News

Lawyers Observe Criminal Court with Eye to Reform

Earlier this week, lawyers who do not typically handle criminal defense work sat in Nashville courtrooms and watched how domestic violence and misdemeanor arrests were handled. The 15 lawyers fanned out among five courtrooms to observe whether defendants had lawyers and knew about their rights, and whether judges were asking about people’s financial status and ability to pay fines. The day was sponsored by ArchCity Defenders, a pro bono law firm in St. Louis. The Tennessean reports that the ABA is evaluating the program to see if it should be expanded to other cities.

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Man Charged with Threatening Federal Officials, Courthouse

A Murfreesboro man appeared in federal court Friday afternoon to face charges that he threatened to shoot up a courthouse and kill a U.S. congresswoman and senator from Hawaii, the Tennessean reports. Kaehiokahouna Stewart was arrested at his home. Court documents indicate Stewart went so far as to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii to carry out his plan. The government also alleges that Stewart sent threatening emails and posted threatening videos on Instagram specifically targeting the legislators.

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Court Dismisses Funk Lawsuit Because of Missed Filing

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk and Metro government because the lawyer who filed the case missed a deadline to provide information, the Tennessean reports. The lawyer for Nashville developer David Chase is asking for another chance, saying he made an honest mistake by following the rules of the District Court of Eastern Tennessee instead of Middle Tennessee. The case relates to Chase’s arrest on domestic violence charges. In the suit, he alleges that Funk spread false information about him and pressured him to drop a lawsuit against Nashville police.

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New Justice Center to Include Mental Health Unit

With demolition work being done at the former Davidson County Criminal Justice Center, the county sheriff is sharing plans to include a mental health unit in the new jail. “You wouldn’t be booked, you wouldn’t be charged criminally,” Daron Hall said. Plans call for a 64-bed facility to house those arrested for misdemeanor charges and flagged during a mental health evaluation, News Channel 5 reports. About $10 million from the project’s overall $113 million budget was set aside for the mental health unit. The center is expected to open in 2019.

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Chattanooga Attorney Ordered to Undergo Mental Health Evaluation

After taking the witness stand and claiming “a whole lot of attorneys are out to hurt me,” Chattanooga lawyer Matthew Jack Fitzharris was deemed not competent to stand trial, the Times Free Press reports. Fitzharris was arrested in July for breaking into an elderly couple’s house and threatening to kill them. On the stand, he said an attorney tapped his phone, killed his close personal assistant, and killed the wife of a man he was representing. He also accused several Chattanooga attorneys and judges of conspiring against him. The Georgia court ordered him to complete a 90-day evaluation at a mental health facility. Until that review is finished, he will not be forced to answer any charge.

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Lawyer Calls ADA’s Oversight ‘Inadvertent Mistake’

Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Stephen P. Jones is facing misconduct charges before the Board of Professional Responsibility, with the board alleging that as co-counsel in the prosecution of Noura Jackson he failed to disclose to the defense a third statement from one of the prosecution witnesses. The board is also pursuing a separate proceeding alleging that lead counsel and District Attorney Amy Weirich improperly commented on Jackson’s right to remain silent. The Tennessee Supreme Court threw out Jackson’s murder conviction. After Jones did not agree to a public censure, the board filed a petition for discipline against him. Jones’ lawyer argued this week that Jones is entitled to summary judgment because the record demonstrates only an inadvertent mistake and no ethical misconduct, The Commercial Appeal reports.

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County Can’t Use Federal Grant to Compel Victims’ Testimony

The grant Washington County uses to prosecute domestic violence cases prohibits the district attorney’s office from forcing victims to participate in criminal proceedings, according to News Channel 11. The $216,000, three-year STOP Domestic Violence Against Women grant funds the district’s domestic violence prosecutor through June 2018. Channel 11 reporters had earlier found that more than a dozen victims were held in contempt of court after they failed to appear in court and testify. Domestic violence prevention advocate Lynn Armstrong says she is still in shock from learning about the contempt charges. “It is never OK to arrest victims for not showing up to court, because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.

