News

Sentencing, Recidivism Panel Meets for 2nd Time

A task force formed by Gov. Bill Haslam to examine Tennessee's sentencing structure and look at ways to reduce the state's high recidivism rate met for a second time this week, the Associated Press reports. In June, the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet announced a partnership with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice to review sentencing and correction policies and practices. The group is scheduled to meet again in January. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Execution Question

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to settle a dispute over whether the state must reveal the names of workers who carry out executions of death row inmates, the Associated Press reports. The issue is part of a lawsuit questioning whether the state's lethal injection and electrocution procedures are constitutional. Attorneys for the inmates say the information is needed to determine whether the workers are qualified. The court will hear arguments on Dec. 18. WATE News 6 has the story.

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10 Teens, 1 Adult Sentenced in Kroger Mob Attack

Shelby County Juvenile Court handed down its justice and rehabilitation plans yesterday for the 10 juveniles and one adult charged in the videotaped attack at a Memphis Kroger, the Commercial Appeal reports. The two teenagers who pleaded or were found guilty of aggravated assault were removed from their homes and placed in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services. Eight others who pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated riot were ordered to complete 40 hours of community service by August, write a letter of apology to the victims and stay in school and out of trouble. An 11th defendant is a 19-year-old adult whose case is being presented to a grand jury. 

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Shelby DA Offers Training for Truancy Mentors

The Shelby County District Attorney’s office is recruiting mentors to work with middle school students, parents and schools to decrease habitual truancy, reduce student contact with the juvenile justice system and reduce youth involvement in criminal activity and gangs. The office is sponsoring a training program this Saturday for those who are interested. The session will take place from 9 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at the Office of Youth Services and Community Affairs, 315 S. Hollywood at Central. Prospective mentors who plan to attend should notify program director Harold Collins, (901) 222-1395.

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Vanderbilt Rape Defense May Ask Judge to Recuse Himself

In the wake of several orders Monday on motions involving two of the four ex-Vanderbilt football players charged with rape, the defense team has hinted it might ask Judge Monte Watkins to recuse himself, WKRN reports. In one of the motions, Judge Watkins denied a request from Brandon Vandenburg's defense team to bar testimony from the alleged victim because she heard live video streaming of an earlier hearing. Defense attorneys for both Vandenburg and co-defendant Corey Batey said they did not know of the arrangement, which allowed the victim – who is also a witness – to hear the proceedings from a secure location. Vandenburg's lawyer John Herbison told News 2 that he has “concerns about the judge admitting receiving communication not disclosed to both sides.”

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Memphis Court Clerk Worker Indicted on Federal Charges

Tammy Brooks Carpenter, an employee of the Memphis City Court Clerk’s office, faces a federal charge of embezzlement for partially voiding payments of 188 traffic tickets and keeping some of the money drivers paid, the Memphis Daily News reports. The indictment returned by a federal grand jury on Tuesday alleges Carpenter embezzled about $24,000. Ed Stanton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said Carpenter was “targeting and preying upon vulnerable members of the Hispanic community,” in the scheme.

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Study: State ‘Among Most Restrictive’ for Restoring Felon Voting Rights

The Tennessee Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights has released a new report on the voting rights of ex-felons in Tennessee. The report, adopted unanimously by the committee, found that Tennessee’s ex-felon disenfranchisement laws are among the most restrictive in the nation; that the process for petitioning for the restoration of rights is “cumbersome and complicated”; and certain ex-felons are permanently barred from having their rights restored. The committee also found that the impact of these laws falls disproportionally on African Americans. It recommends that the General Assembly and governor work together to adopt less restrictive disenfranchisement laws.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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