News

Former UT Football Players Plead Not Guilty to Rape Charges

Former Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and suspended Tennessee defensive back Michael Williams have pleaded not guilty to aggravated rape charges, WKRN reports. The pair was arraigned today after being indicted last month by a grand jury. Lawyers for both players say their clients are innocent of the charges. Trial is set for Aug. 24.

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District Launches Veterans Treatment Court

The 13th Judicial District Recovery Court (formerly known as the drug court) will expand its services to assist former military service members who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system. The new Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) will address the underlying causes of criminality among veterans by focusing on treatment and rehabilitation. The expansion will offer both outpatient and residential treatment. The 13th Judicial District covers Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties. The Crossville Chronicle has more.

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DA Conference Replaces Embattled Director

Former Rutherford County District Attorney Bill Whitesell has been named interim executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Murfreesboro Post reports. Whitesell took the position following the resignation of executive director Wally Kirby, who had earlier been suspended by the conference for hiring Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk for a part-time position with the conference before he was sworn in so that Funk could join a state pension plan that was about to change. News Channel 5 has more.

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Georgia Postpones Executions to Examine Lethal Injection

Officials in Georgia announced yesterday that the state was suspending executions indefinitely while it tests the drugs that it had planned to use in an execution on Monday night. The decision came a day after Georgia called off the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row, several hours after it was set to take place. No new dates were announced for the executions, instead the Department of Corrections said that when it "is prepared to proceed," sentencing courts will issue new execution orders, the Crossville Chronicle reports from the Washington Post.

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Bill Keeps Judicial Discretion on Domestic Violence Arrests

Judges in Tennessee will retain the authority to waive a 12-hour "cooling off" period after domestic violence arrests, according to the latest draft of a proposed bill. An amendment approved yesterday to HB41 keeps judicial discretion to release suspects before the end of the period, while also adding elements to the law meant to improve transparency and guarantee victims are notified before the hold is waived. The Tennessean has more.

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Opinion: Will Task Force Change American Policing?

In a mere 90 days, a task force assembled by the Obama administration has issued an ambitious plan for improving police forces around the nation, including 59 recommendations for improving police diversity, training, use of technology and transparency in policies and practices, according to Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. The advisory group also recommended that the president create another task force to examine the entire criminal justice system. Whether these efforts will lead to any real change remains to be seen says Gest. “Some federal reports have led to dramatic change, while others have been left to gather dust.”

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Report Finds Racial Bias in Ferguson Police, Court

Federal officials will not bring civil rights charges against former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson but will release a scathing report tomorrow documenting patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson police department, jail and court, the Washington Post reports. The investigation – launched after Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18-year old African American – found that police officers disproportionately used excessive force against blacks and too often charged them with petty offenses. The investigation also revealed racial bias among court and jail employees. The U.S. Justice Department is negotiating a settlement with the police department to change its practices, though some are calling for a more radical response.

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Bill Would Limit Where Private Prison Suits Are Filed

A bill filed in the state legislature would require that suits against private prisons, including those operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), be filed in the county where the prison is operated, the Associated Press reports. The legislation is a response to a Tennessee Supreme Court decision involving a former CCA inmate who sued over bad medical care. The court said a state law requiring inmates to sue in the county where the prison is located did not apply to private prisons. Supporters say the bill will prevent inmates from being transferred across the state to go to court. Opponents argue that judges and juries in small towns are likely to be biased in favor of a local prison. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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President: Court-Appointed Lawyers Should Get Raise

The March issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal includes a lot of criminal justice-related information, including articles exploring the “unnecessary rigor” provision of the Tennessee Constitution, legislative initiatives on privacy and criminal law, and the successes of a residential drug treatment program. In his column, President Jonathan Steen explains why the rate for court-appointed lawyers should be increased. "The compensation rate for lawyers appointed by Tennessee state courts to represent indigent parties in criminal, juvenile and civil cases has not changed in 20 years. The current rate for court-appointed lawyers is $40 per hour for out-of-court work and $50 per hour for in-court work," he writes. "At $40 an hour for out-of-court work, Tennessee court-appointed lawyers are the lowest paid in the nation."

