High-profile ex-prosecutor and a top former public defender run for Criminal Court judge – The Commercial Appeal

Editor’s note: Both are women lawyers named Jennifer. Both are running for judge of Criminal Court Division 10.

There the similarities end.

One is black. One is white. One grew up in Memphis, the other didn’t. One was a public defender, the other was chief deputy prosecutor, and currently is an appointed interim judge.

They are Jennifer Johnson Mitchell and Jennifer Nichols.

Shelby County voters will pick one in the Aug. 2 election. Here’s a look at both lawyers. Judicial candidates do not declare a party affiliation.

Jennifer J. Mitchell

Representing hundreds of clients charged with felonies over the years, Jennifer Johnson Mitchell was regarded as one of the most experienced public defenders in Memphis.

Now the criminal defense attorney is running for judge of Criminal Court Division 10.  Mitchell and Jennifer Nichols, a former deputy prosecutor known for a sterling record of high-profile convictions, are contending to replace retired Judge James C. Beasley Jr.

Gov. Bill Haslam Jr. appointed Nichols interim judge of Division 10 in January. Shelby County voters will choose between the former prosecutor and former public defender in the Aug. 2 general election.

Before her appointment, Nichols was chief deputy for District Attorney General Amy Weirich, the top prosecutor criticized last year by the Black Lives Matter activist group. Its leaders contended Weirich had used overzealous prosecution tactics. Rather than play up the defender-prosecutor divide while campaigning, Mitchell said she pointedly tells voters she is not singling out Nichols or the AG office’s record. 

‘‘I tell them,” Mitchell said of voters, “I’m not running against her. I’m running because there’s an open seat. I want to get across to voters that I’m going to be fair and I’m going to be impartial and treat them with dignity. It’s how I’d like to be treated.”

Handling what she describes as countless cases – the public defender “caseload is massive,” she said – prepared her for a judgeship. She defended clients, negotiated out-of-court settlements, understood the prosecution’s side, observed the judges, and became, she said,  thoroughly immersed in the Criminal Courts’ workings.

Still, Nichols maintains better name recognition. When the Memphis Bar Association recently surveyed local lawyers, 170 attorneys chose Mitchell as best qualified for judge, 314 gave no opinion and 598 picked Nichols.

“The results probably mean the trial attorneys know her name very well,” said Carol Chumney, a Memphis lawyer who ran in 2011 for District Attorney General, referring to the former prosecutor. 

Mitchell, 48, didn’t set out to be a lawyer.

She grew up in Memphis’ Raleigh area, the daughter of a pair of LeMoyne-Owen College graduates. Her father taught in Memphis City Schools. Her mother was a procurement specialist at the old Defense Depot.

Coming out of Memphis Catholic High School she was awarded a volleyball scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin, earned a degree and started a mental health career in Memphis working first with poor  at Youth Villages, and then women imprisoned in the Shelby County Correctional Center.

Thinking she’d eventually advance only with more education, she earned a master’s degree in criminal justice in 1994 at what then was named Memphis State University, then moved to Northwest Tennessee. She was employed in Dyersburg by the old Northwest Counseling Center’s mobile crisis unit.

One task: Evaluate people apprehended by police officers, recommend whether they should be admitted as a mental health patient. “That was a very humbling experience,” she said. Two years in Dyersburg led her to figure “it was time to do something different.” A professor had once suggested law school.

She enrolled in the University of Memphis law school at age 28, borrowing the tuition money and soon after graduating was hired in 2001 by the Shelby County Public Defenders’ Office.

The state government agency provides the indigent with legal services free of charge and employs about 140 lawyers, investigators and other staff in Memphis. In Memphis and Shelby County, where almost a third of the nearly 1 million residents are classified as impoverished, she was loaded with dozens of cases.

“The public defender’s office gives you wonderful, hands on experience,” Mitchell said. “You see everything, all kinds of people. You learn how to juggle tasks. You learn how to multi task.”

She spent hours almost every week in the Criminal Court rooms inside the Shelby County Justice Center at 201 Poplar. She’d married. Her husband commented on her long work days. She had landed difficult cases in Criminal Court Division 5, inherited seasoned clients with tough records. Prosecutors were reluctant to agree to more lenient settlement offers.

“Those cases were hard to move,” Mitchell said. “I realized I could do this on my own and in the process get paid a little better.”

In 2014, Mitchell left the public defender agency and opened her own law office in sight of 201 Poplar. She bought men’s dress shirts and pressed trousers and kept them in the office for her client’s court appearances. She also stocked a winter jacket.  She reasoned a client arrested in July wearing a T-shirt would need a coat to walk home in upon release from 201 Poplar in December.

“I love the work. I like people,” Mitchell said. “I care about people. You see the best of the best and the worst of the worst. You learn how to treat people as who they are. Everyone’s circumstance is different. You deal with a lot of social work. This is just another opportunity to serve.”

