News

Obama: Shorten Sentences for Nonviolent Convicts

President Barack Obama laid out an expansive vision Tuesday for fixing the criminal justice system by focusing on communities, courtrooms and cellblocks, calling it an issue America can't afford to ignore. He announced a federal review of the use of solitary confinement and urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year's end. In a speech to the NAACP's annual convention, Obama also called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should "ban the box" asking job candidates about their past convictions. News Channel 5 has more from the AP.

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Lethal Injection Trial Enters 2nd Week

A trial over the constitutionality of Tennessee’s preferred method of executing prisoners entered its second week yesterday with plaintiffs continuing to present their case, WATE reports. Attorneys for 33 death row inmates challenging lethal injection have presented expert witnesses to discuss technical aspects of the procedure, including how the drug is compounded. Attorneys for the state have argued much of the testimony is irrelevant since inmates are not guaranteed a painless death.

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Former Public Defender Remembered

David “Duck” Duckworth of Whitwell died July 10 at the age of 68. He was a retired public defender and previously worked for the district attorney’s office in Hamilton County. Funeral services were held this past Sunday and Monday in Chattanooga. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the American Cancer Society or a favorite charity. Chattanoogan.com has more on his life.

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Obama Commutes 46 Prison Sentences

President Barack Obama today cut the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, including 14 who were sentenced to life in prison. In taking the action, Obama said “their punishments didn’t fit the crime.” Obama has issued 89 commutations during his presidency, most of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes, Reuters reports.

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New Trial for Man Who Threatened to Kill Lawyer

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has thrown out the conviction of Leon Houston, who allegedly threatened to kill his former lawyer. A jury found Houston guilty of making threats against the lawyer during a phone conversation with his girlfriend, and a judge sentenced him to five years in prison. The Sixth Circuit said the lower court did not properly instruct the jury on how to decide whether the statements in question constituted a threat, and ordered a new trial. Knoxnews reports.

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Lawyer in Court on Murder Solicitation Charges

Collierville lawyer Fred Auston Wortman III made a brief appearance in Fayette County court last week to waive his right to a preliminary hearing on charges he attempted to hire a hit man to kill his wife. The case will go to a grand jury on July 27. Meanwhile, charges pending in Shelby County allege that he poisoned his wife’s toothpaste in an attempt to kill her. The cases will go through the court system concurrently, according to Wortman's lawyer. The Commercial Appeal has more.

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DCS Child Abuse Registry Raises Concerns

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS) is now publicly posting accused child abusers’ names, personal information and type of abuse, even if the case was never prosecuted or the individual was not convicted, Local Memphis reports. "Even if it were technically constitutional, it does raise some policy concerns with significant consequences to people for being accused and never actually proven guilty," says Steve Mulroy, associate dean at the University of Memphis School of Law.

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Tennessee Man Charged with Planning Mosque Attack

An East Tennessee man who ran for Congress last year has been indicted on a charge of soliciting another person to burn down a mosque in a small Muslim enclave in New York, federal prosecutors said this week. Robert Doggart had agreed to plead guilty in April to plotting an attack, but the agreement was thrown out in June by a federal judge who ruled it did not contain enough facts to constitute a true threat. The new indictment by a grand jury in Knoxville says Doggart tried to "solicit, command, induce and endeavor" to persuade someone to burn down the mosque. The Times Union has more from the AP.

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TBJ: Microscopic Hair, Queen Caroline and TBA Awards

The erroneous use of microscopic hair comparison is examined by Journal columnist Wade Davies, in the July issue. Columnist Russell Fowler tells the story of the incorrigible Queen Caroline and her equally despicable husband, King George IV. He describes their divorce as a "lawyer's dream case ... the grounds and defense were salacious allegations of adultery." And in this installment of celebrating the Journal's 50 years, take a look at the many awards the Tennessee Bar Association gives every year, notably the Justice Joe Henry Award for Outstanding Legal Writing.

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Dickson Judge Given Cease and Desist Order

Dickson County Judge Reese Holley has been publicly reprimanded and issued a cease and desist order by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, WKRN reports. The board investigated Holley and found he forced defendants to do public service work and give to his charities before he allowed them to be represented by a public defender. While Holley remains on the bench hearing cases, the cease and desist order means he will have to stop these practices, according to public defender Jake Lockert.

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Oklahoma Sets New Execution Dates

Oklahoma's highest criminal court on Wednesday set execution dates for three death row inmates who challenged the use of a drug that will be used in their lethal injections. The move comes after the Supreme Court approved the use of the sedative midazolam. Execution dates were set for Sept. 16 for 52-year-old Richard Eugene Glossip, Oct. 7 for 50-year-old Benjamin Robert Cole and Oct. 28 for 54-year-old John Marion Grant. WRCB has the story.

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DA Conference Elects New Leadership

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference has elected new leadership for the year. Kim Helper, 21st Judicial District Attorney General, will serve as conference president; Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn will serve as vice president; and 25th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Dunavant will serve as secretary of the group. The Bulletin Times has more.

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Day 2 of Lethal Injection Case Focuses on Drugs

On the second day of a trial that seeks to have Tennessee's lethal injection protocols declared unconstitutional, testimony has centered on the role of compounding pharmacists in producing lethal injection drugs, Memphis Daily News reports. Tennessee's protocol calls for the use of compounded pentobarbital. The only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions.