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Senator Criticizes Post-Conviction Defender’s Office

The state agency that defends death row inmates is being criticized for using taxpayer dollars to pay for a lawsuit seeking information on executions, Knoxnews reports. State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said the Office of Post-Conviction Defender exceeded its authority when it filed a civil suit seeking the identities of executioners and types of drugs used in an execution. The office disputes Yager’s interpretation saying the law allows it to get involved in “collateral matters.”

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Officials Sign Off on Plan to Avoid Wrongful Arrests

Knox County leaders have put together a blueprint designed to streamline the criminal justice process so that authorities do not wrongly arrest residents – something that actually did happen because of poor record keeping and improper training at the county criminal court clerk’s office. In a letter signed by eight judges, the district attorney general and the sheriff, officials agreed to better protect records, formalize training programs and implement a real-time data entry process in county courtrooms. Officials hope to begin testing the new system by the end of March in one courtroom, WBIR reports.

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Nashville Council Members: Funk Has ‘Broken Trust’ with Voters

Two Metro Nashville Council members have sent a scathing letter to Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, saying he has “broken the trust of the voters who elected you and have damaged the integrity of the office of District Attorney,” Phil Williams with NewsChannel 5 reports. Williams earlier broke the story about Funk’s deal with the Tennessee District Attorney’s Conference to be hired as an interim prosecutor before officially taking office so he could avail himself of a more generous retirement package. Williams has a copy of the letter on his Facebook page.

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The Tennessee Constitution’s ‘Unnecessary Rigor’ Provision

“That no person arrested and confined in jail shall be treated with unnecessary rigor.” So reads Article I, Section 13 of the Tennessee Constitution, a provision that has appeared in all three Tennessee Constitutions, including the initial one in 1796.[1] Despite the strong language, the provision has not received extensive treatment in Tennessee. Because inmates frequently assert constitutional claims, it is somewhat surprising that there is so little explanation as to the meaning of Article I, Section 13.

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Legislative Initiatives on Privacy and Criminal Law

The Tennessee General Assembly has passed a number of new statutes to preserve personal privacy as technology continues to intersect with criminal law.

A. Drones.

The Tennessee General Assembly took an early interest in the criminal law implications of the use of drones.[1] In 2013, the legislature passed the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act.”[2] The Act prohibits any law enforcement agency using a drone to gather evidence.[3] The Act, which passed the Senate unanimously, was patterned after a Florida Statute.[4]

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New Charges for SCOTUS Demonstrators

Prosecutors yesterday added two additional misdemeanor charges against demonstrators who made a rare disruption inside the U.S. Supreme Court last month. The disruptions -- which included standing in succession inside the court and shouting protests against the 2010 Citizens United campaign finance ruling -- made news not only because it was rare but because the group managed to take videos of the incident and post them on their website, despite the fact that the Supreme Court does not allow cameras inside the courtroom. The Greeneville Sun has more from the Associated Press.

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AG to Call for Lower Proof Standard in Civil Rights Cases

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says that he will soon call on Congress to lower the standard of proof in federal civil rights cases, to allow federal prosecution where local authorities are unable or unwilling to get a conviction. The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Florida. In a written statement, government lawyers said their decision in the case was "limited strictly to the department's inability to meet the high legal standard" in the civil rights statutes. WRCB has more from NBC News.

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7 Apply for Vacancy in 11th Judicial District

Seven attorneys have applied for the Hamilton County Criminal Court judge position in the 11th Judicial District. Johnny D. Houston Jr., D. Marty Lasley, Mike A. Little, Leslie Anne Longshore, John Gary McDougal, Boyd M. Patterson Jr. and Samuel Francis Robinson III are vying to succeed Judge Rebecca Stern, who is retiring effective June 1. The AOC website has more

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Court to Hold Arguments in Jackson, Review 4 New Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear two health care liability disputes among four cases scheduled for oral arguments March 4 in Jackson. The court also granted review to four new cases this week. Criminal issues include indictments and relief from execution for the intellectually disabled. Civil issues include the Health Care Liability Act and marital dissolution agreements. The Raybin-Perky Hotlist reviews the four cases and offers a prediction as to how each may be decided.

