News

State Fights to Block Access to Vanderbilt Rape Records

Attorney General Herbert Slatery has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court not to hear an appeal from a coalition of media agencies seeking the release of certain records in the Vanderbilt rape case. The Tennessean-led coalition in November requested the Supreme Court reverse lower-court decisions barring access to records such as third-party text messages and videos. The state's 14-page filing cites at least three other cases in which courts prevented review of third-party documents or entire court files while investigations were ongoing. The attorney general refutes claims from the media group that withholding the records would create a blanket exception to public records law.

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Obama Commutes Prison Sentences of 8 Federal Drug Offenders

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short the prison sentences of eight federal drug offenders, part of an administration initiative to foster equity in criminal sentencing, the Crossville Chronicle reports from the Washington Post. Four of the offenders had been sentenced to life in prison. All will be released next year. The commutations are part of an administration push to increase the number of clemency requests it reviews from low-level, nonviolent inmates - many of whom are serving long sentences based on tough federal sentencing guidelines that have since changed.

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Executions, Death Sentences Down in 2014

Executions and death sentences have fallen to levels not seen in decades, an anti-death penalty group says in a new report. The Death Penalty Information Center says 35 inmates were executed in 2014 and 71 have so far been given death sentences. That’s the fewest executions since 1994, and the fewest new death sentences in the 40 years that the center calls the modern death penalty era. WRCB has more.

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24th Judicial District DA Cuts Ties with TBI

District Attorney Matt Stowe of the 24th Judicial District has cut off all ties with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), News Channel 5 reports. Under state law, the TBI is only allowed to work on local cases at the request of the district attorney for the area where the crime occurred. Stowe’s action would mean that TBI agents will no longer be assigned to work that district, which includes Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin and Henry Counties. The TBI crime lab would also no longer be available to help local law enforcement, and TBI experts likely would not be able to testify in cases in that district.

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Hill Portrait Unveiled at Event Last Friday

Friends and colleagues gathered Friday at the Washington County Justice Center in Jonesborough to honor retired Criminal Court Judge Arden Hill and unveil his official portrait, the Johnson City Press reports. Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street organized the event, while Hill’s son, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hill, General Sessions Judge James Nidiffer, District Attorney General Tony and attorney Jim Bowman recalled the career and character of the retired judge. Hill was elected as a Carter County General Sessions judge in 1966 and then elected criminal court judge in 1974.

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Court Upholds N.C. Traffic Stop

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 today that police did not violate the constitutional rights of Nicholas Heien when they stopped his a car for a broken taillight and subsequently found a plastic bag containing cocaine. Heien was convicted of cocaine trafficking and on appeal argued that police had no legal right to stop him in the first place, because it is not an offense in North Carolina to have a single broken taillight. Because the traffic stop was illegal, he argued, the evidence from the search should not have been allowed at trial. The justices, however, found that the officer’s mistake was reasonable and therefore did not violate the constitution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a lone dissent, warned that the decision could exacerbate public suspicion of police. NPR has more on the decision.

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Judge Refuses Ex-Lawyer's Addiction Claim

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips refused former Knoxville lawyer John Oliver Threadgill’s bid to have the court amend a report to say that he was a longtime alcoholic in need of treatment. Threadgill is now blaming “alcohol use and addiction” as “factors” in his theft of client money and failure to pay the IRS more than $3 million in taxes and penalties, Knoxnews reports. The new report would have helped Threadgill get into a substance abuse program, which, if completed successfully, would earn him an early release.

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AG in Memphis Talking About Profiling

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Memphis today urging state and local law enforcement to develop rigorous policies regarding profiling, Knoxnews reports. The visit came just a day after the announcement of new guidelines limiting the ability of federal law enforcement agencies to profile on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics. Holder discussed the expanded ban at My Brother's Keeper Communities Challenge Summit in Memphis. He previously visited Atlanta and Cleveland to help local communities engage in a discussion about race and law enforcement reform.

