Nashville, Tenn., (December 21, 2023) – Bass, Berry & Sims is pleased to announce that through the work of its Pro Bono Program and in partnership with the Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP), the firm contributed to the release of three wrongfully incarcerated individuals in 2023. Since 2019, the firm’s attorneys have dedicated a combined more than 4,000 hours toward the three cases, helping each of these individuals secure the freedom they deserve. These hours include two six-month fellowships that allowed two attorneys to work full-time with TIP on these and other wrongful conviction cases.
Most recently, pro bono client Artis Whitehead was released after nearly two decades in prison on December 15, 2023 following collaborative representation from TIP and attorneys from Bass, Berry & Sims and Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider. The firm’s team was led by Danielle Dudding Irvine, who began representing Whitehead in 2019 while participating in the Bass, Berry & Sims Pro Bono Fellows program and continued working on the matter after joining Axinn in New York in 2022, and by firm attorney Ashleigh Karnell, who began working on Whitehead’s case in 2020 and continued developing evidence of his wrongful conviction during her time as a Pro Bono Fellow with TIP in 2022.
The two additional releases in 2023 stemming from the firm’s pro bono representation were the overturned conviction and October 2023 prison release of Thomas Clardy after over 15 years of incarceration and the May 2023 release of Wayne Burgess after 24 years of wrongful imprisonment for first-degree felony murder charges.
“While we have a ways to go for a truly fair and equitable justice system, we are proud of the pro bono work our dedicated attorneys have devoted to make a true difference in our system,” said David Esquivel, pro bono partner at Bass, Berry & Sims. “Pro bono service is part of who we are as a firm, and these wins for our pro bono clients highlight our commitment to pursuing systemic change in the name of legal, social and economic equality.”
“We are also grateful for partnerships with organizations like the Tennessee Innocence Project, without whom this work would not be possible,” Esquivel added. “Our attorneys are honored to work tirelessly alongside TIP attorneys to represent these and other individuals and ensure justice is finally delivered after years, even decades, of freedom were wrongfully taken from them.”
More details about each of the three matters are included below.
Artis Whitehead Case Recap
After serving nearly 21 years, Artis Whitehead was released from prison on December 15, 2023.
In 2003, Whitehead was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 249 years for a May 2002 robbery of B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis, Tennessee. When detectives initially investigated the crime, they had few leads and the investigation was inactive for many months. Eight months after the robbery, a purported CrimeStoppers tip identified Whitehead as the robber, connecting him to the case for the first time. Police arrested Whitehead based on this tip and one photo identification made in January 2003. A second witness identified Whitehead via photo array after his arrest. Whitehead was ultimately convicted even though no physical evidence connected him to the crime, he physically bears no resemblance to the eyewitness descriptions given of the robber, and four of six testifying eyewitnesses did not identify Whitehead as the perpetrator.
Beginning in 2019, TIP and the Bass, Berry & Sims pro bono team spent years developing extensive new evidence of Whitehead’s innocence. The legal team uncovered a key piece of evidence when they discovered that a police informant made the purported CrimeStoppers tip naming Whitehead in an attempt to receive a lighter sentence for his own pending criminal charges. The informant had implicated innocent people in other crimes, by falsely accusing people with irrefutable alibis in an unrelated murder investigation. The legal team asserted that the Memphis Police Department and original prosecutor impermissibly withheld information regarding the informant’s identity and his credibility. Furthermore, conflicts of interest existed for both Whitehead’s original trial attorney and appellate counsel due to their separate connections to the informant. Whitehead’s legal team obtained fingerprint, palmprint and DNA testing on items at the crime scene, none of which resulted in a match to Whitehead. Additionally, the legal team developed new scientific evidence showing that the eyewitness identifications of Whitehead were faulty and obtained a statement from the initial identification witness, who shared that her identification of Whitehead may have been human error.
Whitehead’s case was eventually brought before Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Fitzgerald. On December 15, 2023, Judge Fitzgerald’s 93-page ruling vacated the conviction on multiple legal grounds. Judge Fitzgerald found that the police and original prosecutor’s failure to disclose the information about the informant constituted a Brady violation, Whitehead’s trial counsel had failed to object to improper statements made by the prosecution during trial, conflicts of interest existed for Whitehead’s trial and appellate counsel, and that the evidence at trial against Whitehead was minimal. Whitehead was released from prison after the order was entered on December 15.
While an attorney with Bass, Berry & Sims, Irvine worked alongside TIP Executive Director and Lead Counsel Jessica Van Dyke and Deputy Director and Senior Legal Counsel Jason Gichner to represent Whitehead. Irvine practiced with Bass, Berry & Sims from 2016 to 2022 and joined Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider LLP in 2022. At Axinn, she represents clients in antitrust litigation, regulation and compliance while maintaining an active pro bono practice. In addition to Karnell from Bass, Berry & Sims, the team also included attorneys Alex Agee, Courtney Black, Whitney Burley, Roee Talmor and Abby Yi.
