News

Hearing Date Set in Vanderbilt Rape Case

A status hearing has been set in rape cases against Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, two former Vanderbilt University football players who were convicted in January, but got a new trial because of an issue related to a juror’s bias. The Tennessean reports that the hearing has been set for Sept. 11 before Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins. Defense attorneys have previously said they will consider filling motions to change the second trial's location or bring in a jury from outside Davidson County.

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Request Denied for Video Evidence Before Preliminary Hearing

Shelby County General Sessions Judge Loyce Lambert Ryan blocked efforts by defense attorneys for Tremaine Wilbourn to receive video evidence before the preliminary hearing, The Daily Times reports. Wilbourn is charged with the Aug. 1 killing of Memphis police officer Sean Bolton. Judge Ryan said subpoenas seeking Bolton’s daily log and video materials, including dashboard video, were premature.

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Pope Could Address Criminal Justice Reform in U.S. Visit

Pope Francis will address congress during next month’s visit to the United States, and he could raise the issue of reforming the U.S. penal system, Yahoo Politics reports. “What we’re really hoping for are some specific United States statements,” said Karen Clifton, the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death-penalty group. “We do incarcerate per capita more than anyone else in the world. He’s got to bring those facts to life.” 

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Rule Change Package Released for Review, Comment

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 dismiss appeals; provisions permitting electronic signatures in courts employing electronic filing; clarification of the effect of service of process on commencement of actions; adoption of the term preliminary hearing in lieu of preliminary examination in criminal procedure; and, refinement of procedure for correction of illegal sentences in criminal cases. The are no evidence rules changes proposed this year. A 90-page comprehensive restructuring and revision of the Rules of Juvenile Procedure is also included.

Six TBA sections -- Appellate Practice, Litigation, Tort and Insurance Law , Family Law, Juvenile and Children’s Law and Criminal Justice -- will be asked to review the proposed amendments and recommend comments on behalf of the association. Comments on the proposals are due to the Court by November 25, 2015.

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State Requests Agency to Review Prison System

The state of Tennessee requested an independent accrediting agency to review certain practices and policies within the state prison system, The Tennessean reports. Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield asked the American Correctional Association to conduct the review. The agency will focus its review on five of the state’s 13 prisons, reviewing officer schedules and how the state classifies assaults or attacks within prisons.

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DA Names Escobar to Lead Domestic Violence Team

Attorney Ana Escobar was appointed by District Attorney Glenn Funk to lead the DA’s domestic violence unit in prosecuting cases and assisting victims. Escobar was sworn in as assistant district attorney in March. She previously served as deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

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Some Judges Questioning How Defendants are Punished

Some judges across the country are pushing for a reassessment of how defendants are punished, adding to the nation’s conversation and debate regarding the criminal-justice system and high prison population. “Judges are moved by the broader public conversation about the need for reforms, and certain ones say, ‘That broader conversation ought to be reflected in the work I do, not just in the work that the political branch does.’” The New York Times highlights cases where United States judges asked for alternative or edited sentences.

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Warden Wants Prison Staff Schedules to Remain Confidential

West Tennessee State Penitentiary Warden James M. Holloway said correctional officers should be detained if they remove scheduling information from prison grounds, The Tennessean reports. “While such may be an attempt to help their cause, it is not authorized and can compromise the security and safety of staff who are working,” Holloway wrote in a letter. Multiple media sources used scheduling information to highlight staffing issues at Tennessee prisons. 

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Wicks Seeks Criminal Court Judge Appointment

Jeff Wicks has applied for the Ninth Judicial District criminal court judge seat that is being vacated by E. Eugene Eblen, according to the Roane County News. Wicks has been a general sessions court judge in Roane County since 2006. “I enjoy criminal law, and I believe that my background and experience have prepared me for this position,” he said.

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Judge Says Tennessee's Lethal Injection Protocol is Constitutional

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled Wednesday that the state’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional, The Tennesean reports. Bonnyman said a group of condemned inmates and their attorneys did not prove during trial that the single lethal-injection protocol creates risk of cruel and unusual harm. The decision does not immediately allow executions to resume after a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling earlier this year put them on hold until the final disposition of the case.

The ruling comes the same day as U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state of Mississippi from using two drugs – pentobarbital or midazolam – in executions, The Commercial Appeal reports. Prisoners there also claimed they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution. 

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Prison Officials Acknowledge Mistakes in Reporting

The Tennessee Department of Correction acknowledged in a letter given to lawmakers that “mistakes in the review of incidents do happen”, but continued to defend its controversial 28-day work schedule, the Tennessean reports. Commissioner Derrick Schofield and other department officials met with lawmakers Monday to discuss the scheduling system after officers and inmates said the staffing issues are leading to less safe prisons. A Senate hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday.

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Church Will Become Courtroom, Offer Fugitives Second Chance

Non-violent fugitives who accept responsibility for their actions could appear before a judge and be sent home the same day at the upcoming Fugitive Safe Surrender event Sept. 18-19 in Nashville, Memphis Daily News reports. Galilee Missionary Baptist Church will be turned into a courtroom thanks to volunteers, but police say there are no religious requirements. "It is very important that Nashville's citizens understand that this is a genuine special one-time opportunity for wanted persons to stop looking over their shoulders and clear up outstanding arrest warrants," Chief Steve Anderson said in a statement.