Jennifer Nichols

Two decades as a deputy prosecutor put Jennifer Smith Nichols on the front line of some of Memphis and Tennessee’s most sensational criminal cases.

Almost every time she asked for a guilty verdict in the courtroom, a jury delivered — including in the recent high-profile cases that sentenced Zachary Adam for murdering kidnapped teen Holly Bobo, Ronald Goodwin for the murder of his malnourished mother and Cedrick Clayton for shooting to death his wife and her parents. In Clayton’s case, his four-year-old daughter testified as a witness.

“Our goal was not to get convictions,” Nichols said. “It was justice.”

After a long stint as a prosecutor, Nichols, 56, is now running for judge of Shelby County Criminal Court Division 10.

Shelby County voters will choose between her and Memphis attorney Jennifer Johnson Mitchell in the Aug. 2 election.

Ten divisions comprise the state’s criminal court system at 201 Poplar in Memphis. Each division has its own courtroom and judge to try jury trials. Together they handle more than 10,000 new indictments each year.

Nichols appeared regularly in these courtrooms as a trial lawyer, negotiating plea agreements and prosecuting defendants in more than 200 jury trials.

While leading the prosecution in the Holly Bobo trial last year, and at the same time serving as the No. 1 deputy to District Attorney General Amy Weirich, Nichols was asked by several criminal defense attorneys and judges to apply for an interim judgeship. She decided to try.

“I really believed I was ready,” Nichols said, adding, “I look at this as a way to serve in a broader fashion than I was able to do before in the DA’s office.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam early this year appointed Nichols to fill in for retiring Division 10 Judge James C. Beasley Jr. The appointment runs until an elected judge is seated following next month’s general election.

Nichols was picked for the bench after serving amid a controversial stretch in the AG’s office. Prosecutorial misconduct allegations aimed chiefly at Weirich surfaced in several cases.  Two complaints named Nichols. Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility dismissed both with no charges.

“People can file anything,” Nichols said. “The important part here is those were summarily dismissed.”

Memphis criminal defense lawyer Leslie Ballin, who has defended clients Nichols charged with murder, lauded his former adversary.

“I think she’s awesome,’’ said Ballin, a lawyer since 1977.

  Asked why lawyers surveyed recently by the Memphis Bar Association favored Nichols for the bench, Ballin cited her widely known name and abilities.

“I think it was also recognition of her character, intellect and judicial temperament, not only while she was in the AG’s office, but also in the last few months she’s served on the bench,’’ Ballin said.

Years ago, it was said Memphis lawyers’ handshake could settle matters, Ballin said, but now agreement terms put in writing can need close reading.

“In the last few years that type of (handshake) understanding has become antiquated. There are instances where they attempt to hide the ball,” Ballin said, referring to prosecutors negotiating agreements with defense lawyers.

 “Those instances are few in number,” Ballin said, adding “none of mine ever involved Jennifer Nichols.”

Singled out for dogged preparation as a trial lawyer, Nichols said she wants to be known as a “predictable” judge in following the law and ruling “straight down the middle’’ on every decision.

She also wants to be known as polite and attentive. “I am determined people who come to my courtroom leave feeling they were respected,” Nichols said.

She’s strived, she said, to explain the legal process. “One of my major goals is to make sure defendants who come to my courtroom understand what is going on,” she said. “I want every victim to understand their case is being handled with integrity by a fair judge who follows the law.”

Nichols, a Memphis resident, moved to the city with her husband in 1991, coming here for his job and leaving an Orlando, Florida, law firm that specialized in medical malpractice cases.

She’s a graduate of the University of Alabama and her hometown law school, Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

The daughter of a former U.S. Department of Labor investigator, Nichols had long wanted to be a prosecutor. Hired in Memphis at the AG’s office, she soon became the chief prosecutor of the then-new child abuse and homicide unit. From there she went to the major violators unit, prosecuting violent individuals, and then the gang unit, where she was named chief prosecutor.

Nichols, by then a single mother, at times asked the judge for a temporary recess so she could fetch her child from the nearby day care before it closed for the day. She then sat the girl, Austin, in the back of the courtroom while the case proceeded. Today, Austin Nichols is an assistant prosecutor in the AG’s office.

In 2003, she looked for more stable hours. The U.S. Postal Service hired her as an attorney in Memphis. Once her daughter was in college in 2009, Nichols rejoined the AG’s office.

Within a year, Bill Gibbons, then the top prosecutor, had formed the special victim’s unit. Nichols was named the unit’s chief prosecutor. Weirich succeeded Gibbons as District Attorney General and named Nichols her chief deputy. 

Nichols still prosecuted cases. And as chief deputy she supervised the 225 lawyers, investigators and other staff members in the office. One task: Negotiate terms with defense lawyers who wanted better plea deals  for their clients than the original terms offered by assistant AGs.

“I think if you asked a defense lawyer they would tell you what they have told me,” Nichols said. “She was tough but she was fair.”  

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