This month’s Knox County election to fill an important post that’s being vacated was all but decided close to two years ago.
That’s when Charme Knight launched her campaign to succeed Randy Nichols, who is retiring, as district attorney general. It started with gaining the unanimous support of her 37 fellow lawyers who staff the attorney general’s office from whose ranks a successor was likely to emerge.
Then, during the summer and fall of 2012, Knight made the rounds of civic and Republican clubs throughout the county, presenting the case for her candidacy based on more than 20 years experience as a prosecutor, with the theme “Tough on Crime, Smart on Prevention.” By that year’s end, she’d also met a goal to raise $100,000 from a diverse array of campaign contributors, vastly more than any other candidate for county office at that time.
The rest, as they say, is history. No one else was about to take on a candidate as formidable, and on May 6 Knight sailed unopposed to victory as the Knox district’s first woman attorney general, effective Sept. 1.
That victory, and the way she went about achieving it, says volumes about the resourcefulness, resolve, and record of accomplishment of a woman who has single-mindedly pursued a career in law enforcement since the time she was a child. Growing up in rural Northwest Georgia as the granddaughter of the Gordon County sheriff, she spent countless hours with him poring over pictures of crime scenes and solving crimes from them.
When a decision to become a lawyer led her to the University of Tennessee Law School in 1988, she wasted little time securing an intern’s position in the district attorney’s office, joining it full-time upon graduation in 1991. “Being a prosecutor is all I’ve ever wanted to be,” she says now, after 23 years on the job.
Knight first made her mark as head of the DA office’s child-abuse unit. When her two sons, who are now teenagers, were much younger, she switched to DUI cases for a time, then back to the six-person child-abuse unit for the past several years.
“I used to want to try every case myself,” she recalls. “Now I take pride sitting second with young lawyers and watching them do well while helping and assisting them.” And out of that role shift grew her bent to give direction to the office as a whole.
“I think I can be most efficient now and keep our community the safest by being in a policy-making and administrative position,” Knight says. An initial challenge: restructuring the office to achieve more specialization. “I’m a big believer in units. Back in the day when the law wasn’t so complicated there wasn’t so much of a need for specialization. Now with the detail of evidence and statutory rules you have to be specially trained in an area to be good—just like a doctor.”
A prime example is in the area of alcohol- and drug-related crime where prescription-drug abuse has outstripped offenses involving contraband drugs and alcohol. “Right now the biggest problem we have is with prescription drugs. … Knox County has more pain clinics than any other county in the state and some of them have pharmacies on site where you get treated in less than three minutes and then get your prescription. Those are the pill mills we’re trying to crack down on.
“Right now there are a lot of laws on the books to go after the users. But to really stop the problem, we’ve got to go after the doctors who are distributing and dispensing excessively.” New state reporting requirements have enabled the Department of Health to build a database and generate reports indicative of such excesses. “What’s beautiful is that the Board of Pharmacology and the Board of Medicine and the Department of Health are all collaborating on this.”
In the case of child abuse, the scourge is the proliferation of child pornography. “When I started prosecuting, it was physical and sexual abuse. But with the advent of the Internet and cellphones, you’ve got the filming so that now with every sexual-abuse case you have to look at sexual exploitation along with it. When the exploitation laws first came in, we had very low punishments but when we realized that this is rampant, we’ve increased the punishment.”
As a result, with visual evidence, prosecutors can get lengthy sentences without having to subject a child to the trauma of having to testify at a trial. Knight gives great credit to detection technology developed by the Internet Crimes Against Children program. “We had one of the first ICAC units in the country here through the Knoxville Police Department, and I can’t say enough good about the KPD’s investigative work,” she says.
A new unit that Knight intends to start will address elder abuse. “We need to do a better job of taking care of that segment of our community. There’s a lot of fraud and we’ve got quite a bit of physical abuse, whether it’s from family members or in some cases nursing homes.”
As one way of fulfilling her “Smart on Prevention” pledge, another Knight initiative will be creation of a community-affairs unit. Its one full-timer would coordinate community outreach efforts in which all of the office’s attorneys will be expected to participate. “They are going to hook up with various areas of the community—faith-based groups, nonprofits, neighborhood watch groups, merchants associations—and meet with them on a regular basis. They will talk about what kinds of crimes are prevalent and how we can help prevent them.”
Knight is also committed to continuing Nichols’ efforts to provide a Safety Center as an alternative to jailing the mentally ill and intoxicated who are arrested for minor offenses. But she puts more emphasis than Nichols has on getting them treatment that extends beyond the three days they could be held in such a facility. “Three days is a great start to assess who needs what, but the true answer lies with where we send them to deal with whatever their problem is.”
Based on all of her accomplishments as well as her admirable aspirations, I have no doubt that Knight will prove a worthy successor to the estimable Nichols as attorney general.