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Lawsuit Could Impact Life Sentences, Attorney Says

Is life without the possibility of parole for 51 years essentially the same thing as life without parole? That's the question a lawsuit filed in Davidson Chancery Court seeks to have answered, the Nashville Scene reports. Nashville lawyer David Raybin is a consultant in the case, and he tells the Scene that there is no practical difference between life with parole or without because the minimum far exceeds most estimated life spans for prisoners. “The case would have enormous implications if it were successful,” Raybin said. More than 1,900 prisoners in Tennessee are serving life sentences that make them eligible for parole after 51 years, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

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No Applications Yet for Criminal Court Judge Seat

Roane County News reports no applications have been received for the 9th Judicial District Criminal Court judge seat. Judge E. Eugene Eblen will retire at the end of the year after holding the position since 1978. The Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments will recommend three candidates for Gov. Haslam's consideration from candidates who have applied by Sept. 1. The seat will be on the ballot in the August 2016 election.

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4 Sullivan County Magistrates Appointed

Sullivan County Commissioners appointed four magistrates to make the county compliant with a state law requiring criminal warrants issued during non-business hours to be performed by a neutral party. The magistrates will be responsible for meeting face-to-face with arresting officers at night and on holidays to determine probable cause exists to secure the issue of an arrest warrant, The Kingsport Times-News reports. Lowell “Butch” Adkins, Joseph Harrison, Eric Senter and John D. Parker Jr. assume their duties Sept. 1.

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Court of Appeals Overturns 4 Nashville Criminal Cases

Prosecutorial misconduct and errors are behind three of the four recent cases overturned by The Tennessee Supreme Court of Appeals, The Tennessean reports. Legal analysts cited by the newspaper said it was also a large number of cases to be overturned in roughly one month. The cases were State of Tennessee v. Adam Wayne Robinson, State of Tennessee v. Deandre D. Rucker, State of Tennessee v. James Thomas Jr, and State of Tennessee v. Donald W. Higgins, III. The court ordered new trials in three of the cases and threw out the conviction in a child neglect case.  

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'Just Mercy' Author to Speak at Knox PD Anniversary

Bryan Stevenson, New York Times Best Selling Author of “Just Mercy," will be the featured speaker at the upcoming 25th anniversary celebration of the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University School of Law. The event is planned for Nov. 9, 7 – 9:30 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Knoxville. Tickets can be purchased online

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Lt. Gov. Calls for More Action on Prison Staffing Problem

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, is calling recent attempts to fill more than 300 vacant correctional officer positions a “Band-Aid” approach, according to The Tennessean. The Department of Corrections announced Thursday it will pay new officers a $600 signing bonus and offer a $100 referral bonus starting Aug. 17. Gov. Bill Hassam and department Commissioner Derrick Schofield have downplayed the effects of the worker shortage, but Ramsey said, “When there’s this much smoke, there’s usually fire somewhere.”

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Injunction Bars DAs from Enforcing Abortion Clinic Law

U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp issued a preliminary injunction today barring district attorneys in Davidson and Sullivan counties from enforcing a new abortion clinic law, the Tennessean reports. The decision comes after the prosecutors were unwilling to submit a written statement that they would not enforce the law. Sharp had lifted a temporary restraining order on Monday but made its fate contingent on the DAs pledge not to prosecute.

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Government, Judges Clash Over Mug Shot Privacy

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the government must release mug shots of federal criminals in four states, including Tennessee. However, the panel encouraged the U.S. Justice Department to ask the full court to take a look at the issue given that online technology has changed since the 1996 ruling used as a precedent for the decision. Memphis Daily News has more.

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Nashville Peer Court Educating Students, Saving Money

Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Shelia Calloway conducted training at Lipscomb University in Nashville for her court’s Peer-Driven Youth Justice program, which offers an alternative to juvenile courts. Participating students learn about court proceedings including courtroom etiquette and sentence determination. Calloway estimates that the program has saved more than $1 million by keeping juveniles out of the court system. The AOC has more on the story.

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Gangs Big Contributors to Youth Crimes, Judge Says

Gangs are alive and are actively recruiting young people in Chattanooga, Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw told members of the Pachyderm Club on Monday. He said gangs use children to commit crimes because adult gang members would face felony charges if arrested. They convince youth they will not. In reality, Philyaw said he transfers one or two juvenile cases a week to adult courts. "It breaks my heart literally every time," he said. Chattanoogan.com has more.

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Groups Attack Task Force Report on Sentencing

Groups that represent African-Americans, prison inmates and defendants are saying they were locked out of a state task force on repeat offenders, Nashville Public Radio reports. The task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam last week recommended longer prison stays for those convicted three or more times for burglary, drug trafficking or domestic violence. It also proposed changing state law to provide “truth in sentencing” so that convictions result in a clear minimum period of incarceration.

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Law Enforcement Academy Coming to McMinn County

The McMinn County Sheriff’s Department is partnering with Tennessee Wesleyan College to offer a Citizen’s Law Enforcement Academy this fall, Chattanoogan.com reports. The free academy will focus on the policies and operations of criminal justice agencies.

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Prison Director Defends Safety, Staffing

Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield disputes claims of overcrowded prisons, staffing problems and increased violence previously reported in the Tennessean. Appearing Monday in front of lawmakers, Schofield acknowledged that pay does not increase for correction officers’ overtime shifts and some employees are working consecutive 16-hour-a-day shifts, but said prisons are safer than when he took over the department, the Tennessean reports.

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