidence pointed to Atchison and excluded Garrett.

The prosecution disagreed that Atchison was the perpetrator and emphasized that Tharpe was a sex worker. And the prosecution noted, Garrett pled guilty. “He didn’t say I will plead guilty unless at some future date they discover whose DNA it is; and if that happens, then I want to come back and have it set aside. He didn’t say that.”

On November 5, 2012, the petition was denied. The court held that the evidence was not newly discovered and that it didn’t matter whose DNA was found. And given “the nature of the evidence and the circumstances surrounding the case, it is entirely possible that [Garrett] committed the offense.” The Court also relied, in part, on the belief Garrett had made multiple confessions.

Eight years later, in October 2020, Detective Roland requested that the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) created by District Attorney General Glenn Funk examine Garrett’s case. During that review, Johnson was contacted. He sent a letter to Funk in April 2021 saying, “Given the history of this case, it is fair to say that I do not have confidence in Mr. Garrett’s conviction and that there are genuine concerns about his guilt, but I remain unaware of compelling evidence that he should be exonerated. Of course, that could change if your office were to charge and convict another suspect for the death of Ms. Tharpe.”

In May 2021, Atchison was charged with Tharpe’s murder.

In July 2021, Sunny Eaton, CRU director, and Funk requested that Garrett’s conviction be vacated. In an order filed on August 2, 2021, Judge Angelita Dalton vacated his conviction. "It cannot be overstated how Mr. Garrett's now-debunked 'confession' has shaped the narrative and direction of his case,” the judge declared. “Now, in his own words and through filings by both Mr. Garrett and the State, the Court is hearing clearly for the first time Mr. Garrett's voice and the facts associated with the case."

Eaton filed an 80-page report recounting the sordid history of the case and urging that the conviction be set aside. She commended the work of Detective Roland and now-retired Sgt. Postiglione for the “relentless and thorough pursuit of truth.”

Eaton released a statement saying, "Extensive review by the Conviction Review Unit revealed that for years, there has been clear and convincing evidence Mr. Garrett did not commit this crime."

Garrett’s attorney, Jessica Van Dyke, executive director and lead counsel of the Tennessee Innocence Project, hailed the ruling for shining a light on the true facts of the case after a long wait for justice.

On August 18, Garrett’s exoneration became complete when the charge was dismissed. He was tearful as he spoke to the media. “I didn't get to watch my kids grow up,” he said. “I wasn't in their life. It affected my ability to get a job. It affected my ability to trust anyone, because I learned there are bad and good detectives. It changed everything.”

Van Dyke declared, “Nashville is fortunate to have a district attorney's office that is willing to review the integrity of the convictions and ensure that no innocent person remains convicted of a crime that he or she did not commit."

A week earlier, Atchison was released on a $50,000 bond pending his murder trial.

In January 2022, Garrett filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. The lawsuit was settled in February 2023 for $1.2 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/8/2021
Last Updated: 2/9/2023
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*