Election 2022: District Attorney General

Charme Allen, Jackson Fenner

Election 2022: District Attorney General

In the race for an eight-year term as the county’s top prosecutor, incumbent Republican Charme Allen faces Democrat Jackson Fenner.

by scott barker • July 18, 2022
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Charme Allen, Jackson Fenner
Knoxv County District Attorney General Charme Allen (left) and attorney Jackson Fenner.

The contest for Knox County District Attorney General features a Democratic lawyer on a shoestring budget challenging a well-funded Republican incumbent.

D.A. Charme Allen, the incumbent, holds an overwhelming lead in fundraising over challenger Jackson Fenner.

Attorney Jackson Fenner and District Attorney General Charme Allen share a conviction that violent crime should be the office’s top priority and that seeking justice is the overarching goal, but differ on how to use prosecutorial discretion in cases involving controversial laws.

The office consists of more than 40 assistant attorneys general who prosecute thousands of criminal cases each year in Knox County, which comprises the state’s 6th Judicial District.  

Allen, 57, is a career prosecutor who was elected in 2014 to replace longtime D.A. Randy Nichols. The 44-year-old Fenner is a criminal defense attorney who has been in private practice for 11 years and is running for office for the second time, after an independent campaign for law director in 2020.

Allen holds a commanding lead in fundraising. She didn’t report raising any new funds during the second quarter, but still had $90,930 on hand at the end of June. Fenner, who has declined to solicit donations from other attorneys who might wind up as adversaries in court, raised just $2,775 during the second quarter and only had $1,322 left in his account as of June 30. 

Early voting for the Aug. 4 election began last Friday. Here are profiles of the two candidates.

Jackson Fenner

A relatively late bloomer who didn’t graduate from law school until he was in his 30s, Fenner said in a recent interview at his downtown office that he’s passionate about criminal law and that being a prosecutor should be about more than putting criminals behind bars.

“I think that a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, not to get convictions, and I think that there has to be an empathetic way to do that, because you're trying to get justice for the state on behalf of the county,” he said. “That's your job, but you have to also remember the person that you're prosecuting, they live in the community too.”

Fenner said reducing violent crime must be the number one focus for the prosecutor’s office and is the top concern of voters he meets on the campaign trail. 

“Murders are at an all-time high,” he said. “Overdoses are at an all-time high. I think that our current D.A. has really failed us in those areas, and I want to help. I want to change it.”

Fenner said much of the problem stems from drug traffickers, many of whom travel here from other cities to fill a strong local demand for narcotics.

“I think that one of the approaches we can have is if we could chip into the drug market, where there's fewer people who are addicted to sell to,” he said. “I think that's step one, because as long as you have people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get high, you're going to attract folks who come down here to sell what they have to sell, and bring the guns in with them.”

Fenner said he’d also want to reduce the number of guns bought or possessed illegally in Knox County.

“I would like to have some sort of gun task force where we're preventing sales of firearms to persons who are prohibited by law to carry them,” he said. “There are back channels. I think we need to crack down on those back channels to try to prevent someone who's violent (from obtaining guns).”

Fenner is highly critical of Allen’s prosecutorial priorities, pointing to instances when shoplifters are barred from stores, then charged with felony burglary if they return and shoplift again. Many such offenders have addiction or mental health issues that need to be treated, he said.

“Misdemeanor theft still carries up to a year in jail,” Fenner said. “We can still hold them accountable without destroying the big picture that these folks have in their lives. If we make them into a felon, they're never going to get housing, they're never gonna be able to get a job, they can't vote. They're ruining their lives over something that should be a misdemeanor.”

Fenner has been vocal about using prosecutorial discretion to refuse to prosecute anyone under Tennessee’s abortion ban.

“The Tennessee Constitution gives local D.A.s prosecutorial discretion, period. End of sentence,” he said. “We have the authority to prosecute what we want to prosecute or not prosecute what we don't want to prosecute.”

Fenner said a state law allowing the state attorney general to petition the state Supreme Court to appoint a temporary prosecutor in such cases is unconstitutional because in essence the Supreme Court will have already ruled on one aspect of the case.

“They've eviscerated the appellate process, which you have a constitutional right to, by involving the Supreme Court on the front end,” he said. 

Fenner wants to stop using “bond source hearings” to determine whether a drug defendant’s bond money comes from illegal sources, and he also objects to the state’s new “truth-in-sentencing” law that requires most felons to serve 100 percent of their sentences in prison. Fenner said Republican legislators might think that’s being tough on crime, but it will cost taxpayers dearly.

“There's going to be tens of millions of dollars in fiscal impact,” he said. “We're going to have overflowing prisons. We're gonna have to build new prisons. And probably the worst part to me is that it's taking away probation and parole options for a lot of offenders, so now when they get into prison, they have zero incentive to get their GED, to take any kind of anger management classes, to do any drug treatment classes, because they don't get anything out of it.” 

Named for singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, Fenner was born in Buffalo, N.Y. His family moved to various parts of the country — Texas, New England, California — before returning to western New York. After a short stint at college, he migrated to East Tennessee.

Fenner said he worked in a variety of jobs in Knoxville, from loading trucks and washing dishes to installing audio-visual equipment and working for a delivery service.

