News

2 in Vandy Rape Case Will Be Tried Together

Judge Monte Watkins today issued several rulings in the rape case against former Vanderbilt University football players, but most significantly, he denied a request to try co-dependents separately. Monday's ruling means Corey Batey and co-defendant Brandon Vandenburg will be tried together, beginning Nov. 3. Vandenburg and Batey have been accused, along with two other former Vanderbilt football players, of raping a woman on campus last year. A date has not been set for the other two defendants. NewsChannel5 has the story.

read more »

Memphis Officials Look for Help with Backlog of Rape Kits

Law enforcement and public officials from Memphis and Detroit are gathering in Cleveland this week to share experience and collaborate as part of a first-ever Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Summit, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Each of these cities faces challenges with testing, investigating and prosecuting decades-old rape cases. Officials say they hope the partnerships they form will allow them to jointly collect data and pave the way for other cities just beginning to uncover and tackle their own backlogs. Of the three cities, Memphis has the most untested kits -- 12,164 dating back to 1976.

read more »

Belmont Justice Award Goes to Death Penalty Reformer

The Belmont University College of Law recently presented the 2014 Champions for Justice Award to Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, the nonprofit furthers prison and sentencing reform with a focus on the death penalty and the mass incarceration of people of color. Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Government. In addition to directing the Equal Justice Initiative, he has been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan School of Law and lecturer at Harvard and Yale law schools. He is the third recipient of the award. See photos from the award presentation.

read more »

Court Declines to Hear ‘Acquitted Conduct’ Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to take up a case involving so-called acquitted conduct, in which defendants are sentenced based on charges they are acquitted of in trial. In the case before the court, three defendants had been convicted of distributing crack cocaine, but acquitted of more serious charges of being part of a drug conspiracy. When it came time for sentencing, however, the trial judge added at least 15 years to each man’s prison term based on the conspiracy charges. Lawyers for the defendants called the practice “Kafkaesque.” Three of the justices voted to hear the case to decide whether judges have discretion to lengthen prison terms in such circumstances. WRCB-TV has more from the Associated Press.

read more »

Rutherford County ADA Dismissed After Court Altercation

Rutherford County Assistant District Attorney Laural Hemenway was fired last week after a verbal altercation with Circuit Court Judge Keith Siskin in September, that led to an official complaint from the judge about her behavior in the courtroom, the Daily News Journal reports. According to the paper, Hemenway had previously agreed not to ask a rape defendant about a past arrest but then did so in open court. The action led Siskin to call for a mistrial. Hemenway then allegedly accused Siskin of sexism and running a courtroom that was a “hostile environment for a female.” Hemenway now claims the firing was based on her age and health issues rather than the exchange in court. On the same day Hemenway was fired, circuit court cases were reassigned with Judge Royce Taylor taking over the criminal docket and Siskin taking over civil cases.

read more »

U.S. Attorney: Justice System Needs to Catch Up with the Times

U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III spoke in Memphis Thursday about youth violence, WREG reports. Stanton says it’s time for a change in the justice system because Memphis, and the rest of Shelby County can’t arrest their way out of violence. He argued mass incarceration has never made our streets safer. Stanton brushed off suggestions the Department of Justice mandate that gives most kids court summons instead of jail time is leading to more violent crime, stating this mandate protects kids from a potentially racially biased system.

read more »

Knox DA Announces New Initiatives

Newly elected Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen has started restructuring the DA’s office to have more specialized prosecutors, WBIR.com reports. New groups will focus on gangs and career criminals, serious felonies and drug prosecutions. Several smaller units will focus on issues such as child abuse, domestic violence and elder violence. Allen says the restructuring will give victims a sense of continuity as they meet with the same prosecutors over the course of their case. Allen also has announced she is starting a community outreach program to find ways to stop crime in specific neighborhoods.

read more »

Shelby DA Asks for Additional Resources

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich says her office needs a larger budget and additional staff to effectively combat crime, which includes operating a number of youth crime prevention programs. Weirich told the county commission’s law enforcement committee this week that her office has not received additional staff since 2007 and no new prosecutors since 2009. Enforcement and holding people accountable is “job one,” she said. “But, but, but, but, there also has to be much focus and much commitment to prevention and to intervention because arrest alone is not going to solve many of the issues that we deal with in this community.” Read the full interview in the Commercial Appeal.

