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VOL. 43 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 11, 2019

‘An innate sense of trying to make things better.’

Emotional case confirmed Knox D.A. Charme Allen was on right career path

By Nancy Henderson

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Not long after Charme Allen became a full-time Knox County assistant district attorney, she answered a jolting call in the middle of the night about an 8-year-old girl who had been abducted from her bed in south Knoxville.

The next morning, as an elderly couple in Sevier County sat at their kitchen table, eating breakfast and watching a television news segment about the kidnapping, they heard a knock. When the wife opened the door, there stood the child, naked and crying on their front step.

The suspect, who had recently moved to Knox County after being released from prison, where he served time for allegedly kidnapping two little girls from a church wedding reception and abusing both, was soon arrested, and the preliminary hearing was set for 10 days out. There was only one caveat: The child had to testify against him in court or the case would be dropped.

On the day of the hearing, members of the press, fellow churchgoers and other spectators jammed the courtroom, but the terrified girl refused to face the alleged perpetrator. Emerging from the room where the family was waiting for the hearing to begin, Allen explained to the judge that the child had agreed to cooperate if she could sit in someone’s lap. He agreed since the girl was so young.

Returning to the child, Allen gently asked, “Whose lap do you want to sit in?”

“I honestly thought she would say her mother or her therapist,” Allen recalls. “And that little girl looked me right in the eye and she said, ‘I want to sit in your lap. You make me feel safe.’”

“That was an overwhelming moment for me,” Allen says. “That case solidified in my mind that I was doing the right thing and I was where I needed to be.”

Elected in 2014 as the county’s first female district attorney general, Allen, 54, has adopted the motto “Tough on Crime, Smart on Prevention” while restructuring the department, building bonds with the community, and shouldering some hefty, proactive legal challenges that include taking Big Pharma to task in the wake of the opioid crisis in Tennessee.

A tomboy who grew up on a farm in Calhoun, Georgia, Allen rode horses and played “every sport that was available to me” in high school, including basketball, softball, track, tennis and cross-country.

Her parents named her Charme (pronounced “Sharm”) when her mother’s best friend gave her own infant the same name Allen’s mom had picked for hers. Seeking an alternative, her mother remembered a classmate named Charme, the most popular girl in school and a cheerleader, majorette and homecoming queen.

Allen held no aspirations to follow in her namesake’s footsteps.

“My mother would have liked all that,” she says. “But I spent all my time on the ballfield, and my mother could not drag me into those pageants and the homecoming process.”

Back in the 1950s, before Allen was born, her grandfather had worked as sheriff of Gordon County, Georgia.

“My dad and his family lived in the jail when he was a little boy, and my grandmother did all the cooking for all the inmates,” Allen remembers. “My dad served them dinner every night, and my grandmother was known to turn the water hose on the prisoners quite often if they were too loud at night when they were trying to go to sleep.”

With the family legacy came colorful tales. Each night around the dinner table – Allen swears she ate every meal with her parents and grandparents until she left for college – they shared stories about the jail days, including recollections from her dad, who as a boy answered calls on a two-way radio and routed them to his sheriff father, who drove the only police car in the county.

Allen walks through the main hallway of the City-County building flanked by Deputy District Attorney Kyle Hixson, left, and Chief Deputy Samuel Lee.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“I know this sounds bizarre, but my grandfather had lots of 8-by-10, black-and-white photos from his time in the sheriff’s department, and as a little girl I can remember sitting on his lap going through those crime scenes with him and solving those crimes and talking about those crimes,” Allen says. “So that was instilled in me from an early age.”

Not surprisingly, Allen went on to earn a degree in criminal justice from West Georgia College with the goal of being a police officer.

“In college, my professors would constantly say to me, ‘You ask way too many questions. You talk way too much. You’re so argumentative. Have you ever thought about being a lawyer?’ That had never crossed my mind, but I kept hearing that so often that I thought, ‘You know, maybe there’s something to this.’”

There was never any doubt that she’d be a prosecutor. “I am very inquisitive,” she says. “I question everything. I’m a very detail-oriented person. I like to solve problems and I’m very pragmatic about it. So I think that it was a great fit for my personality.”

Allen began clerking in the Knox County attorney general’s office in January 1989 while completing her last year of studies at the University of Tennessee College of Law. She says she looked forward to lunch each day with the handful of ADAs who gathered around the department’s conference table. And, she says, “I can remember being in law school, sitting in class, thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get out of class today because I’ve got that really interesting brief that I’ve got to go write this afternoon at work.’”

The next year, she was hired as a full-time assistant district attorney and briefly assigned to City Sessions Court, where she handled a gamut of cases, from misdemeanors to felony homicide.

She soon teamed with Greg Harrison, a fellow ADA, who was overwhelmed with the number of sex offense cases he was prosecuting in criminal court and had asked for a female colleague to help since most involved women and girls. The two ADAs split the cases, with Harrison taking the adults, Allen the children.

“I seemed to have a better rapport with the younger victims at the time,” she says. “So that is how I started prosecuting those cases.”

She also knew how to detach.

“I’m very good at compartmentalizing,” she says. “In that particular job, you really need a unique skill set. You’re part therapist and part investigator and part prosecutor. It’s not just a job where you take the case, look at it, and move forward in the traditional sense of prosecution.