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Cleveland Law Office Attacked

The Cleveland law office of Chancey, Kanavos, Love & Painter was the target of an attack earlier this week, WDEF.com reports. No one was inside the building when shots were fired through the windows. Investigators say the shooting likely happened between 8:30 and 10 p.m. Tuesday, but no one knew about it until an employee arrived to work Wednesday. Attorney Scott Kanavos called on the shooter to cooperate with law enforcement or to reach out to the law firm. “Come to us and cooperate and admit to what you did. We will do everything in our power to assist and intervene with law enforcement to make sure that we can reach a fair, just settlement of this case,” he said.

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Conservative Forum Focuses on Criminal Justice Reform

Conservatives gathered in Nashville Wednesday for a conversation over criminal justice reform, the Tennessean reports. Attendees discussed topics ranging from curbing court fees that prevent people from obtaining driver’s licenses to providing jobs for people who are released from prison. Panelists also showed support for decriminalizing minor, non-violent offenses as a way to cut down the state’s prison population. “It’s important that conservatives understand the reality of our criminal justice system,” said Justin Owen, president and CEO of the conservative think tank the Beacon Center of Tennessee. “We want conservatives to understand what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years isn’t working.” The event was hosted by the Charles Koch Institute.

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DA Dunavant Wins Traffic Safety Award

The director of the Tennessee Highway Safety Office presented his annual Director’s Award to 25th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Dunavant at the 29th Annual Tennessee Lifesavers Conference in Murfreesboro. Dunavant was honored for his support of laws aimed at increasing highway traffic safety and prosecutions for those who violate the laws. Local Memphis has the news.

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Election Officials to Probe ‘Stand for Children’

Tennessee election officials have launched an investigation into allegations against Stand For Children and several Nashville school board candidates the group supported this year. The Registry of Election Finance determined today there were enough questions to investigate a complaint filed by Tennessee Citizen Action and a Nashville public school parent alleging that Stand For Children’s political action committee illegally coordinated with several pro-charter school candidates during the election. The Tennessean has more on the story.

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Lawmakers Fix DUI Law, Close Special Session

Tennessee lawmakers today approved changes to a DUI law that will preserve the state’s access to $60 million in federal funding, the Tennessean reports. The Senate approved the measure on a vote of 31-1 this morning. During the debate, several senators entertained the idea of sending the federal government a bill to pay for the $25,000-a-day special session. The House later approved the bill on an 85-2 vote. Both chambers concluded their work around 10:30 a.m.

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Court to Hear 7 New Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review of seven new cases dealing with a range of issues, including length of jury deliberations, identity of criminal offenses, repairmen’s liens, GTLA liability, ecclesiastical abstention and vicarious liability. The Raybin Supreme Court Hotlist reviews the cases and offers a prediction as to how each case may be decided.

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Civil Suit Filed Over Ooltewah Rape Case

Alleging a long and violent history of hazing and sexual abuse of male student athletes, attorneys for a freshman attacked in December 2015 have filed a federal lawsuit against the Hamilton County Board of Education and former Ooltewah High School employees. The suit accuses administrators and staff of knowing abuse was taking place and failing to protect students, the Times Free Press reports. The plaintiff in the case, listed as John Doe, was raped during the basketball team’s trip to Gatlinburg. Three of the victim’s former teammates were convicted Aug. 30 in connection with the rape. All three are scheduled to be sentenced later this month.

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State Appeals Sentence in Batey Rape Case

Prosecutors have asked for a new sentencing hearing for former Vanderbilt University football player Cory Batey, who is serving a 15-year prison term for the rape of an unconscious woman more than three years ago. Prosecutors argue they were not given notice of 11 emails and letters sent directly to Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins in support of Batey, and were not allowed to contest the appropriateness of the letters. They also are asking for a new judge to hear their appeal, the Tennessean reports.

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Sponsor of DUI Law Sorry for Special Session

The sponsor of the drunken driving law that forced state lawmakers to return to the Capitol this week for a special session says he is sorry. Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, tells Nashville Public Radio that his goal all along was to make it tougher on underage drivers convicted of DUIs. Though he still thinks 18 to 21 year olds should face up to 48 hours in jail if arrested for drunken driving, he is going along with the move to repeal the law given the time constraints. Federal authorities have given the state until the end of the month to fix DUI laws or lose $60 million in highway funds.

