A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust. - Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Photo Credit: Daniel Meigs
DAWN DEANER, FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Dawn Deaner is the Founder and Executive Director of the Choosing Justice Initiative. Before launching CJI in November 2018, Dawn spent 10 years as the Metropolitan Public Defender for Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee, and 11 years before that as an Assistant Public Defender in Nashville.
As Nashville’s Public Defender, Dawn was a tireless advocate for her clients and their right to high quality, effective legal representation. Beginning early in her tenure, she fostered a culture of client-centered representation in the Office, and encouraged staff to treat every client like they would want their family member treated. In 2017, she formed the Office’s first Client/Community Advisory Board, and with input from that Board, the Office published formal representation standards. These standards outline all the essential components of ethical criminal defense representation, and make clear to clients, staff, and the entire Nashville community the kind of representation every person accused of a crime is entitled to receive.
Dawn also acknowledged the reality that public defenders have contributed to mass incarceration by not doing enough to insist that people without wealth have access to meaningful legal representation. As a result, she made a commitment to reduce excessive workloads in the Office until resources were sufficient to ensure every client received effective representation. To do that, Dawn introduced rigorous time-tracking requirements for all staff, and in 2014 became the first Public Defender in Nashville to implement workload controls for the Office. She also became a vocal proponent for increasing public defense resources, and using diversion programs to reduce demand for services.
Dawn has also been a pioneer for larger reforms in the criminal legal system. She has fought to end Nashville’s use of wealth-based pre-trial detention, and was instrumental in the creation of the Nashville Community Bail Fund. She introduced community organizers in Nashville to the Participatory Defense movement, and continues to uplift their work empowering Nashvillians who are most impacted by the criminal legal system to get meaningful justice. Dawn was also the architect of Metro Nashville’s Steering Clear Driver’s License Diversion Program, which helps decriminalize poverty and reduce wasteful spending in our court system.
Dawn has been acknowledged locally and nationally for her work in and commitment to indigent defense. In 2011, she received the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year award from the Tennessee Bar Association, and in 2012, Gideon’s Promise recognized Dawn’s work to improve indigent defense in the South with its Stephen B. Bright Award. In 2017, Dawn was the first woman to receive the Nashville Bar Association’s Jack Norman Sr. Award, which honors an attorney who demonstrates respect for the rights of all individuals in the criminal justice system. The following year, the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) presented her with its first Thurgood Marshall Award, and the Metro-Nashville Human Relations Commission honored her with an Outstanding Service Award.
In addition to running CJI, Dawn currently serves on the Executive and Steering Committees of the NAPD, and on the Board of Directors for Gideon’s Promise and Uptrust. She also continues in her role as Special Advisor to the Nashville Community Bail Fund. She is a member of the Tennessee Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and several other bar associations. She taught Trial Advocacy at Vanderbilt University Law School for 10 years; served for six years on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection; and is a member of the 2015 Leadership Nashville Class.
Dawn was born and raised in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, and moved to Nashville in 1996 to begin her legal career as an assistant public defender. She earned her undergraduate degree from Columbia College, and her law degree from George Washington University Law School.
Chase Cunningham is an experienced trial attorney who has handled countless criminal matters at various stages in state court. He has obtained many favorable results from juries, judges, and prosecutors. In addition to criminal matters, Chase handles forfeiture matters, orders of protection, and other civil matters.
Chase graduated from the Nashville School of Law in 2014 where he was inducted as a member of The Honorable Society of Cooper’s Inn for the highest attainments in the study of law. While in law school, Chase worked as a law clerk at the Nashville Defender’s Office. In that capacity, Chase spent thousands of hours engaged in legal research and writing, case analysis, records collection, witness interviews and investigation. Following graduation, Chase worked as a trial attorney for the Nashville Defender’s Office for three years. During that time, he handled thousands of criminal matters.
Chase believes in a client-centered approach to representation. He knows that a criminal accusation is one of the most difficult and stressful situations an individual may face. He appreciates that an accusation or conviction can carry a ripple of major consequences that can impact a person’s freedom, family, employment, housing and overall well-being. Chase always aims to provide comprehensive representation that empowers the client to fully understand the complexities of their legal situation and allows them to make the best decision they see fit for their own life.
Erica Duggan joined the Choosing Justice Initiative in July 2019 as a paralegal, bringing with her many years of experience working for social justice with a focus on reentry. Erica is a founding member of a social justice non-profit inside in California’s San Quentin State Prison dedicated to educating and assisting incarcerated men successfully prepare for release and reintegrate into society. In addition to designing, implementing, evaluating and growing that organization’s programming for ten years, Erica spent four years working for a non-profit in the Bay Area that provides economic empowerment services to previously incarcerated and low-income parents. There, she led the design and implementation of a new program model aimed at assisting individuals gain employment at the self-sufficiency level that was trauma-informed and participant-centered, for both county and federal grants. She worked with probation, parole, Contra Costa County, and other community and faith-based organizations to ensure participants received the wrap-around services necessary for their success, and had a voice in the development of county-wide initiatives and systems. Erica also worked as a consultant overseeing a pilot program for at-risk and foster youth at a high school devoted to educating youth about healthy eating, personal empowerment, and entrepreneurship.
Erica received a Masters in Social Psychology from San Francisco State University, where she studied methods to empower women to succeed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) fields. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree from San Francisco State University in Psychology, where she studied the effects of incarceration and juror comprehension of death penalty instructions.
Heather Meshell is an attorney who has worked for eight years in public policy and government relations on both local and state levels, collaborating with lawmakers, nonprofits, law enforcement, judges, and advocates to reform the criminal legal system. Her work focused most notably on sentencing reform, anti-death penalty work, and reproductive justice. In 2022, she successfully led collaborative efforts to pass legislation ending the harmful policy of shackling pregnant individuals while incarcerated and during labor in Tennessee.
Heather believes criminal legal system reform and advocacy work should be grounded in trauma-informed and harm-reduction frameworks — and that no one is defined by their worst moments. Her previous work in the victim advocacy space cultivated her trauma-informed approach, and opened her eyes to the sexual assault to prison pipeline. Ultimately, those experiences motivated her to work with incarcerated populations, and in 2022, she led a clemency campaign for one of only three people granted a commutation by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Heather received her Juris Doctorate from Nashville School of Law and holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Middle Tennessee State University.