“Oftentimes, you have to get down on the floor, get out a teddy bear. You have to sit under your desk sometimes to get children to open up and trust you and begin to talk to you.”

Even so, Allen hasn’t always held back her emotions. In the courtroom that day, when the little girl spotted the man who had kidnapped and raped her, she thrashed about as she sat on Allen’s lap, so much so that the metal chair shook, clanking sharply as it hit the tile floor. The child finally calmed down enough to identify her assailant.

“I went home that night and I remember looking in the mirror when I walked in. It had been a horrific day,” Allen acknowledges. “Where she had buried her head in my chest, she had cried so much that she had, for lack of a better word, gotten tears and her snot all over the front lapel of the suit I had on. When I saw that, I remember just sitting down on my bed and breaking down and crying. But I knew at that very moment that I was doing what I was supposed to do.”

The orange suit still hangs in Allen’s closet as a reminder that she chose the right path.

She can’t remember where her passion for helping victims came from, nor when it surfaced. “I just always had this innate sense of trying to make things better. I have a lot of empathy. It really is something that weighs heavily on me when I see people victimized or treated wrong. There’s just something in me that makes me want to help.”

Knox County D.A. Charme Allen stands before a poster in the corner of her office she has had for 20 years. The message – “Isn’t it about time someone read him HIS rights?” – serves as a constant reminder of why she does what she does.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

John Gill, whose resume´ includes investigating the mafia as an FBI agent and serving as U.S. Attorney for East Tennessee, returned to the Knox County district attorney’s office as special counsel in 1992. “We often commented that every job [Allen] had in the office was done better than anyone else had done,” recalls Gill, who retired in 2016.

“Her calmness, attention to detail and effective interaction with victims, witnesses and investigators were hallmarks of her work. She is a very hard worker.”

Allen says her legal strengths include preparation down to “every minute detail,” being able to relate to a jury and persuading through facts.

“I think that’s one of the gifts we have as prosecutors,” she says. “We get to do the right thing for the right reason, and not every lawyer can say that. Our charge is not to zealously represent our client. Our charge is to seek justice.”

In 2014, Allen, then chief of the Child Abuse Unit, ran unopposed for the district attorney post when her boss Randy Nichols announced that he would not seek reelection. “I felt that I had great foresight in knowing where we had come from and what we had done well and the things that we could improve on,” she says. “I felt that with my knowledge and my skill set, I would be able to take this office to new heights that would, in turn, make the entire criminal justice system here in Knox County better.”

Allen admits she felt some slight pushback early on, not because she was a woman but because she hadn’t earned the trust of the people around her. “Just because you’ve been elected doesn’t necessarily mean that your peers are going to automatically respect you,” she says, noting, “Now I’m in a very different place.”

Allen wasted no time in revamping the department, implementing a vertical prosecution model that allows each victim to stay with the same lawyer throughout the process and creating teams of special units that focus on, for example, elder abuse, domestic violence and white-collar crime.

She also set up a community affairs unit with a speakers’ bank of professionals who address civic groups, victims’ advocacy organizations and others. Speaking to audiences, Allen often talks about the important role of the county’s prosecutors.

“It is shocking to see how the public really doesn’t know what the district attorney’s office does,” she says. “So I think it’s very important to go into the community to explain what we do, what we offer, what we’re here for, and how we can better this community. Our job is bigger than just prosecuting crime. It’s being a community partner and being very conscious of preventing crime as well.”

Allen’s creative prevention efforts include a program that rewards elementary school students with bikes for perfect attendance and another conducted in partnership with the Helen Ross McNabb Center that administers Vivitrol shots, which block the effects of opioids, to low-level offenders with addiction problems. The effort serves as an alternative to incarceration.

Last year, Allen and prosecutors from four other states filed a civil suit against three major pharmaceutical companies for monetary damages to fund solutions for opioid addiction in their respective jurisdictions. “We felt, statewide, that it was very important for us to get involved in trying to do something to combat the opioid problem.

“Here in Knox County, it is horrendous. For the last two years, we’ve lost almost 300 people a year to overdoses. … The opioid crisis itself has driven us, as prosecutors, to think of outside-the-box ways of trying to combat the problem.”

Beyond explaining the reason behind the Big Pharma lawsuit, Allen declines to discuss the pending case. She is even more tight-lipped about her department’s ongoing investigation of Grayson Fritts, the former Knox County Sheriff’s Office detective who told his congregants at the All Scripture Baptist Church that the government should executive gay people. The sermons were posted on the church’s Facebook page.

One of Allen’s strengths, colleagues say, is her willingness to listen to their ideas and collaborate on ways to implement them. “She is a very organized manager who consults closely with her staff and encourages frank feedback,” Gill says.

Understandably, Allen’s job is “all-consuming” and leaves her little time to do much of anything else. Still, she’s been known to play basketball in her driveway with the four college-age children she and husband Kevin share in their blended family. “My kids laugh at me, but I do try,” she jokes.

“I just really love my job,” she says, backtracking to work. “I love the privilege of getting to do the work that I do day in and day out. It is a calling and I’m just very, very fortunate and honored to be able to do it.”

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