Tennessee man still in prison 2 years after wife's lie

Robert E. Polk is in prison because someone else lied. His next chance to get out is in 2018.

His parole in a drug case was revoked and he was sent back to a Tennessee prison when his wife accused him of threatening her with a gun in late 2014, records show.

But when a Nashville prosecutor discovered the woman's claim could not be true, and then more than a year later the wife admitted she made up the incident, the prosecutor dropped the charges. And he sent a letter to the state suggesting Polk should be released from prison.

The charges were dropped two months ago. The letter was sent more than a month ago.

But the Tennessee Board of Parole has not acted on Polk's case. The board is reviewing the situation, said Melissa McDonald, spokeswoman for the board.

"In these instances, it is incumbent upon the board to thoroughly review and research the information received before moving through the appeal process," she said. "The board is currently focused on completing this work as quickly as possible, and ensuring that a fair and thorough review is conducted."

But some say the monthlong delay is too long.

"Robert Polk is not guilty and he’s in there on a complete lie," said William Conway, Polk's defense lawyer. "And the DA's office agrees he’s in there on a complete lie. That’s very uncommon."

Now, the lawyers and Polk's sister, Tamika Polk, are working to get Robert Polk out of the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tenn. He's been in custody for nearly two years on the false allegations. Meanwhile, his wife has pleaded guilty to perjury, admitting she made up the incident.

Conway and Tamika Polk called for reforms at the parole board to speed up the process of evaluating situations similar to Robert Polk's.

"There should probably be a procedural way to handle something like this when it happens," Conway said. "I can understand they can’t leave a parole revocation hanging in the balance for a criminal case that takes three or four years to resolve. But in the event there’s a case that’s dismissed or exonerated, there should be a way to evaluate that rather than kick it off to the next parole hearing."

As it is now, Polk's next chance at release is a parole hearing scheduled for January 2018, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

"Here’s a position everyone can agree on," Conway said. "No innocent person should be in prison for four years."

Changing the state's parole system and finding alternate punishments for some types of violations were recommended in Gov. Bill Haslam's criminal justice reform package and a task force report last year, although Polk's case would not have qualified.

But David Raybin, a prominent Nashville defense lawyer and criminal justice analyst, said parole-specific proposals were pulled out of the legislation.

According to the governor's task force report, people who have violated parole make up 40 percent of the state's prisoners. Raybin said other states, such as North Carolina, have put a cap on the number of days someone can spend in prison for a violation that does not include new criminal charges in order to decrease that prison population.

Raybin, who advised the prosecutor in Polk's case to send the letter to the parole board, called the case an emergency that needed to be addressed.

Raybin has his own battle before the parole board. He represents Lawrence McKinney, a Wilson County man who served 31 years on a rape and burglary conviction before DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. McKinney is fighting for a formal exoneration, but the parole board in September voted 7-0 not to recommend an exoneration for him and questioned his innocence and the DNA evidence.

Cost to taxpayers

The delay at the parole board is costing taxpayers each night Polk remains behind bars.

Assistant District Attorney General Vince Wyatt dropped the domestic violence charges against Polk, 33, on Sept. 5, after Polk's wife was indicted on charges that included perjury, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said. At $73 per night to house an inmate — a cost estimate provided by the Department of Correction — taxpayers have spent more than $3,800 to keep him locked up.

Wyatt sent a Sept. 26 letter to David Liner, executive director of the parole board, saying the charges were dismissed. Taxpayers have spent more than $2,250 to keep Polk in prison since then. And if he's not released until his next scheduled parole hearing in January 2018, it will cost more than $31,000.

The total cost of his incarceration on the false allegations, since his arrest in November 2014, is about $53,200.

In the letter, Wyatt asks the board to reinstate Polk's parole if the false allegations were the only reason for its revocation. He attached proof that Polk's wife had pleaded guilty to perjury.

