On Thursday, Joseph Webster lunched on grilled salmon, which he had longed for while spending almost 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. There was also steamed broccoli and Diet Coke. “It was delicious,” he said by phone on his way to a local TV news station for an interview.
Webster, 41, walked out of a detention center in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, just before 7 p.m. Tuesday, hours after a judge had agreed with a determination by the district attorney’s office that they had lost confidence in Webster’s first-degree murder conviction and had ordered it vacated. Webster had been serving a life sentence and would have been eligible for parole after serving 51 years.
Webster’s conviction was the first to be overturned since the Nashville District Attorney’s Office set up a unit in 2016 to review cases that might have been decided wrongfully. Members of the new unit collaborated with defense lawyers in an investigation that produced new witnesses and evidence.
“We’re now in the process of helping him rebuild his life,” Webster’s lawyer, Daniel L. Horwitz, said Thursday.
Webster went to prison in 2003 on an unrelated drug charge and was convicted in 2006 of the murder of Leroy Owens, who was bludgeoned to death with a cinder block in a Nashville parking lot on Nov. 22, 1998.
Witnesses testified during Webster’s trial that Owens had been attacked by two Black men driving a white station wagon, and they described one assailant as weighing roughly 160 pounds and the other perhaps 200 pounds. Webster, however, weighed 300 pounds at the time and had 12 permanently installed, very bright gold front teeth. No witnesses recalled either of the men who attacked Owens as having gold teeth.
“There was evidence that made it pretty clear who committed this crime, and it was not Mr. Webster,” Horwitz said. “Two new witnesses came forward who saw the murder and were able to give pretty good descriptions of the two people who did it.”
In October 2016, Webster hired Horwitz after a failed attempt to have the murder weapon tested for DNA evidence. It was around that same time, Horwitz said, that the Nashville District Attorney’s Office established what it called a conviction review unit to look at cases that might have been incorrectly decided.
“I believe we were the first case that applied for review from that unit,” Horwitz said, adding that his client had been freed because of “a building snowball of exonerating evidence coming steady over the course of a very long time.”
Sunny Eaton, who runs the conviction review unit, said her office had been created because of District Attorney Glenn Funk’s commitment to have truth-finding as the central role of the prosecutor’s office. “I believe that the overwhelming feeling is one of pride to be part of a district attorney’s office that puts its money where its mouth is,” Eaton said, “and is actually transparent and takes the steps toward self-reflection and accountability and getting things right that may have been gotten wrong before.”
The night he was released, Webster said, he went to his mother’s house and reunited with his four adult sons, whom he had called multiple times a week throughout his imprisonment. “My mom had cooked me a dinner, and we just caught up, and it was just unbelievable,” Webster said. “So we enjoyed the moment.”
Webster had a busy Thursday. In the morning, he was back in a courtroom petitioning a judge to return his voting rights, which may be restored after Webster resolves his court costs, Horwitz said.
From there, the two went to the Tennessee Driver Services office so that Webster could obtain a new driver’s license, only to find that so much time had passed while he was in prison that he would have to retake the driving test.
After doing interviews, Webster and Horwitz were planning to visit Project Return, a local organization that helps people transition from incarceration and reintegrate into society.
Webster hopes to start a trucking business and drive a dump truck.
“Nashville is growing so much that I just want to be part of the growth,” Webster said. “And I can contribute a little bit at a time by moving gravel and rocks.”