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Judge Sets Retrial Date for Vanderbilt Rape Case

A second trial for former Vanderbilt University football players accused of rape has been set for Nov. 30, the Tennessean reports. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey were found guilty of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery but because of an issue of juror bias, Judge Monte Watkins declared a mistrial in the case last month. That date could change as defense attorneys have already voiced concerns about having enough time to prepare.

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DA Reflects on First Year in Office

After a decisive win in the 2014 primary, Steve Crump planned to take office as District Attorney General for the 10th Judicial District on Sept.1, serving the residents of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. But when the holder of the office at the time, Steve Bebb, decided to take early retirement, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Crump to take the office two months early. Crump reflects back on his first year in the first of a four part series in the Cleveland Daily Banner

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Lethal Injection Challenge Gets Day in Court

After more than a year of delays, a trial challenging Tennessee’s method of executing prisoners via lethal injection got underway in Nashville today, the Associated Press reports. During opening statements, lawyers for 33 death row inmates argued that the state’s use of prison guards to inject the drugs creates a substantial risk they will be administered incorrectly and cause extreme pain. The state countered that the U.S. Supreme Court has already said inmates are not guaranteed a painless death. Memphis Daily News has the story.

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Former Vandy Football Players Due in Court Tomorrow

Two former Vanderbilt football players previously convicted of rape are due back in court tomorrow at 9 a.m., News Channel 5 reports. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey were released from jail on June 24 after a mistrial was declared in the case. Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk said he fully anticipates the case will be re-tried.

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New Tool Helps Judges Determine Appropriate Bail

Setting bail is a difficult task for judges, according to Shaila Dewan, who writes about a new tool to aid in that process in the New York Times. After two years of testing, an algorithm developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is being rolled out to 21 jurisidictions. The algorithm gives defendants two scores — one for the likelihood of committing a crime and one for their risk of failing to appear in court. It also flags those with an elevated risk of violence. Many law enforcement groups and defense lawyers support the use of scientifically validated risk assessments, but fewer than 10 percent of jurisdictions use them, partly because of cost. The Arnold Foundation eventually plans to make the tool available to any jurisdiction.

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Forum on New Mental Health Court Set for Tuesday

The Hamilton County courts will hold a forum on its new Mental Health Court tomorrow from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Parkridge Diagnostic Center, 2205 McCallie Ave., Chattanooga, TN 37404. The mental health court will launch later this month with the goal of providing services and breaking down barriers for defendants with serious mental illness, Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.

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In 2nd Round, 11 Apply for Hamilton County Judicial Seat

After Gov. Bill Haslam asked for a second round of applications, 11 attorneys have indicated interest in filling a vacancy on the Hamilton County Criminal Court. They are: Christian J. Coder, Amanda B. Dunn, Ardena Juanita Garth, Robert Dee Hobbs and Stevie Nicole Phillips of Chattanooga; Thomas Clifton Greenholtz and Yolanda Echols Mitchell of Ooltewah; Tracy Cox, Andrea DeFay Hayduk and Samuel F. Robinson III of Signal Mountain; and John Gary McDougal of Soddy Daisy. The Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments will interview applicants July 23 at 9 a.m. EDT at the Chattanoogan Hotel. According to the council, the governor will be able to choose from among six options: three from the first slate sent to him or three from this second list.

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Supreme Court: Challenge to Electrocution is Premature

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a challenge by death row inmates to electrocution as an alternative execution method is premature and therefore unripe for resolution by the courts at this time, the AOC reports. In a unanimous opinion, the Court determined that the issue is not “ripe” because none of the inmates is currently subject to death by electrocution and will not ever be subject to death by electrocution unless lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction certifies to the Governor that an ingredient essential to lethal injection is unavailable.

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Tennessee Execution Trial Comes Week After Lethal Injection Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the lethal injection protocol in Oklahoma could indirectly affect Tennessee, where execution procedures will be questioned during a trial next week, the Tennessean reports. Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman on Tuesday is scheduled to begin a trial that will determine whether Tennessee's lethal injection protocol, as it is written now, is constitutional. 

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Mental Health Court to Open in Late July

A new Mental Health Court is due to debut in Chattanooga in late July. The court will target defendants with serious mental illness and connect them to treatment services in the community while ensuring public safety. The court will operate in the General Sessions Court, Criminal Division and Criminal Court of Hamilton County. The Chattanoogan has more.

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Stay or Pay: When Criminal Offenders Can't Pay Fines

In the July issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal, out today, the Hon. Walter Kurtz writes about the incarceration of minor criminal offenders when the offense is the inability to pay fines and fees. Also, when can you compensate a fact witness? Craig P. Sanders and Brandon J. Stout explain. In Bill Harbison's first column as Tennessee Bar Association president, he writes about the many ways lawyers give their time to champion justice for others.

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Expungement Seminar Tomorrow in Cleveland

Richard Hughes, public defender for the 10th Judicial District, will host a three-hour seminar tomorrow to explain the process by which certain felony offenders may have the opportunity to expunge their criminal records. The session will run from 4 to 7 p.m. at Hughes’ office, 85 Central Ave. in downtown Cleveland. An editorial in the Cleveland Banner encourages area residents to take advantage of the opportunity.

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