Tennessee Case Highlights Need for Independent Review of Wrongful Convictions


Joseph Webster, 41, was released last week after nearly 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean

Last month, after Joseph Webster had spent 14 years in a Tennessee prison for a murder he did not commit, his conviction became the first one vacated by the Conviction Review Unit in Davidson County since it was established in 2016. Mr. Webster’s case demonstrates that the mere existence of a conviction review unit is not enough to root out wrongful convictions.

The Davidson County Conviction Review Unit, established in 2016, consisted of a panel of seven prosecutors. Reluctant to hold their fellow prosecutors accountable, the panel members frequently deadlocked, resulting in the denial of over 20 petitions during the panel’s first two years in operation. An investigative report revealed in 2019 that, of the 38 cases that had come before the unit, none had been reopened.

This seven-member panel initially denied Mr. Webster’s petition in July 2018, even though evidence of his innocence included exculpatory DNA results and reports from at least five eyewitnesses implicating a different man.

The strength of the exculpatory evidence in the case forced Nashville’s district attorney to change the CRU’s structure. In January 2019, the seven-prosecutor panel was replaced with a single assistant district attorney who has the full-time responsibility to review wrongful convictions.

The CRU in its restructured form agreed to review Mr. Webster’s case a second time, and in October, it issued a recommendation to dismiss all of the charges against him.

On November 10, Mr. Webster was released from custody after a Nashville judge vacated his conviction and the district attorney’s office formally dismissed the charges.