Belmont Law Alumna Ashleigh Karnell: Pursuing Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted

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College of Law

Belmont Law Alumna Ashleigh Karnell: Pursuing Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted

June 27, 2024 | by Jasmine Simmons

Karnell included on Nashville Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list of young professionals shaping the future of Nashville business

Belmont College of Law alumna Ashleigh Karnell (‘17) was the first in her family to go to law school and wanted to attend an institution with smaller class sizes where she could develop relationships with her professors and find accessible and intentional mentors. Belmont’s fledgling law school, which opened a few years prior to her attending, met and surpassed her initial hopes.  

Choosing Belmont Law 

Ashleigh KarnellBelmont Law’s facilities and intentional recruitment convinced her to take a chance on the program which was only preliminarily accredited at the time. Since it was the only day she could drive into Nashville and tour the college, Associate Dean Andy Matthews gave Karnell a tour on Good Friday, when the campus was closed for Easter break — which made all the difference. 

“It ended up being a benefit,” Karnell said about Belmont Law’s accreditation status. “I feel like Belmont, back then and even now, goes totally above and beyond.” 

“When I saw the facilities, I was blown away. They feel indicative of how intentional Belmont’s program is and reflects the type of program they want to create and offer for students,” she said. 

Holding the Balance: Work and Service  

Today, Karnell is an associate in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Practice Group at Bass, Berry & Sims where she handles complex business disputes in addition to working with clients on antitrust and trade compliance related to proposed mergers and acquisitions. 

In 2024, she was included in the Nashville Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list of young professionals who are shaping the future of Nashville business. Along with her work at Bass, Berry & Sims, Karnell dedicates a significant portion of time to pro bono work fighting for the wrongfully convicted. 

In 2022, Karnell took a six-month paid sabbatical from the firm through its pro bono fellowship program to work full-time at the Tennessee Innocence Project's Nashville office. She helped move critical cases forward, including those of Wayne Burgess and Artis Whitehead who were both exonerated in 2023. 

"I feel this moral obligation to help folks that need it," she said. "If we have a law degree and license, we have an extra layer of privilege that we should use to help our community wherever we find people in need." 

Karnell's passion is driven by the fundamental injustice of wrongful convictions. "I cannot think of a more unfair thing than someone in prison for a crime they did not commit," she said. "The stakes are so high - it doesn't just impact that person, but their entire family who loses them for a crime they did not commit and a punishment they don’t deserve." 

She hopes her dual role as an accomplished business litigator and fierce advocate for the wrongfully convicted can inspire others. "I want to create this example where you can do great commercial work while also helping make our community better for those who can't afford an attorney but desperately need one." 

Ashleigh and Wayne Burgess with others
From left to right: Ashleigh Karnell, Jason Gichner of the Tennessee Innocence Project, Wayne Burgess, and Jarvis Cox-Burgess (Wayne’s son) on the day Wayne was released from prison, May 23, 2023. 

Exemplary Leadership  

Karnell’s work is a powerful example for her legal colleagues and for the aspiring law students she often works with in the Bass, Berry & Sims summer associate program. She and her colleagues have noticed a key distinction that sets Belmont Law students apart from students at other law schools.  

“There's a whole other level of practical experience that you get at Belmont that you're not getting at other law schools,” she said. “Belmont students have already drafted legal documents and taken mock depositions. I don’t see that from other law schools that we recruit from. That is a huge leg up that Belmont is giving to its students.” 

Working with Belmont Law students, she recalls and appreciates the extensive preparation built into the program to help students stand out including required practicum courses where students are assigned mock cases that walk through all the steps of the legal process, from filing the complaint to trial. 

Through her tireless pursuit of justice both in the courtroom and beside the wrongfully convicted, Ashleigh Karnell exemplifies Belmont's mission to embrace hope and reweave the social fabric. Her legacy is a shining example for the next generation of Bruins.