A few hours After a judge cleared Claude Garrett’s release from prison, the small crowd outside the maximum-security Riverbend Institution in Nashville, Tennessee received a message on their group text. It comes from Garrett’s daughter, Deana Watson. Garrett was packed and ready to go, but there was paperwork to do in town. She typed out a version of an update she herself had received countless times over the years: “Still pending.”

It was just after noon on May 10. Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins had overturned Garrett’s conviction the previous Friday. Someone speculated that the person with the paperwork must have taken their lunch break. Another person joked that it was transported by carrier pigeon. But no one really complained. “It’s over and the best is yet to come,” someone wrote in the group’s text.

Garrett used to wait. After all, it had taken the Davidson County District Attorney’s office about 28 years to make the decision to reconsider his case. When the prosecutor’s conviction review unit finally accepted what Garrett had insisted on all along — that he had been wrongly convicted of setting the fire that killed his girlfriend in 1992 — there was a another set of expectations: first for an evidentiary hearing in which fire scientists explained why the case against Garrett was fatally flawed, and finally for the judge to sign the order quashing his conviction.

Earlier in the day, Garrett had been flown downtown for a final court appearance, where Sunny Eaton, the director of the conviction review unit, announced that the prosecutor was dropping the charges against him. Garrett’s friends and family expected him out of court, but his lawyers told them he would be taken back to Riverbend first. The maximum-security prison is less than 20 minutes from downtown Nashville, near a small airport on a mostly industrial stretch of road. Unsure when he might be released, a small group gathered first at a nearby gas station and then at a spot just outside the prison entrance.

In a baseball cap and sunglasses, Denny Griswold held a black umbrella over his wife to shield her from the sun. Griswold had met Garrett through his church’s prison outreach ministry 14 years earlier. Over time, he had become a mentor to Garrett – and a firm believer in his innocence. Griswold came to court that morning with a change of clothes for him. Garrett hadn’t asked for anything in particular. “He’ll look like an average old man,” Griswold said with a smile.

A few feet away, veteran fire department investigator Stuart Bayne stood quietly, holding a book he was waiting to give Garrett, which he had asked everyone to write down. It was a memoir from the founder of a non-profit organization that defends wrongfully convicted people. The title was enough to move Bayne to tears: “When the truth is all you’ve got.” From the moment he first studied the evidence as an expert witness for Garrett’s retrial in 2003, Bayne had been consumed by what was clearly a miscarriage of justice. For years he had been one of Garrett’s only defenders; it is only relatively recently that a wave of eminent fire specialists has joined the cause.

In phone calls with Garrett, Bayne sometimes joked about showing up with champagne in the parking lot on the day of his release. Garrett reminded him that it was contraband. But now Bayne was more contemplative than celebratory. At one point, Watson sent a photo of a large plastic truck containing stacks of documents that his father was bringing home with him. “Wow,” Bayne said quietly. “It represents 30 years of his life. He kept everything. All our letters, all his calls, everything I sent him. My God.”

It was just after 1:30 p.m. when Watson’s black SUV finally rolled down the hill from the jail. Seconds later, Garrett emerged from the passenger seat. “Who should I kiss first? ” He asked. A television camera followed Bayne as he walked to the car. Garrett approached the man who had been fighting to help him clear his name for more than 20 years. They shook hands and then kissed. “Welcome to the free world,” Bayne said.

Stuart Bayne presents Claude Garrett with the book “When the Truth is All You’ve Got” upon Garrett’s release from prison.

Photo: Radley Balko

A changed world

Garrett’s release was the culmination of a long legal battle whose outcome would have been difficult to predict just a few years ago. In the decades he spent insisting on his innocence, Garrett never imagined that the same bureau that sent him to prison for life would eventually argue for his release. Yet Eaton’s statement was clear: “Following an extensive collaborative investigation between the Nashville District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit and the Tennessee Innocence Project, Claude Garrett has been exonerated for the wrongful conviction of murder of Lorie Lance.”

