Crystle Carrion had just started working as a paralegal in Orlando, Florida, in 2011, when she got the horrific news that her little sister had been shot by a 16-year-old suspect in a drive-by incident in California.
“She survived, but it was absolutely terrifying,” recalls Carrion, 36, a former prosecutor and now litigation counsel for the Unum Law Department. “My sister was not involved in that kind of lifestyle. She just went to California to follow her dreams and was there for a very short amount of time and was attacked in this very random way.”
Carrion had been on the fence about becoming a lawyer, dipping her toe in the water through her paralegal job but not ready to commit to a legal career. Her sister’s near-death ordeal changed that.
“She was shot on Aug. 12, 2011, and Aug. 12, 2012 was my first day of law school,” Carrion says. “It prompted me to jump right in.”
The tragedy also shaped her perspective of what it might mean to practice law. “There was a part of me that couldn’t really help but default into wondering why somebody who was 16 years old would resort to that kind of behavior, unprovoked and so violent. I was asking questions about somebody I shouldn’t care about, because the circumstances made me feel like it was something that I needed to explore.
“I’ve always been drawn to social justice. So most of my practice, up until Unum, has been kind of geared toward and guided by this sense of fairness.”
Even now, as she reviews and responds to litigation matters for her insurance company employer – the vast majority of claims are approved and very few denials lead to lawsuits, she asserts – she uses her prior experience trying cases for the Hamilton County district attorney’s office to understand the other side and do the right thing by Unum policyholders.
No longer trying cases in the courtroom, Carrion still relies on her strong suit – flexibility – but in a much different way.
“I think a lot of times, people walk into situations and have in their minds how they want it to go. I am flexible in what I need or want to do to take care of any one specific situation,” she says. “[In court] I would come into a room and say, ‘OK, I had in mind that I was going to say 500 things, but this judge seems to only want to hear about this. Instead of making this worse for myself, let me kind of mold what my expectations are here to get the best result for what I want to get done.’”
The meaning of justice
After years of frequently pulling up roots and relocating with her military family, the Manhattan native chose to earn her law degree and complete her first clerkship in Florida, partly to get away from the cold. Laser-focused on trial advocacy courses, she traveled and competed with the trial team with the intention of specializing in criminal law.
Moving to Knoxville with her then-fiancé after graduation, she was aware that she needed an entree into the local legal community in an unfamiliar city.
“I figured the best way to do that was, rather than jumping immediately into some small firm that I wasn’t really sure who they were or how they did business, to volunteer my time and legal work to gain experience,” she says.
So she signed up to provide free assistance to clients in need through Legal Aid of East Tennessee and the Knoxville Family Justice Center.
A few months later, she began clerking at the U.S. District Court of East Tennessee, handling habeas corpus petitions for prisoners without attorneys who were challenging the outcome of their cases. She also worked on sentencing disparities between convictions for possession of crack versus cocaine. The former carried a much stiffer penalty than the latter.
“It’s problematic because, oftentimes, people of color, minority communities, would be using crack because it was less expensive, and non-minorities would call it cocaine,” she says. “So people of color were penalized more harshly for, essentially, having the same drug.”
In late 2016, Carrion joined the Hamilton County district attorney’s office as an assistant D.A. and later became the lead prosecutor in the Third Division of Criminal Court. March 2018 brought the culmination of two of her team’s biggest cases. Former school bus driver Johnthony Walker was found guilty on 27 charges in connection with a 2016 crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary School students; a few days later, Benjamin Brewer, a semi-truck driver convicted of vehicular homicide in the 2015 death of six people on Interstate 75 near the Ooltewah exit, was sentenced to 55 years in prison without parole.
Carrion successfully argued both cases and others before Criminal Court Judge Don Poole, who recently retired from his post after many years on the bench.
“I was really impressed when she came in,” he says. “She was sure of herself and she was respectful to the court and to the other attorneys. She didn’t let people run over her, but she did it in a respectful way.
“Those were tough cases, for the lawyers and for the judge,” Poole says of the Walker and Brewer cases. “She handled herself very well. I don’t remember any mistakes.”