Thomas Clardy Case Recap
Thomas Clardy was released from prison on October 20, 2023 after 17 years of incarceration. Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Scott D. Gallisdorfer began working with TIP on the matter in 2019 and continues to represent Clardy in proceedings on appeal while advocating for his full exoneration.
Clardy was convicted of a 2005 murder at an auto body shop in Madison, Tenn. The only evidence supporting Clardy’s conviction was a single, cross-racial eyewitness identification, which was not made until nearly a month after the crime. No physical evidence has ever tied Clardy to the crime scene, nor has any other witness placed him there. Evidence collected before the trial, but not tested until later, connected different, unrelated suspects to the scene. Clardy has steadfastly maintained his innocence for nearly two decades.
In June 2023, after years of court proceedings, a federal district judge in Nashville, Tenn. overturned Clardy’s conviction. Judge Aleta Trauger held that Clardy was denied effective assistance of counsel at his original trial in violation of his constitutional rights. Judge Trauger held that Clardy’s original lawyer performed deficiently by failing to present expert testimony on the well-documented limitations of eyewitness identifications.
The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office has appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. While the proceedings on appeal continue, Clardy’s legal team filed a motion for his immediate release, which was granted by Judge Trauger. On October 20, Clardy walked out of prison after 17 years of incarceration.
“We believe in Mr. Clardy’s innocence and will continue to fight for his innocence and freedom. We appreciate the opportunity to work with Bass, Berry & Sims to help exonerate Mr. Clardy,” said Van Dyke.
Gallisdorfer is a Nashville-based member at Bass, Berry & Sims where he focuses his practice on complex litigation and government and internal investigations, with an emphasis on matters related to the healthcare industry.
Wayne Burgess Case Recap
In May 2023, a team of attorneys from TIP and Bass, Berry & Sims secured the release of Wayne Burgess after serving 24 years of a life sentence. Burgess appeared in Giles County Circuit Court on May 23 where Judge David L. Allen ruled Burgess was to be immediately released from prison. This followed the judge’s April 13 order vacating Burgess’s 1999 conviction for first-degree felony murder, which new testimony from the state’s medical examiner found was “not medically possible” for him to have committed.
The case related to the August 1997 death of a 16-month-old child. Prosecutors in 1999 alleged Burgess struck the child in the abdomen shortly before she was presented to the hospital in critical condition and passed away, which prosecutors argued was due to trauma that caused an exsanguinating liver laceration. Burgess had maintained his innocence throughout his prison sentence.
The lynchpin of the case was new testimony from the state’s current chief medical examiner, Dr. Adele Lewis, which found it “not medically possible” for Burgess to have committed the crime based on the evidence. Based on the autopsy, Lewis concluded the injuries were inconsistent with the crime for which Burgess was tried and convicted. Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Karnell collaborated with TIP’s Gichner to prepare a 71-page post-conviction brief with over 1,000 pages of exhibits. With the defense presenting Lewis and other expert testimonies, the court vacated and rendered Burgess’s conviction void.
Karnell began representing Burgess during her six-month fellowship with TIP through the firm’s Pro Bono Fellows program. She joined the firm’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution practice in 2017 and focuses on representing clients in complex commercial litigation and antitrust compliance.
Law360 published an article about the firm’s work on these three cases, “How Bass Berry Helped Free 3 Wrongfully Convicted Men,” published on January 19 and is available online.
About the Bass, Berry & Sims Pro Bono Fellowship Program
The Bass, Berry & Sims Pro Bono Fellowship Program was established in April 2019 and is one of the cornerstones of the firm’s pro bono initiative, which focuses on matters that strengthen families, empower communities and protect civil rights. The Fellowship allows attorneys to be paid their full compensation and benefits while working full time for up to six months in a pro bono capacity within the community. In addition to Karnell’s Fellowship in Nashville with TIP, to date the firm has sponsored a Fellow in Nashville with the Choosing Justice Initiative, a Fellow in Memphis with TIP, and a Fellow with the Nashville General Sessions Court. For more information, visit www.bassberry.com/about-us/pro-bono/pro-bono-fellows/.
About Bass, Berry & Sims PLC
Bass, Berry & Sims is a national law firm with more than 350 attorneys dedicated to delivering exceptional service to numerous publicly traded companies and Fortune 500 businesses in significant litigation and investigations, complex business transactions, and international regulatory matters. For more than 100 years, our people have served as true partners to clients, working seamlessly across substantive practice disciplines, industries and geographies to deliver highly-effective legal advice and innovative, business-focused solutions. For more information, visit www.bassberry.com.
About the Tennessee Innocence Project
Launched in February 2019 as the first full-time innocence organization in the state, the Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP) is a non-profit law firm working to free wrongfully convicted Tennesseans. To date, more than 3,200 people have lost more than 25,000 years due to wrongful convictions across the United States. TIP has three primary focus areas: 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) bringing about changes that lead to the discovery of wrongful convictions and remedies to the wrongfully convicted. To learn more, visit www.tninnocence.org.