Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump will step down in July for a job as executive director of the Tennessee District Attorney Generals Conference in Nashville.
"My last day in the DA's office will be July 15, and my first day as executive director will be July 16," Crump, 56, said Monday in a phone interview.
The 10th Judicial District consists of Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties.
Crump said he will fulfill the remaining term of the conference's retiring executive director, Guy Jones, and then will serve at the pleasure of the group if it reappoints him in June 2024. Jones has held the post since 2020.
Current cases being prosecuted by Crump's office will continue uninterrupted with senior members among his assistant district attorneys overseeing them, he said.
"I am blessed to have a staff of people who are capable of operating on their own," Crump said. "I don't anticipate that there will be anything of significant difference in the district. For the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing pretty strongly on making sure everything is prepared. The good thing is, I've got another four months to make sure everything is seamless."
Crump said he had no intention of seeking the executive director's post until a number of his fellow Tennessee district attorneys began a discussion about it. He said he sought divine guidance as he made his decision.
Crump submitted his name to the conference's search committee, and the search committee voted not to perform further searches and instead to submit his name as their nominee for the post, he said.
"Then the conference as a whole voted unanimously by roll call vote to select me," he said.
The election was March 10.
Along with serving as a liaison between state district attorneys and the General Assembly and other state departments, the conference handles all bill paying, payroll and other human resources services, hiring policies and technological support, among other functions for DAs across the state.
"We support the underlying mission of the DA's offices in all 32 districts," Crump said.
Bradley County Administrator of Elections Fran Green said Gov. Bill Lee will have to appoint a replacement for Crump's vacant post. Then the seat will go on the March 2024 primary ballot, on which the appointee and other candidates can seek the seat, Green said Monday by phone.
Crump said he'll closely work with his replacement through the transition and afterward as the new executive director of the conference.
Crump said he plans to move deliberately as the conference's new executive director.
"We're going to go slow with changes," he said. "I am fortunate to be working with a very effective team. I'm working with some folks who have been here a while, some that are new. I think the most important thing that I can do at the beginning is to develop a strategic plan for the conference, looking out not just a couple of years but 10 years."
The strategic plan is to be developed in conjunction with conference leadership, the conference's executive committee and all 31 of the state's elected district attorneys, he said.
"We want to be really forward-thinking and look at what the future may bring and how we can best prepare for it so that we can serve Tennessee's prosecutors more efficiently and also so we can serve the people more efficiently," he said. "I think something that's going to be critical is to maintain and improve where we can relationships within other facets of state government, other areas of other agencies. We enjoy a good working relationship with the departments but certainly, there's no reason to believe that all those can't be better. We want to continue to work strongly with (House) Speaker Cameron Sexton, who has taken a particular interest in criminal justice matters, and obviously, we'll work with Gov. Lee to inform him and assist him and to offer any advice or information so that his legislation is the best it can be."
Crump will make the same salary he has now, about $179,000 a year, he said.
"The executive director is paid the same as an elected DA, and that's set up by statute," Crump said.
Cleveland, Tennessee, native Crump was appointed to head the 10th Judicial District starting July 1, 2014, by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, and he was subsequently elected in the August general election that same year to a full eight-year term, records show.
Crump began prosecuting in 1997 as an assistant district attorney under former District Attorney General Jerry Estes, according to biographical information on the district website. Crump became team leader, overseeing the prosecution of cases in the Bradley and Polk counties. After he unsuccessfully ran for the DA post in 2006, Crump returned to private practice until his appointment by Haslam.
Crump is currently an active member of the conference, previously serving several years on the executive committee of the conference and previously serving as one of the six elected DAs on the conference's justice and professionalism committee, according to the conference website. Crump presently holds the post of chairman of the legislative committee, where he advises members of the Tennessee General Assembly on legislative matters and testifies about proposed legislation. He was recently elected to a second eight-year term in May of 2022.
Longtime McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy said he has enjoyed working with Crump over the past eight or so years.
"He's developed a high level of respect across Tennessee," Guy said Monday in an email. "We hate to lose his leadership in our district but he will be able to provide that leadership to the entire state DAs conference."
Crump said he'll move to Nashville at some point but will stay in an apartment he rents there until then.
Crump said two of his past criminal cases stand out in his mind, one recent and another from more than two decades ago.
"When I think back there really are two cases. One of them is an older case that I tried back in the early 2000s, which was State of Tennessee v. David Lee Smith that was a death penalty case that I tried to a death verdict. That case really changed the way I looked at the job that I did. Asking for that ultimate penalty from a group of citizens is a very, very heavy burden. I think that's one of the heaviest burdens a district attorney deals with is that ultimate penalty and when to seek it," he said.
The death penalty case stemmed from a double-slaying in 1998. A Bradley County jury found Smith, 58, guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Alan Hester. The jury found Smith guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Buffy Juanita Thomas and sentenced Smith to death. The bodies of Hester, 41, and Thomas, 23, were found at their mobile home in South Bradley County in December 1998. According to police reports at the time, telephone wires had been cut and both victims had been shot several times.
Smith, who was on parole after serving 19 years in prison for a 1972 double slaying, was found the next day at a Red Bank hotel by Bradley County and Hamilton County officers. Hester's car was found in Sequatchie County the day of the murders.
Jurors, who had been sequestered since the trial began, deliberated less than one hour before agreeing on the death penalty, according to archives. Smith died of cancer not long after he was convicted, according to Crump.
"The other one that is fairly recent and one that's still in post-trial motions," Crump said. "The State of Tennessee v. Joseph Wielzen from Etowah. That case affected me personally, and it's one that I believe in very strongly that I felt like the office should pursue."
Wielzen was a McMinn County teen convicted of the 2017 rape and murder of 18-year-old Etowah resident Kelsey N. Burnette, according to newspaper archives.
Wielzen, 17 at the time of the crime, was tried as an adult after his charges were transferred from juvenile court in September 2018. Because of the transfer, the state couldn't seek the death penalty but could seek the longest sentence possible under state law. He was arrested in June 2018 and indicted on the charges the next month.
After her disappearance June 30, 2017, or July 1, 2017, following a party at a home in Etowah, Burnette's body was found July 4 stuffed into a garbage can in a wooded area in downtown Etowah. According to trial testimony, she had been beaten with a baseball bat so viciously that red paint from the bat was embedded in her skull.