read more »

Memphis Gets $900,000 Grant for Domestic Violence Work

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the City of Memphis $900,000 to help cover the costs of processing rape kits and domestic violence cases. WREG reports that more than half of the money will go to the local district attorney’s office so it can assign a designated investigator to process rape and domestic violence cases. 

read more »

Court Opens Term with Case on Police Actions

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its new term Monday with a case questioning whether a police officer’s misunderstanding of the law can justify a traffic stop that led to the seizure of illegal drugs. A divided North Carolina Supreme Court said the mistake was reasonable enough to justify the routine traffic stop and refused to toss out the drug evidence. Other actions today included decisions to leave in place the conviction of a Massachusetts man who argued his online activities were free speech, not support for al-Qaida; reject an appeal to South Carolina’s redrawn state house and congressional maps; and not hear an appeal from a lawyer/activist who claimed a federal judge ruled against him because of personal bias.

The court did grant review in a number of cases, including a challenge to Abercrombie & Fitch’s decision to not hire a Muslim teen because her hijab was deemed inconsistent with the company’s dress code; a question of federal litigation fee awards; a case involving ERISA plan fiduciaries; and whether discrimination claims brought under the Fair Housing Act can be based on proof of disparate impact rather than intentional discrimination. WATE News 6, WRCB News 3, Bloomberg News and the ABA Journal have more on each of these cases.

read more »

New 3rd District DA Building Team

Newly elected Third Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong is busy building a team of prosecutors to handle Hawkins County criminal cases, The latest addition came Wednesday, when Akiah Highsmith was sworn in by Judge John Dugger. Read more about the new DA’s plans in the Kingsport TimesNews.

read more »

Assistant DA Ready for Next Phase of Life

After 32 years as a deputy district attorney general of the Ninth Judicial District, Frank Harvey is ready for a change. And the 62-year-old has a full slate of activities planned to keep him busy after his last day on the job tomorrow, the Lenoir City News-Herald reports. “I love my work. I love what I do, but I always knew I wanted to retire earlier than some and planned for it and look forward to it,” Harvey said.

read more »

Survey: Justice System Contributes to Unemployment Problem

Has the U.S. justice system contributed to the nation's unemployment problems? Survey data from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers suggests that more than half of released ex-offenders remain unemployed up to a year after their release from custody. Nearly 65 million Americans have a criminal record, and this carries with it potential mandatory restrictions on jobs, housing, education and public assistance. The federal government and every state imposes some sort of “collateral consequence” to arrests or convictions. Some of these restrictions make sense -- but some may not, The Daily Herald reports in a Washington Post story.

read more »

Hamilton County Starts Cold Case Unit

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston is launching a new multiagency division to investigate cold cases, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. The unit will start working on cold homicide cases where there is some evidence to go on, Pinkston said, whether that's witnesses or physical evidence. Old DNA evidence may be retested with new techniques; also, he said sometimes witnesses are more willing to talk after years have gone by. Chattanooga police have 113 unsolved homicides recorded between 1976 and Jan. 1, 2014.

read more »

Court Denies Access to Records in Vandy Rape Case

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has denied access to records related to a Vanderbilt University rape case in which four former football players await a November trial, the Tennessean reports. At issue during oral arguments in June was how the state's laws on open records, fair trials and victims' privacy rights intersect as cases move through the courts. The three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that records sought by The Tennessean and a media coalition should not be made public because they are part of a continuing police investigation. The publication’s news director said they are considering an appeal.

read more »

AG Eric Holder to Leave Post

Eric H. Holder Jr., who made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general, plans to leave his post as soon as a successor is confirmed, the Washington Post reports today. His departure was not unexpected. Holder drew tributes from Democrats and others, who called him an influential proponent of civil rights and criminal justice reform, but also criticism from Republicans, who have blasted him as a liberal activist focused more on pursuing his own agenda than enforcing the law.

read more »

Federal Prison Population Drops

The federal prison population has dropped this year by roughly 4,800 inmates — the first decline in decades, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday at a criminal justice conference in New York City. 
With more population drops expected in the future, Holder says law enforcement needs to measure success by more than just prosecutions and convictions, WRCB has more.

