It wasn’t murder: Judge frees innocent man after 30 years

May 11, 2022, 8:22 AM | Updated: 11:59 am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After serving 30 years of a life sentence in Tennessee for the fire that killed his girlfriend, a 65-year-old man has been declared innocent and released from prison.

Claude Garrett was released Tuesday from Riverbend prison in Nashville after a judge vacated his murder conviction and a prosecutor dismissed all charges against him, news outlets reported.

“Garrett has shown actual innocence,” Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins ruled.

Garrett was convicted in 1992 of killing his girlfriend, Lorie Lee Lance, 24, who died of smoke inhalation in the Nashville home they shared.

Investigators at the time believed they found evidence that he set the blaze, but fire science has improved in the last 30 years, and a filing by prosecutors last year said they no longer believe the fire was intentionally set.

After an investigation found multiple alternate theories explaining how the fire could have started accidentally, the Davidson County District Attorney General’s Office requested that his conviction be vacated. The original conviction was “based on outdated investigative methods and baseless conclusions,” according to a statement released Tuesday by the office.

Overturning the case took years and was successful after an “extensive collaborative investigation” by prosecutors and the Tennessee Innocence Project, the statement said.

“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,” the judge wrote.

Garrett’s daughter Deana Watson said Tuesday she was happy her father was being released, though she was not sure what his next steps would be.

“The plan is that he hangs out with me for a while and then we figure it out,” Watson said. “We had a whole conversation about cellphones and how they work. We will help him reintegrate into society.”

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It wasn’t murder: Judge frees innocent man after 30 years