This week, a Nashville man walked out of prison with all charges dismissed after 30 years behind bars.
On Tuesday, Nashville Judge Monte Watkins signed a vacate order, dismissing all charges against Claude Francis Garrett and allowing the man to walk out of Riverbend prison free.
In 1992, investigators found Garrett guilty of first-degree felony murder when his then-girlfriend, Laurie Lance, died in a fire while she and Garrett were in a house in Old Hickory.
Investigators concluded at the time that Garrett intentionally poured kerosene into the living room to start a fire, which caused Lance’s death by smoke inhalation. Garrett was found guilty in a trial in 1993.
After Garrett’s conviction, he filed a post-conviction petition to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which the court accepted in 2001 based on the prosecution’s withholding of exculpatory evidence. Garret was retried in 2003 and found guilty.
Since Garrett’s conviction, fire experts have examined the case and argued against the initial scientific testimony presented in 1993—namely, a “pour pattern” that suggested that an accelerant was poured to start the fire—provided by the prosecution’s experts at the time of the conviction.
Fire investigator Stuart Bayne testified for Garrett’s case in 2003 as an expert and has since worked in an attempt to prove Garrett’s innocence to the court.
“This fire was a Class A fueled with paper and plastic fabrics, accidental natural growing, meaning unaccelerated by a petroleum compound type fire,” Bayne said in a 2016 testimony at a District Court, adding that “analysis of the burn patterns” on Lance and Garrett demonstrates that they were exposed to the fire at the same time.”
Upon reviewing Garrett’s case, the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) of the Davidson County District Attorney requested the Davidson County Criminal Court Division IV to vacate Garrett’s conviction in a submission in 2021.
“While the CRU’s review of the case did not find affirmative evidence conclusively establishing Garrett’s innocence, the CRU finds it wholly impossible to maintain confidence in Garrett’s conviction,” CRU director Sunny Eaton writes in a 2021 report submitted to the Criminal Court for Davidson County. “Holistic review of the record, the District Attorney’s file, and new scientific evidence dismantles every single piece of evidence previously believed to inculcate Garrett.”
In April, Judge Monte Watkins of the Davidson County Criminal Court Division V held a hearing on the case, during which the Tennesse Innocent Project and the DA’s CRU representative requested the judge vacate Garrett’s conviction.
Haley Smith, Lance’s sister, spoke against the DA’s petition.
“There’s no one to speak for Laurie,” Smith told reporters after the hearing. “There’s no one to stand up there and question these investigators,” Smith told reporters after the hearing. “It’s been extremely difficult for [our family] having to re-live and go through the trauma of everything that happened over and over.”
Last week, Judge Watkins issued an order vacating Garrett’s conviction.
“The Court is satisfied that Petitioner has presented clear and convincing evidence showing that no reasonable jury would have convicted Claude Garrett of felony murder in light of the new scientific evidence,” Watkins ruled in the vacating hearing on Tuesday.
Garrett’s daughter was 4 when he was imprisoned. Fast forward 30 years to his release, Deana Watson said she would spend some time with her father.
“The plan is that he hangs out with me for a while, and then we figure it out,” Watson told reporters at the court Tuesday.
“We had a whole conversation about cell phones and how they work. We will help him reintegrate into society,” she added.