"Parole is an opportunity for individuals who have entered the justice system to prove they are, and will remain, law-abiding citizens," Wyatt told The Tennessean. "The perjurer in this case was upset with her husband, but that does not justify lying to law enforcement and having an individual incarcerated for an offense they did not commit."

The perjury case

Parole records reviewed by The Tennessean indicate Polk's only violations in the most recent case were related to his wife's false report.

On Nov. 2, 2014, Jajuana M. Polk filed charges, records show, saying Robert Polk threatened her with a gun at their home on 29th Avenue North in Nashville after she told him she wanted a divorce. But Wyatt, Robert Polk's sister and Robert Polk's defense lawyer soon saw signs she had lied.

An independent eyewitness saw Jajuana Polk in Goodlettsville about the same time as the alleged threat, according to the prosecutor's letter to the board. And jail calls involving Robert and Jajuana Polk raised questions, too.

"He was talking to her and (saying), 'Why are you doing this to me? I can’t believe you’re lying on me,' " Conway said. "She was saying, 'You brought it on yourself. You cheated on me.' "

What really happened, officials now say, is Jajuana Polk went to the apartment in Goodlettsville where she believed her husband's mistress lived. Wyatt said Jajuana Polk used a baseball bat on the woman's car.

"Ms. Polk then went to the Metro Nashville Criminal Justice Center and reported that her husband, Robert Polk, had just threatened to kill her with a gun," Wyatt said during a Sept. 22 hearing. At that hearing, Jajuana Polk pleaded guilty to perjury for making up the story during a prior court hearing, which led to Robert Polk's indictment. Records show she was sentenced to a year of probation.

At the time of his wife's false report, Robert Polk was out on parole in a drug case. Records show he was found guilty of selling narcotics to an undercover Nashville police officer. Though he had been denied parole in that case at least twice before, he was released in 2012 after completing a therapy program, parole records show.

Since then, he has done electrical work and raised two children, 12 and 15, said Tamika Polk, who lives at her brother's home in Nashville.

The parole board

McDonald, the parole spokeswoman, said the Board of Parole can revoke an individual's parole based solely on new charges and does not have to wait for a conviction. She said conduct that may not be criminal can still lead to parole violations.

Generally, one of the department's nearly 20 hearings officers on staff make an initial determination to revoke a person's parole. Then two members of the seven-person board must agree. To release a prisoner, it takes three concurring votes of board members, McDonald said. Board members are appointed by the governor.

In the last complete fiscal year, hearings officers heard more than 16,000 parole cases, according to the board's annual report.

And now, parole staff members are looking at Polk's case again as part of the board's formal appeals process.

"The board received new information that warrants the review of the revocation of parole," McDonald said.

Those who advocate for his release question why the review takes so long.

"I’m heartbroken," his sister said. "Not just because he’s my brother, but because he's a father."

Tamika Polk suggested the situation shows the harm that false allegations can cause. She acknowledges her brother has a past criminal history — records show a mix of assault, drug and evading police convictions — which meant his punishment for a parole violation was prison.

"He’s a human being who like all of us has made some mistakes," Tamika Polk said.

"The difference is, some of the mistakes we’ve made, we had a second chance to do better. He had a second chance, and that was taken away from him by a senseless situation."

Read: DA asks parole board to consider man's case

By the numbers

It costs about $73 a night to house an inmate in the Tennessee Department of Correction, and about $100 per night in Davidson County jail, according to those agencies. Given those numbers, taxpayers have spent about:

$2,250 to keep Robert E. Polk in prison since Assistant District Attorney General Vince Wyatt sent a letter to the board about Polk's innocence

$3,800 to keep Polk in prison since charges against him were dropped in early September

$31,000 in future costs if Polk is not released until his next scheduled parole hearing in January 2018

$53,200 total cost of his incarceration, in prison and jail, on the false allegations so far

This story originally appeared on The Tennessean’s website.


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