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Haslam Addresses Public Safety Summit

While there has been progress in making Tennessee a safer state, much remains to be done, particularly on domestic violence, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday while kicking off a meeting of his public safety subcabinet in Nashville. The group, which Haslam formed four years ago, will focus on Tennessee’s sentencing laws, homeland security concerns, drug abuse and trafficking, the Associated Press reports. Haslam touted progress in reducing the number of domestic violence offenses in the state since 2010 (down nearly 14 percent) but said the state is 10th in the nation for domestic violence deaths and that rate is “still too high.” The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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New Policy Expands Ban on Profiling by Federal Law Enforcement

The Obama administration today issued new guidelines banning federal law enforcement from profiling on the basis of religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, the Associated Press reports. The move expands the current ban on profiling based on race or ethnicity. Civil rights advocates say they welcome the broader protections, but are disappointed that the rules do not apply to airport security and border checkpoints and are not binding on state and local police.

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Obama Responds to Public Perceptions of Local Police

President Barack Obama yesterday focused on issues associated with what appears to many to be the lack of public confidence in local law enforcement. After meeting with cabinet members, civil rights leaders and law enforcement, Obama said he wants to guard against a “militarized culture” within police departments, and proposed $263 million to fund body-worn cameras and  training for police. Responding to criticisms about a federal program that provides military-style equipment to local departments, the president directed agencies to consult with law enforcement and civil rights groups over the next four months to make sure the programs are accountable and transparent. Finally, Obama announced he would create a task force of law enforcement and community leaders to examine how to maintain public trust in community policing. Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking in Atlanta yesterday, said his department would update guidelines for federal law enforcement to end racial profiling “once and for all.” WRCB-TV has the Associated Press story.

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Court Vacates Execution Set for February

Today is the fifth anniversary of the execution of Cecil Johnson, the last inmate to be put to death in Tennessee. And it looks like it might be a while before another execution takes place. Last week, the state Supreme Court vacated the execution date for Stephen Michael West, who was set to die Feb. 10, 2015, the Tennessean reports. The move comes after West and nine other death-row inmates filed suit to challenge the state’s methods of execution. The court indicated it would set a new date after final disposition of the inmates’ suit. In related news, death row inmate Gregory Thompson, 52, died of natural causes last week, the Times News reports. Thompson, who was convicted in 1985, was the subject of a CBS 60 Minutes film about whether a state can medicate a mentally ill person enough to render them sane enough to be executed.

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Court OKs Use of Statement in Child Rape Case

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the state can use a child victim’s recorded video statement as evidence during prosecution of a defendant indicted on seven counts of rape. Reversing the trial court, the Supreme Court said that as long as the recorded video statement is relevant, meets certain statutory requirements and otherwise is in line with the Tennessee Rules of Evidence, its use would not violate constitutional principles. Use of the video had been challenged by the defendant. Read more from the AOC or download the opinion.

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Court: No New Cases Granted Cert

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued additional orders from its Nov. 25 conference but did not grant review to any new cases. It denied review to several appeals including an Arizona case testing whether an inmate was entitled to a federal court hearing on whether the judge who presided at his trial was biased against him; a case seeking to clarify whether police can make a brief stop and engage in limited questioning of a person seen leaving a home about to be searched; and one of two cases looking at whether a company accused of inducing a patent infringement claim can use as a defense a belief that the patent was not valid. SCOTUSblog has more on those decisions. Monday also was the first day of the court’s December sitting. The hearing list for the month is available here.

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Officials Seal UT Rape Investigation Records

Knox County judicial officials on Monday sealed all documents detailing investigative information gathered in a rape probe of two University of Tennessee football players. The move was designed to justify requests for search warrants for one player’s apartment and DNA samples from both, Knoxnews reports. A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams are listed as suspects in the alleged rape of a 19-year-old college student. No charges have been filed.

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District Attorney Beefs Up Domestic Violence Team

District Attorney General Glenn Funk has hired two new investigators to bolster prosecution of domestic violence cases, the Tennessean reports. Tim Dickerson and Terry Faimon, both former court officers, will boost the domestic violence team to the largest group in the office. Among their tasks, the pair will conduct investigations, pick up victims who need to be in court, network with community support groups and remove guns from people found guilty of domestic violence crimes.

