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Stowe says Wednesday’s firing of assistant district attorney ‘had been coming for awhile’

Incumbent District Attorney Matt Stowe, right, and Neil Thompson, his opponent for the office in the May 3 election, campaign and give away copies of The Courier at the newspaper’s office Wednesday evening.

Matt Stowe, district attorney general for the 24th Judicial District and currently running for reelection, spoke with The Courier on Thursday afternoon about his firing yesterday of Assistant District Attorney and Henry County Chief Prosecutor Rebecca Griffey.
The 24th Judicial District includes Hardin, Henry, Benton, Carroll and Decatur counties.
“It was a sad day – one of the saddest days I’ve had in awhile. I’ve worked with Rebecca Griffey for a long time. She’s very, very smart and I admire that,” Stowe said.
He continued, “But this had been coming for awhile, because she wasn’t on board with my vision for the long run. We just couldn’t work together any longer.”
The Paris Post-Intelligencer on Wednesday first reported the story of Griffey’s firing.
Asked about the incident, Stowe told The Courier he fired Griffey at the Henry County courthouse Wednesday afternoon while they were preparing to take part in a potential plea bargain conference about a murder case.
Some on social media have speculated that Griffey’s firing is politically motivated, possibly out of anger because Henry County Sheriff Josh Frey has endorsed attorney Neil Thompson, who is running against Stowe for district attorney.
In a campaign ad, Frey is quoted saying, “Weak plea deals lead to unsafe streets.”
Stowe said that comment wasn’t his motivation for firing Griffey, but it is indicative of one issue in the souring of their working relationship.
“Who in the world would fire someone like this right before, in the middle of really, an election? If it was politically motivated I would have done it long before or long after,” Stowe said.
He said he has received complaints from some crime victims as well as some of Griffey’s co-workers concerning her behavior. Some victims said they also felt she did not prosecute their cases aggressively enough.
He acknowledged that some plea deals are seen as too lenient. He said, though, that there are many competing forces at play in bringing about a plea deal, which could include quality of evidence, or victims’ feelings about a proposed deal.
Stowe also noted that any plea deal must be agreed to by the presiding judge.
Another problem that has compounded what some see as lenient plea deals, Stowe said, is that the COVID-19 crisis has effectively shut down courts for two years.
“COVID has absolutely contributed to some deals we probably wouldn’t have made before – there haven’t really been any trials for two years. But, only for non-violent crimes – minor drug offenses, thefts. We’ve sent a lot more to rehab, stuff like that. Less serious violent crimes we held the line on,” Stowe said.
“Violent crimes – we haven’t pled those down. When it comes to the Super Bowl and the Championships, we show up and we play to win,” he added.
Stowe said he is not upset about Frey’s endorsement – he said others have endorsed his opponent, and he and Thompson strive to remain on good terms. However, he contends Frey’s comment that lenient plea deals lead to unsafe streets unfairly erodes public confidence in the DA’s office.
As chief prosecutor for Henry County, Stowe said, Griffey was responsible for all plea bargaining except in cases of homicide and rape.
“Crime has gone way down all over this district – Camden moved up to the No. 1 safest city in Tennessee. Huntingdon, up to No. 10. The rising tide hasn’t helped Paris though, which dropped in state ranking from No. 54 down to No. 70, so I get that law enforcement is frustrated,” Stowe said.
“Once the sheriff publicly claimed the reason for rising crime in Paris is ‘weak plea deals,’ how can I keep the chief prosecutor in that job?” he added.
“Unfortunately, I had to give someone else a chance to restore the public’s confidence.”
Stowe said those complaints and the public lack of confidence displayed by the Henry County sheriff were only part of the problem, however.
Without going into specific detail on all, he said he gave Griffey a list of seven reasons for her termination, and that those reasons were part of a brewing storm that had been a long time coming.
“It wasn’t a personal or political thing – there is a lot I admire about Rebecca Griffey. Like I said, I was very sad it came to this, but we just couldn’t work together anymore,” he said.
Stowe noted that Hardin County Sheriff Johnny Alexander has this week endorsed Thompson also, citing “weak plea deals.”
He said he can live with criticism, and people have the right to endorse whomever they want. What he can’t live with, Stowe said, is citizens thinking their streets are unsafe because of a failure of his office.
“Sheriff Alexander may not be happy about how every case is handled, but he didn’t say Hardin County’s streets are unsafe. A big part of that is that law enforcement in Hardin County is great, but another part of that is chief prosecutor for Hardin County, Vance Dennis,” Stowe said.
He said he understands that Alexander thinks some plea deals are too lenient, but points out he didn’t fire Vance Dennis after Alexander endorsed Thompson, which he says supports his claim that Griffey’s firing wasn’t solely political or about plea deals.
“Trust me – we work hard to get the harshest punishment we can on cases. And with (Circuit Court) Judge Bradberry we’ve been sending a lot of criminals to (Tennessee Department of Corrections). It’s important to me that criminals are punished, that victims feel a sense of justice, and that law enforcement feels they have backup,” Stowe said.
The PI also quoted Circuit Court Judge Donald Parish, who with Bradberry forms the two judge team of Circuit Court judges for the 24th Judicial District. The newspaper reported Parish described Wednesday’s incident as “highly irregular” and he wanted it put on the record.
Stowe admitted the incident was irregular, but said, “There was no way to move forward on settlement negotiations in a murder case with someone who, for whatever reason, had lost the public’s confidence in her plea bargaining skills.”
The Courier unsuccessfully attempted to reach Rebecca Griffey for comment. If she responds, the Courier will update this reporting.

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