By Sabrina Bates
The 24th Judicial District in Tennessee will welcome a new face when Neil Thompson takes office as the new District Attorney General. The 24th District includes Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin, and Henry counties.
Thompson was elected by district voters on Aug. 4, running unopposed. He replaces outgoing DA Matt Stowe. Stowe was defeated by Thompson in May’s Republican primary, where District voters favored Thompson with 8,359 votes to Stowe’s 5,436 (1,177 to 1,054 votes in Benton County).
Thompson officially takes office Thursday, Sept. 1, with an 8 a.m. swearing-in ceremony at the Benton County Courthouse. In an interview last week, Thompson said he is excited and ready to begin work for the district.
“For more than a year, I’ve worn two hats keeping my office open and as a candidate. I’m ready to get started as DA!” Thompson shared. As a private practice attorney in Huntingdon, 90 percent of his caseload was criminal, while the other 10 percent involved civil work. He also has served as a mediator for civil cases.
Deciding to seek the DA’s office didn’t come easy for Thompson, as he was content with his private practice. He said people approached him for a few months, noting that they wanted a change in the DA’s office and asking him to consider candidacy.
“People weren’t happy with the state of our district and how some cases were handled. More punishments were given to people with drug convictions than child sex cases. We had people who were serving more time for pot than ones who had harmed children,” Thompson explained. “I’m not saying one crime deserves prosecution over another, but there is a hierarchy. I saw this as a criminal attorney. People would get a slap on the wrist for heinous crimes and more punishment for minor offenses.”
Thompson decided to run for office in March 2021 after an early-morning phone call with a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent about a murder case. Thompson remembers it well.
“I was reading the book of Isiah in the Bible when I got the call at 5 a.m. Trying not to wake my wife, I spoke to the TBI agent,” related Thompson. “When I hung up the phone, my wife, who isn’t an early-morning person, turned to me and said, ‘You should run for DA.’ That gave me pause.”
Later that morning, Thompson talked with Henry County Sheriff Josh Frey about the possibility of running for DA, and that led to meetings with other law enforcement officials. With endorsements from the Henry County and Carroll County Sheriff’s Offices, Thompson started gaining support from members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and TBI. People spread the word and Thompson took to the campaign trail with messages of change.
“Murder cases are big cases, but most of the time they aren’t that complicated. Child abuse cases are a different story. Let’s say you have a child abused by a stepfather. That child is going through the court process, where they may be called on to testify. The victim may be four years into therapy and starting to heal, then has to appear in court and undergo traumatic questioning, sending the child back to ground zero with recovery,” Thompson said. “Defendants in such cases need to have a level of fear in prosecution and know we won’t go easy on them.”
The new DA spent six years as an advisory board member for the Carroll County Exchange Club – Carl Perkins Center and saw firsthand the impact of abuse on victims and their family members.
Thompson also is concerned regarding the handling of cases of domestic violence and DUI. While the Tennessee State Legislature imposes minimum sentencing for such cases, Thompson said he plans to be much more harsh.
It is common to see weekly court dockets populated with charges of violation of probation. This is another area of concern for Thompson, as prosecuting such violations clogs up the system and unnecessarily costs taxpayers’ money.
“We should stop giving the same person 20 bites of an apple,” Thompson said. “One of my plans involves changing plea deals to eliminate split sentencing.”
He explained that a split sentence might be 1-8, where a defendant pleads to serve one year in prison and eight years on probation. He wants to incorporate more definitive prison sentences and leave it up to the Tennessee Department of Corrections to issue parole as it sees fit.
He noted the state legislature has done a good job of making it more difficult to get items to manufacture meth. As a result, the number of initiation, promotion, and manufacture cases have dropped, although people still are using the drug.
Thompson said the DA’s office will continue to work with community partners such as drug rehabilitation centers, Carey Counseling, Carl Perkins Centers, and WRAP. Encouraging those facing drug charges to enter rehab can be life-changing for drug users. As a criminal attorney, he has seen clients opt for rehab to avoid incarceration, and genuinely change through treatment. After successfully completing rehab, many remain clean today.
Once in sworn in as DA, Thompson said there likely will be changes in district offices. Starting Sept. 1, citizens will start seeing new faces of judges at many levels following the Aug. 4 election. Thompson said law enforcement agencies are telling him the demeanor of personnel is already changing for the better.
“I want to thank everyone for their support, from those who handed out campaign materials for me to people who took the time to listen to me when I knocked on their door. I can’t thank everyone who helped and the voters enough for what they did for me, for trusting me with the DA’s position,” Thompson added. “I’m ready to get to work.”
The main 24th District DA General’s office is located at 100 Court Square in Huntingdon, and there are DA offices in every county across the district.