During her five years with the D.A.’s office, Carrion deliberately tried to navigate the system “in a way that wasn’t typical” for prosecutors, whom she says are sometimes presumed to be hard-nosed and aggressive. “I wanted to kind of tilt it just a little … to make the criminal justice system reflect what I felt justice truly meant.”
Neither overly aggressive nor gentle in her cross-examination, she says, “I wouldn’t let off of questions that should net certain answers.”
The most important take-away from her prosecutorial experience was also the most surprising. “When I started being a D.A., I always kind of imagined myself as this kind of intermediary or shield for victims’ families. But one thing that stands out the most to me is how forgiving victims’ families can be.
“I had these families come into these courthouses and they were dealing with probably the worst thing that has ever happened to them. In the Woodmore bus crash, and people losing their children in the I-75 truck crash, this really enormous, highly chaotic situation, you default to thinking that the victims are going to be angry or want some sort of retribution. And what I found is that some of the greatest shows of forgiveness happen in these courtrooms. These people, who are going through such terrible things, find the capacity within themselves to be gracious and wonderfully forgiving and kind. This is something that all of us ought to be doing in order to move through these difficult moments in our lives: finding the space for forgiveness.”
Secret sauce of long career
In 2021, five years into her role as prosecutor, Carrion says she still loved her job and the never-ending stream of challenging cases. She also enjoyed making a difference in the community.
But a new district attorney would probably be elected soon. A change in the guard was inevitable, and Carrion had qualms about sticking around for the transition. (District Attorney Neal Pinkston was, in fact, ousted in May 2022.) What’s more, her heavy caseload, which often focused on violent crimes, was weighing on her. “I wanted to be able to maybe sleep a little bit more peacefully at night,” she says.
She’d also begun to notice that, across the street from the courthouse and the prosecutor’s office, Unum employees of all ages and ethnicities walked out of the building with smiles on their faces each day. “I started talking to people at Unum and realized that everybody stayed here for 25, 30, 35 years. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. They might have the secret sauce over there.’”
While keeping an eye on the company’s job openings on LinkedIn, Indeed and other digital sites, one day Carrion spotted a post for a claims litigator. “I was like, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ And somehow they loved me as much as I loved them, so I’m here.”
Overseeing outside counsel in the 48 contiguous states, she makes sure that all Unum claims resulting in lawsuits are handled properly, whether the case is resolved or heads to court.
The shift from criminal prosecutor to in-house civil litigator was, she says, “like hitting a wall. It was wild, because there isn’t a lot of overlap. Litigation is my wheelhouse. I was excited to do it at the D.A.’s office, and I’m excited to do it at Unum. But really, everything else is night and day. One of my biggest challenges coming to Unum was trying to understand an entirely new side of legal practice, and that was fun. By fun, I mean terrifying, but I think I’m doing OK.”
Her favorite part of the job also magnifies one of the differences from her previous work. At the district attorney’s office, she says, individual colleagues were always willing to sit and talk through a problem. Unum, she points out, is more broadly team-oriented and collaborative. “I have never felt, at Unum, like there was a question I couldn’t ask, a moment where I couldn’t reach out. Everybody’s willing to take their time to help me be as successful as I can be, which is super important for me because of the learning curve.”
Granted, it can be tricky to build strong relationships via computer – the litigation staff in Chattanooga and Portland, Maine, now work in a hybrid environment – but, she says, "Unum has developed this culture where it makes sense, and it's as seamless as it would be if they were sitting at the desk next to me."
To unwind, Carrion hikes and, on weekdays, escapes to the Tennessee Aquarium when she needs to quiet her thoughts. Before buying a house on Missionary Ridge, she’d spent most of her life bouncing from one place to another as a military brat and restless adult. “The intention, honestly, when I got here was to kind of get my reciprocity with neighboring states and just be on my way. And I found a real community that just felt right. Chattanooga is home.”
Eleven years after the shooting that almost killed her little sister, Carrion cherishes time with her parents, siblings and 2-year-old niece, who now live in Marietta, Georgia. “I think when you have moments where there is this kind of very abrupt message that there is the potential to lose somebody,” she says, “you just appreciate them way more.”