read more »

Memphis Couple Donates $10K to Test Rape Kits

A Memphis couple has donated $10,000 to help process untested rape kits in their hometown, News Channel 3 reports. Developer Nick Brown, who builds homes with safe rooms, said he and his wife Tracey made the donation because they “just felt it had to be done.” A total of $3.75 million is still needed to finish the testing. In addition to the Brown’s contribution, the state has chipped in $500,000, the city has kicked in $1.5 million and the Plough Foundation has given $750,000. There may new federal resources on the way as well. Last week, Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation renewing funding for states to process untested rape kits. 

read more »

Court Clerk Must Shut Down Bonding Business, Judge Rules

Recently elected Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell must shut down her family's Rutherford County bail bonding business to comply with state law, a judge ruled Wednesday. Senior Judge Ben Cantrell of Nashville, who presided over the case because all local judges had recused themselves, said the law prohibits any Circuit Court clerk from being able to benefit from the issuance of a bond, which is a conflict of interest.

read more »

Court Seeks Comments on Rule Change Package

The Tennessee Supreme Court has published the annual package of recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rules of Procedure and Evidence. Proposals include new authority for appellate courts to suspend rules; requirements for electronic copies of transcripts; specification of the color of application responses and amici in TRAP 9 and 11 matters; and refinement of criminal contempt provisions. Four TBA sections — Appellate Practice, Litigation, Tort and Insurance Law, and Criminal Justice — will review the recommendations and propose comments on behalf of the association. Comments on the proposals are due Nov. 27.

read more »

Death Row Inmates Contest Electric Chair

Ten death row inmates already challenging Tennessee's lethal injection protocol were permitted by a judge yesterday to amend their lawsuit to include objections to the use of the electric chair, the Tennessean reports. The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year allowing prisoners to be electrocuted if Tennessee Department of Correction officials were unable to obtain the drug used for lethal injection. The death row plaintiffs say the new law violates the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions. Among other things, they say it violates evolving standards of decency and that the law is too vague.

read more »

DOJ Partners with Researchers to Address Police Bias

Broadening its push to improve police relations with minorities, the U.S. Justice Department has enlisted a team of criminal justice researchers to study racial bias in law enforcement in five American cities and recommend strategies to address the problem nationally, Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week. The police shooting of an 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, underscored the need for the long-planned initiative, Holder said in an interview with the Associated Press. The program will involve training police officers on issues of racial bias, data analysis and interviewing community members. 

read more »

Slatery Addresses Amendment 2, Upcoming Term

Newly appointed state Attorney General Herbert Slatery was in Knoxville yesterday with former Gov. Phil Bredesen campaigning for Amendment 2 to the state constitution. When asked by reporters how he would differ from his predecessor, Slatery said, “I think I will do it differently, which is not to say better. I am a people person. I like to build relationships.” Slatery also said he will spend time talking to legislators. “I want to see all of the sides of an issue,” he explained. Finally, he pledged the office would continue fighting Medicare fraud and protecting consumers. Knoxnews has more.

read more »

Recidivism Among Key Topics During Hearings

The Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee held two hearings this week to discuss criminal justice reform in the state. Led by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the group focused on what other states are doing and what Tennessee should do to reduce prison populations and recidivism. The committee heard from a wide range of interest groups on the matter, from the ACLU of Tennessee on the left to the nonpartisan VERA Institute of Justice in the middle to the conservative Heritage Foundation on the right. Oddly enough, the groups agreed on many of the fixes, the Tennessean reports. They also share the view that Tennessee has a criminal justice problem: it locks up more people than most states but had the highest rate of violent crime in 2012.

read more »

Death Row Inmate Asks Court to Postpone Execution Date

Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick is asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to postpone his Oct. 7 execution pending the outcome of a challenge to Tennessee's execution protocol, WRCB reports. Last December, the court moved Irick's execution date from January to October because of the pending lawsuit. Irick and nine other death row inmates are challenging the state's new one-drug lethal injection protocol, which replaces a three-drug protocol. The attorney general's office argues that other states have found similar one-drug protocols to be constitutional.

read more »