Growing up, Janie Parks Varnell said she could hardly go anywhere in Chattanooga without someone recognizing her as the daughter of Steve Parks, a former Chattanooga Police Department police Chief, and Diane Parks, the director of Leadership Chattanooga.
The 32-year-old criminal defense lawyer is quickly making a name for herself, though.
While criminal defense seems like a career with opposite motives compared to her father's, Varnell spends a majority of her time defending local police officers as an attorney at Davis & Hoss, P.C. The graduate of Auburn University and then Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, said she feels like her work "keeps it in the family."
"It's fun he's a very good source of advice," Varnell says about her father while sitting at the head of the conference room table at Davis and Hoss' office at 850 Fortwood Street.
"I think he gets a kick out of it and really enjoys the fact that I do so much of that work," she adds. "I owe a lot of who I am and what I do to both of my parents."
Varnell said that many of her clients are dealing with the "worst day of their life," and she enjoys being a guide and advocate for them.
At Davis and Hoss, Varnell provides criminal defense in Hamilton County General Sessions Court and Criminal Court, family law in Circuit and Chancery Court in Hamilton and Bradley counties and criminal and civil cases in the District Court of the Eastern District and Middle District of Tennessee. Varnell also represents law enforcement officers through their union representatives, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association, according to their website.
Recently, the Sixth Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the dismissal of a civil lawsuit against five Chattanooga police officers who Varnell was representing after officers used deadly force against a Chattanooga man in 2015.
Javario Eagle, 24, was shot and killed by Chattanooga officers after they said Eagle refused to put down a knife and a gun and threatened his 4-year-old daughter.
"It's a huge win, a huge burdened lifted off of my clients, especially when all of them had never used deadly force and never had to use their weapons before that day," she says.
I have seen people come into drug court at their worst, facing this disease that's horrifying and then they graduate with full-time jobs, their families back, a meaningful career. To be a part of something that is actually working, is amazing.
Varnell also helped the defense in a case that was featured on the CBS news program "48 Hours," which detailed the 2009 disappearance of a 51-year-old Bradley County woman named Marsha Brantley. Murder charges were filed against her husband, Donnie Brantley, but were dropped twice — in 2013 and 2018 — for lack of evidence a homicide was committed.
Varnell said one of the more rewarding cases she has won was when she sued the city of Chattanooga on behalf of 25 police officers who were promised raises but never received them. The city settled and the officers were awarded $775,000 total, she said.
While Varnell has seen successes in her short career so far, she didn't always want to be a lawyer. Varnell originally went to college to become a pediatric nurse but after taking an online law course, she quickly learned she loved the field.
"I fully expected to be a prosecutor," she says. "I had no interest in being a criminal defense attorney. I wanted to prosecute, prosecute, prosecute. Then, after I started working for Davis and Hoss, I realized that I enjoyed criminal defense work, the creativity of it and it has been sort of a natural fit ever since."
A 2015 Leadership Chattanooga graduate of the "best class ever," Varnell said she also spends a large portion of her time volunteering as defense counsel for the Hamilton County Drug Court.
"I have seen people come into drug court at their worst, facing this disease that's horrifying and then they graduate with full-time jobs, their families back, a meaningful career " she says. "To be a part of something that is actually working, is amazing."
Defense lawyers are not often depicted as the "good guys" in popular television shows or movies, but Varnell said she is often working with prosecutors more often than not, stating everyone needs to be working at their "best" in order for the criminal justice system to work properly.
"To me, it seems like we are all working together toward a common goal, which is how do we make this process the best?" she explains. "How do we make victims voices be heard? How do we ensure that defendant's rights aren't being infringed upon? It's cheesy, but how do we make sure justice is done?"
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