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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to local media at the front of McConnell Elementary School on Aug. 11, 2021, in Hixson, Tenn. / File photo by Troy Stolt

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued his first executive clemencies to 17 people on Thursday, a list that includes the full exoneration of a Grundy County man convicted of a 2006 murder that later evidence revealed he did not commit.

Other actions included granting parole eligibility to a Rutherford County woman imprisoned for killing her alleged abuser.

"This is a very important and serious issue that has taken a tremendous amount of work, a lot of people to come together for what we think is a just and right process," Lee told reporters during a telephone conference call.

The Republican governor and administration officials also revealed plans that his office and the state Department of Correction will introduce a new clemency review process for individuals convicted of drug-free school zone law offenses committed prior to Sept. 1, 2020.

State lawmakers that year substantially revised the law going forward. They were seeking to address criticisms that the existing law often resulted in arrests and convictions for adults selling drugs not to children but to adults, often outside school hours or during summer vacations.

Critics also charged it led to a disproportionate number of minorities being convicted. But the law revisions in 2020 did not help people convicted prior to the 2020 drug-free zone law revisions.

The governor's actions drew praise from Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, a former state Board of Parole member.

"I think all of that is well needed. And I would compliment the governor for moving forward on that," Hakeem said in a Times Free Press telephone interview later on Thursday. "I think there are some states that are still lagging behind in taking actions of this nature."

Lee said he reviewed the "unique merits" of each case before making his decision, adding that "these men and women have shown they are ready for productive lives beyond their sentences, and I appreciate the Board of Parole's consideration in this process."

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The new process is intended to expedite review of convictions for those sentenced under the old Tennessee drug-free school zone law to determine if they merit consideration for a review of their sentence under the new law. The administration said there are 335 people now incarcerated for drug-free school zone offenses committed prior to Sept. 1, 2020.

The one exoneration Lee issued was for Adam Braseel of Grundy County, who was freed in August 2019 after being incarcerated for a dozen years on a life sentence in 2007 for the 2006 murder of Malcolm Burrows, 60. Braseel maintained all along he never committed the murder.

Lee's chief legal counsel, Wiseman, told reporters that all 17 people have followed a "successful pathway to rehabilitation."

Lee also issued three commutations, among them one for Mindy Dodd, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her stepfather and late husband in Smyrna 20 years ago.

Prior to running for governor in 2018, Lee was a volunteer and board member for a Christian ministry, Men of Valor, that mentors prisoners. As the state's chief executive, the governor has tried to move the needle on prison reform, sometimes getting pushback from fellow Republicans, but sometimes acceptance.

What is clemency?

Tennessee governors have three types of executive clemency that they may use to exonerate someone who was convicted, reduce his or her sentence or grant a pardon.

— An exoneration is a finding by the governor that an applicant did not commit the crime for which they were convicted.

— A pardon is an official statement of forgiveness for an offense, typically granted to an applicant who has completed their sentence more than five years ago and who has demonstrated good cause for forgiveness.

— A commutation is a reduction in an applicant’s sentence.

Source: Gov. Bill Lee’s office/Chief Legal Counsel Lang Wiseman

During his telephone conference call with reporters, Lee said his "first real experience with clemency" came a year or more ago when the White House called to tell him President Donald Trump planned to grant clemency to two Tennesseans "who had demonstrated transformation, not only in their own lives but in the lives of others, including others that were incarcerated."

"Clemency is a powerful tool, but because of its importance, it also requires a lengthy and thoughtful process, a process where it is important to include all of the aspects — the victims of these crimes, their families, being mindful of that, [and] the individuals that are incarcerated," Lee said as he announced his executive actions and the new review of the clemency process.

Lang Wiseman, Lee's chief deputy and legal counsel, said "the vast majority of the individuals, 14 of the 17 who are being granted executive clemency today, are no longer incarcerated, have not been incarcerated for some time."

Earlier this year, Lee signed into law two criminal justice reform bills he championed that offer community-based alternatives to incarceration for low-level or nonviolent felons and help inmates with education and life skills.

Lee said the measures should improve the chances of success once incarcerated people are released from prison.

"This is how we transform lives," the governor said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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