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Perry March Speaks From Prison

The Janet March murder case ranks among the most notorious in Nashville history because – though her husband was convicted of the murder – the body was never found. Now, for the first time in years, Perry March is talking and NewsChannel 5 has the exclusive interview. According to the station, March has only one appeal left and he says he is taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Alleged Affair with Judge Spurs Call for New Trial

A Chattanooga attorney testified yesterday that Cindy Richardson, the former victim/witness coordinator in the local district attorney’s office, admitted to him that she was having an affair with Criminal Court Judge Steve Bevil while her office was prosecuting a murder in Bevil’s court. Attorneys for the defendant are raising the issue in an attempt to seek a new trial for their client. Judge Bevil died in 2005 after a long bout with cancer. Richardson was fired from the district attorney’s office after attending a District Attorneys Conference in Memphis, where,  she said, “there was a lot of alcohol.” Chattanooga.com reports.

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NBA Seeking Lawyers to Represent Protestors

The National Bar Association (NBA) is seeking attorneys who are licensed to practice in Missouri or are willing to be admitted on a Pro Hac Vice basis to assist those arrested during protests related to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Services include conducting jail visits or providing legal advice and/or representation. To learn more about ways to help contact Aramis Donell Ayala, chair of the NBA Pro Bono Committee.

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Ferguson Grand Jury Decision Due Tonight

A grand jury investigating the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has reached a decision whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson, USA Today reports. The decision will be announced sometime after 5 p.m. Central, according to prosecutor Robert McCulloch. The Daily News Journal has more.

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Longtime Public Defender Dies in Tullahoma

Longtime public defender Bethel Campbell Smoot died yesterday (Nov. 18) at his home, according to the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference. Smoot served as the 14th Judicial District public defender representing Coffee County for 25 years. He was first appointed to the post in 1989 by then-governor Ned McWherter and was re-elected without opposition in subsequent years. Smoot earned his undergraduate degree in forestry and a master’s in wood technology, and worked as a land surveyor and instructor at the Auburn University Department of Forestry before attending law school. Smoot graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1972 and worked as an assistant district attorney general for one year and then joined the Tullahoma firm of Hanes, Hull, Smoot & Reider until being named to the public defender post. Smoot completed two terms as president of the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference and served on the TBA Board of Governors during those years as the group’s representative. A 2013 profile in the Tullahoma News captured Smoot's commitment to and pride in his work. Funeral information was pending at press time, though the Kilgore Funeral Home in Tullahoma will be handling arrangements.

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TBI Labs Receive New, High-Level Accreditation

After an assessment by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has obtained new accreditations for its forensic facilities in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville. TBI facilities are now internationally accredited in Breath Alcohol Calibration and have been upgraded to an “International” testing facility, Chattanoogan.com reports.

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Jury Rejects ‘Driving While Fatigued’ as Crime

The state legislature may decide to consider whether driving while fatigued should be a crime like drunken driving, but a Sevier County jury has soundly rejected that argument, Knoxnews reports. Prosecutors had charged Shaun Russell Dunlap with three counts of vehicular homicide and argued that his decision to drive while drowsy was a “gross deviation” from the ordinary standard of care a motorist should exercise. “This is an unusual case because there have been very few [prosecutions for] sleep deprivation across the U.S., and those have had mixed results,” said Maryville attorney Joe Costner, who successfully defended Dunlap.

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New Sentencing Hearing Ordered Due to Ineffective Counsel

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld death row inmate Jerry Ray Davidson’s conviction for first-degree murder, but ordered a new sentencing hearing after finding that Davidson's lawyers did not properly represent him during the sentencing phase of the trial. Davidson was convicted of the 1995 murder of Virginia Jackson in Dickson. At the time of his trial, defense attorneys possessed numerous records documenting his troubled background and history of mental illness. During the sentencing hearing, however, they failed to provide the jury with any of this evidence. In ordering a new sentencing hearing, the court ruled that defense attorneys in death penalty cases have a constitutional duty to collect and present to the jury any “mitigation evidence” that could help the jury assess the defendant’s moral culpability. Download the majority opinion and a separate opinion from Justice Gary Wade concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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Dyer Named Shelby County Attorney

Ross Dyer, the lead Memphis attorney for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, will take over as Shelby County attorney on Dec. 1. His appointment was announced by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and is subject to confirmation by the county commission. Dyer replaces Marcy Ingram, who has been serving as interim county attorney since December 2013. Ingram will resume her duties as deputy county attorney. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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