Garrett was twice convicted of setting the fire that killed 24-year-old Lance at the small home they shared in Old Hickory, Tennessee. The couple had returned from a local bar in the early morning hours of February 24, 1992, when Garrett said he awoke to find a fire in the living room. According to Garrett, he woke Lance up and ran with her to the front door, only for Lance to turn around and run to the back of the house. Firefighters later found her in a utility room, dead from smoke inhalation.

Although neighbors initially described Garrett as frantic, investigators became suspicious upon smelling jet fuel at the scene. Lead investigator James Cooper – a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – seized a so-called pour pattern on the living room floor as evidence that a flammable liquid had been used to light the fire. Perhaps most critically – and despite evidence to the contrary – Cooper also concluded that the laundry room had been locked from the outside, trapping Lance.

Garrett’s case is one of countless convictions across the United States based on forensic evidence that have since been debunked. In the decades following Lance’s death, new developments in fire science transformed the techniques used to determine whether a fire was arson. But even as investigators have dismissed the myths they once relied on in favor of the scientific method, prosecutors have been slow to review old convictions. This problem goes well beyond cases of arson. Many DA offices continue to fight to preserve beliefs even when the underlying evidence has been exposed as junk science.

Today, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office is an exception to this rule. Since Eaton took over the Conviction Review Unit in 2020, the office has stepped up its work. Last year it exonerated a Nashville couple accused of raping and murdering a 4-year-old child in 1987. That conviction was based on the flawed analysis of a medical examiner who also played a key role in the sentencing of Garrett.

The decision to reconsider Garrett’s case was prompted in large part by coverage of The Intercept, dating back to 2015. Although a number of fire experts then concluded that the conviction was based on junk science, the first in-depth story returning to the case attracted another cohort of fire scientists, who studied the evidence and published new reports debunking the state arson theory. While the courts initially dismissed this new evidence, a follow-up story in 2018 caught the attention of the prosecutor’s office, which had recently launched the Conviction Review Unit.

Standing outside the jail after his release, Garrett thanked The Intercept and everyone who brought attention to his wrongful conviction. Only recently had he even allowed himself to think of a future beyond the prison walls. For years, Bayne said, Garrett would say, “It’s too early to think about it. … It’s too early to plan these things. … I just have to open the door. Now Garrett wanted to focus on making up for lost time with his daughter. Watson was only 4 years old when Garrett went to prison. She now had a son the same age. That afternoon, Garrett spoke to his grandson via FaceTime — “one of the best parts of the day.”

Later that evening, Garrett sat next to Watson at a restaurant just north of downtown Nashville. He had changed into his prison overalls and put on the clothes Griswold had given him: a gray collared shirt and dark blue jeans. As Watson ordered appetizers, Garrett sampled a bit of everything — truffle fries, crab-stuffed mushrooms — but declined a starter. He was trying to calm down, he explained. After leaving the prison earlier in the day, they had stopped to eat at Chick-fil-A, where he had a sandwich. “I still have half of it,” he said.

There was so much to navigate. Some things he had been anticipating for a long time, like learning to use a cell phone. But he hadn’t realized that everyone would be looking at their phone all the time. Then there were the things other people took for granted. At Griswold’s earlier in the day, where he spent his first hours of freedom, there was a bowl of berries in the kitchen. He realized he hadn’t seen a strawberry in 30 years.

One of the most overwhelming things was seeing the city of Nashville itself. During the decades he had been in prison, the city had completely transformed. Garrett recalls a trip downtown for a court hearing in the late 1990s. Coming off the freeway toward the courthouse, “you could see all of downtown,” he said. . “It occurred to me right away… ‘This is all against you.’ Coming to the restaurant that evening, he realized that he was in the same place, even though one of the street names had changed. “I looked at it again, and I was like, what happened?”

Other changes were more painful. Garrett counted the number of friends and family members who had died in the decades he was gone. It was over 50 people. Among the few plans he had made was to go to Kansas to visit his mother’s grave. Otherwise, he said, “I’m not going to try to plan much. I’ll let it unfold as it goes.