“I’ve done every kind of job, blue-collar job, hard job, you can think of,” he said. 

Eventually, he started taking classes at Pellissippi State Community College, then transferred to the University of Tennessee, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2007. He earned his law degree from the UT College of Law in 2011.

Fenner and his wife, Amy, live in Powell and have three children. Amy Fenner owns a salon in South Knoxville. 

Fenner said he’s more comfortable advocating for others than promoting himself while campaigning. He said voters sometimes are surprised a Democrat is running for the D.A.’s office (despite the fact that until 2014 a Democrat, Nichols, was D.A. for 22 years, the longest ever to hold the post), but his message is being well received.

But the voters are sending a message, too — one that dovetails with Fenner’s top priority should he win on Aug. 4.

“The issue that people want to talk about more than anything,” he said, “is violence and guns.”

Charme Allen

Incumbents run on their records, and Allen is no different. 

“In this case, experience matters,” she said. “It matters that I have devoted my life to prosecution, it matters that I've spent over 30 years here, it matters that my focus is victims and taking care of victims, and it matters that my focus is on violent crime and eradicating violent crime, and that I have experience doing that.”

During her eight years as Knox County’s top prosecutor, Allen emphasized in a recent interview, she has restructured the D.A.’s office to make it more focused on supporting crime victims. The office now has more than 30 victim/witness coordinators.

“Our charge as a prosecutor is to seek justice,” she said. “We're supposed to pursue the guilty and protect the innocent. I think the work that we have done to better serve victims, especially victims of violent crime, while I've been in office is something that I'm very proud of.”

Allen said the office served more than 4,500 victims last year by trying to make them whole and holding criminals accountable.

“I believe that we do a better job of that now than we did eight years ago,” she said.

Allen said the opioid epidemic has been so pervasive that combating it has become the centerpiece of the office’s anti-crime measures since she’s been in office.

Her office was instrumental in developing the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center, or BHUCC, an alternative to jail for people arrested for certain nonviolent crimes. Allen determined which violations would qualify offenders for the program. Prosecutors also can pull offenders with substance abuse or mental health issues out of the system and place them at the BHUCC for treatment.

Another initiative was the “Shot at Life” program operated in partnership with the McNabb Center that provided qualified offenders with Vivitrol, an anti-addiction medication, and long-term treatment.

“It was very successful,” Allen said of the program. “All the individuals that we ran through the program were able to secure housing, they were able to stay out of the system, our recidivism rates decreased with those individuals, they were able to find employment.”

Making decisions — often difficult ones — comes with being a prosecutor. Allen said she always follows the same process.

“I evaluate the law enforcement investigation that's presented to me,” she said. “I then apply the law that has been set by the General Assembly to the facts and then, looking at that in combination, charge those cases where justice demands that there be a charge.”

Allen said prosecutors have some discretion, depending on whether there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime. Some decisions are clear cut, she said; others are not. When a murder is involved, especially the death of a child, there is an added emotional burden.

Allen cited the investigation into the death of Austin-East Magnet High School student Anthony Thompson Jr. during a confrontation with Knoxville police officers as a high-profile case that drew public pressure. The D.A.’s office ruled the shooting was justifiable and no charges were filed against the officers.

“We were very thorough, but we were also very aware of the ramifications to the community as a whole,” she said.

Allen said her office would look at allegations of abortion ban violations the same way. She said she believes in the separation of powers, and that it is the Legislature’s job to enact laws and her job to enforce them.

“I do not believe that as a prosecutor we have the discretion to wholeheartedly throw out classes of law that the General Assembly has passed and say that we won't prosecute those,” she said.

Allen grew up in a law enforcement family in Calhoun, Ga., roughly halfway between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Her grandfather had been sheriff in Gordon County and her grandmother cooked for the jailers. As a girl, Allen soaked up the stories her grandfather told at the dinner table and leafed through sets of crime-scene photos he kept after leaving office. 

After getting a degree in criminal justice from West Georgia College, Allen, who initially wanted to be a police officer, went to the UT College of Law. 

“I went to law school knowing I wanted to be a prosecutor,” she said, “I went solely for the purpose of being a prosecutor.”

Soon after obtaining her law degree, Allen went to work as an assistant district attorney general in Knox County and has been in the office for more than three decades.

Allen is married to a prosecutor — Kevin Allen, whom she met in the D.A.’s office while both were assistant district attorneys. Kevin Allen left the Knox County office earlier this year, after the state comptroller and attorney general issued an opinion in a Hamilton County case that a spouse working for a district attorney general violated Tennessee’s anti-nepotism law. Kevin Allen now works as a roving special prosecutor with the Tennessee Attorneys General Conference.

The Allens wed in June 2014, less than two months before Charme Allen was elected D.A. She was unopposed in both the Republican primary and in the general election eight years ago, so this year’s election is actually her first contested race.

For Allen, the combination of her upbringing, education and professional experience make her ideally suited for the job of prosecutor.

“I just truly believe that I was built to do this job,” she said. “It takes a unique individual to sit with families and talk about the loss of their loved ones. It takes a unique individual to talk to children about horrific things that have happened to them, and to do that day in and day out — deal with rape, murder, mayhem — and I am that unique individual. That is my calling.” 

CORRECTION: Story has been corrected to reflect that Fenner ran for law director in 2020.