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Nashville Funds Legal Aid’s Work Against Domestic Violence

The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands will receive $186,500 from the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County for the current fiscal year. The grant will fund services to survivors of domestic violence, including legal representation, attendance at order of protection hearings, and community education. Last year, the group used similar funding to provide legal assistance to 279 domestic violence victims, attend 136 court dockets where order of protection petitions and related motions were heard, and publish more than 1,150 educational materials and self-help guides for domestic violence victims. The group announced the partnership in a recent newsletter to supporters.

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Lawyer ‘Working on’ Deal for 3rd Rape Defendant

For more than three years, rape cases against two former Vanderbilt University football players have been essentially on hold while two other ex-players, Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg, have gone to trial. With Vandenburg’s sentencing hearing coming up at the end of September, attention is now turning to the cases against Brandon E. Banks and Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie. Banks’ lawyer confirmed this week that a plea deal is in the works to avoid more trials for his client, the Tennessean reports. McKenzie’s lawyer did not comment. Both face rape charges and have pleaded not guilty.

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Opinions Differ on Jailing Domestic Violence Victims

Prosecutors and defense attorneys differ on the wisdom of jailing domestic violence victims who fail to appear in court. That question is being played out in the case of a Johnson City woman who could not get a ride to court to testify against her abusive spouse. She was jailed and said she was beaten there, the Johnson City Press reports.

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Missouri Ordered to Reveal Injection Drug Suppliers

Two Mississippi death-row inmates are entitled to learn the identity of Missouri’s lethal injection drug suppliers, according to a panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The inmates allege that Mississippi’s method of execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and are seeking to identify an alternative method, such as that used in Missouri. Officials in Missouri say they will ask the full Eighth Circuit to hear the case. The ABA Journal has more.

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Nursing Home Operator Accused of Fraud

Vanguard Healthcare, a Brentwood-based skilled nursing and rehab company that earlier this year filed for bankruptcy, is now facing a False Claims Act lawsuit from the federal government. According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee, six Vanguard facilities across the state and a former director of operations are accused of submitting false claims to Medicare and TennCare using forged physician and nurse signatures. The Nashville Business Journal reports.

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AC out at Shelby County Juvenile Court Again

The air conditioning is out at Shelby County Juvenile Court for the second time in less than two weeks, as temperatures outside were projected to reach the 90s. Affected locations included part of the juvenile detention area, as well as some courtrooms and offices, the Commercial Appeal reports. Staff reportedly made sure that juveniles were spending time in other parts of the detention area not affected by the outage. The problem is partially due to an old HVAC system that needs custom-made coils, according to the court. The coils should be delivered and installed this week.

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Tipton County Gets Domestic Violence Prosecutor

D. Michael Dunavant, 25th Judicial District Attorney General, has added Lindsey Williams as an assistant district attorney general in his office’s criminal division. She will work in a new Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit, which will serve the general sessions and circuit courts of Tipton County. Her office is located at 4709 Mueller Brass Rd. in Covington, Local Memphis reports. Williams, a 2011 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Law, was sworn in last week. She previously practiced child, family and juvenile law in Shelby and Fayette counties.

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Court Blocks Congressional Subpoena of Backpage

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday blocked a congressional subpoena seeking information on how the classified advertising website Backpage.com screens ads for possible sex trafficking, the Associated Press reports. Backpage had asked the high court to intervene, saying the subpoena threatens the First Amendment rights of online publishers. The Senate voted 96-0 in March to hold the website in contempt after it refused to produce documents for a congressional investigation into Internet-based human trafficking. A federal appeals court had directed the website to respond to the subpoena within 10 days. Roberts said the company does not have to comply until further action from the Supreme Court. The Times Free Press has the story.

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Shelby DA Rejects Need for Marijuana Change

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich told Memphis City Council members this week that the number of those arrested for possession of half an ounce of pot or less has been dropping for years. Last year, she estimates that just over 300 people were taken to court for those amounts. “The notion that there are thousands of people in custody on misdemeanor marijuana is false,” she said. When asked outright whether a change is needed right now, Weirich said no, Local Memphis reports.

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