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Public Defender Funding Under Attack in Committee

A provision that says any increase in local funding for a district attorney must also include funding for the public defender would be eliminated in a new bill, SB 1324/HB 241, that is set to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The TBA opposes this bill. "Equity in funding for indigent representation has been a feature of the public defense program since the TBA fostered the program in 1989," said TBA Executive Director Allan Ramsaur. "Our adversarial system of justice demands nothing less." Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush said today in a Commercial Appeal guest column that he also opposes the bill, and that it represents a "one-dimensional response" to the funding challenges faced by district attorneys. According to the District Public Defenders Conference, county appropriated funding under this provision represents $12.3 million and employs 141 Tennesseans. Send a message to the Senate Judiciary Committee about your thoughts regarding this legislation using TBAImpact.

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Tweaks Likely to Domestic Violence Cooling Bill

A bill eliminating a judge's authority to release domestic violence suspects before the end of a 12-hour cooling off period is likely to be changed by amendment, according the Tennessean. In the House Criminal Justice subcommittee meeting yesterday, bill sponsor Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, asked that the issue be tabled for a week to allow for amendment. The bill is widely seen as a response to a controversial Nashville case. Real estate developer David Chase was arrested after police said he assaulted his girlfriend, but was released when his attorney called a judge, who in turn made a call resulting in Chase's release before the 12-hour hold expired. The judge was reprimanded by the Board of Professional Conduct for those actions. Weigh in on this and other legislative issues using TBAImpact.

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Panel OKs TBA Fixes to Business Organization Laws

The TBA bill (SB144/HB 620) to make housekeeping changes to last year’s Nonprofit Corporation Act and the Business Corporation Law moved out of the state Senate Commerce Committee today by a vote of 9 to 0. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and in the House by Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also met today and recommended passage of amendments to the Rules of Appellate Procedure (SR13) and Rules of Criminal Procedure (SR12), which previously were adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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Bills Would Open Court Meetings, Workers' Comp Data

A number of bills filed in the legislature this year propose to open more meetings and information to the public, Knoxnews reports. Among those affecting the judicial system are HB1306 by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, which would require the Tennessee Supreme Court to meet in public when selecting the state’s attorney general and SB174 by Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, which would make public some information on businesses’ workers compensation insurance coverage. A bill from Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, which would have required the state to disclose the death of any inmate in its custody within 10 days, was withdrawn after no House companion was filed. One bill, HB1033 by Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, moves in the other direction, allowing notaries who do not charge for their services to avoid having to keep a record of signings they certify.

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Shelby PD Recognized with Innovation Award

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is one of eight organizations to receive an Innovations in Justice Award from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Center for Court Innovation. The award recognizes programs that approach criminal justice challenges in new and effective ways, according to the Memphis Business Journal. The public defender’s office was selected for its Jericho Project, which helps those with mental illness and substance disorders that are “cycling through the criminal justice system.”

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Sentencing in Vandy Rape Case Delayed

The sentencing date has been moved back for two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of multiple counts, including aggravated rape, News Channel 5 reports. The hearing – originally scheduled for March 6 – will now be held at 9 a.m. on April 24. The date was changed due to scheduling conflicts with the defense attorneys. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey were each convicted of aggravated rape, attempted aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery. Vandenburg also was convicted of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography.

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Suspect in Bobo Case Commits Suicide

A man who authorities had threatened to indict in the Holly Bobo case reportedly took his own life, the Jackson Sun reports. Shayne Austin, who had agreed to cooperate in the case in exchange for immunity, committed suicide according to his lawyer Luke Evans. Prosecutors revoked Austin’s immunity agreement three weeks after it was signed, saying he was not truthful with investigators. A challenge to that action was working its way through the court system. WBIR has the story.

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