News

Davidson Courts Consolidate DUI Cases

Davidson County trial courts approved an innovative plan to transfer first-, second- and third-offense DUIs, as well as all other driver’s license-related charges, to a single court -- Second Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon. Previously, these cases were assigned to a criminal court hearing a full docket, plus the DUI cases, with assistance from other criminal court judges. Effective October 15, the plan was praised by Second Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon who said. “I look forward to this challenge … Prioritizing the DUIs in one court helps the criminal courts manage their rising case loads and assures all involved in DUI cases a timely conclusion to their case.” The Administrative Office of the Courts has the story. 

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Ruling Extends Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

A recent 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court extends a ruling it made last year that allowed prisoners to challenge their state convictions in federal court based on the claim that their attorneys were ineffective. The court considered the case Trevina v. Thaler challenging Arizona state law saying that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel had to be raised in a separate post-conviction motion and not in a direct appeal of the original conviction. According to attorney Lee Davis writing in the Chattanoogan, the problem with this approach is that there is no right to an attorney in the post-conviction motion phase, though there is in the direct appeal phase.

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NAACP Holds Criminal Justice Seminar June 8

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP will host the 6th Annual Criminal Justice Seminar June 8 at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. This year’s event, Let the Dreams Live!, seeks to shed light on how legal issues, social challenges and advents in the law affect social welfare. Featured topics and presentations will include youth- and adult-oriented seminar tracks. Youth presentations include a session by Rosalyn L. Rice, southeast regional coordinator for the Tennessee Commission of Children and Youth, who will discuss children's advocacy, juvenile justice and conflict resolution strategies. Adult tracks will feature presentations on evolving gun laws, inmates’ rights, neighborhood safety and identity theft. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP at chattanooganaacp@comcast.net or by calling (423) 267-5637. For more information contact Eric Atkins at (423) 320-8598 or atkinse@hotmail.com. Chattanoogan.com had information on the event.

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Court Allows Collection of Suspects’ DNA

A divided U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the power of government at all levels to take DNA samples from persons legally arrested for a “serious” new crime, SCOTUSblog reports. What a suspect may have done in the past, the court majority ruled, is a part of the profile that police may constitutionally begin to assemble at the time of arrest for a separate offense. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for a five-four majority, said the practice is akin to taking a suspect’s fingerprints or mug shot. But Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the dissenters, said the ruling cast aside a long-standing rule that police may not take scientific samples involuntarily from an individual, if the only purpose is to solve a prior crime.

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Judge Explains Reasons for Tossing Confession

A Shelby County judge filed an order Friday explaining why he tossed out the confession of a teen that admitted setting a house fire that killed his mother. Juvenile Court Special Judge Dan Michael said he considered 14-year-old murder suspect Jonathan Ray’s age, experience, education and intelligence as well as investigators’ actions before agreeing with the teen’s attorney that the boy was not properly informed of his Miranda rights before answering questions about the arson. A review of the videotaped interrogation reveals that police officers did not read Ray his Miranda rights, but instead handed him a piece of paper and said his dad had already signed it and authorized the questioning. But the teen’s stepfather was in Detroit, unaware of the death or his son’s legal predicament, the Commercial Appeal reports.

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Baumgartner Reports to Federal Prison

Former Knox County Criminal Court judge Richard Baumgartner is now in federal custody to begin serving his six month sentence at a medium-security prison in West Virginia, WATE reports. His lawyer has filed an appeal of the ruling.

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States Try to Keep Lethal Drug Suppliers Secret

States that impose the death penalty have been facing a shortage of drugs used in executions and are reacting in various ways, writes former New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner in a recent Pro Publica article. In California, state prosecutors are calling for a return of the gas chamber. In four states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and South Dakota – the approach has been to amend public records laws to exempt the names of drug suppliers from disclosure. Death penalty opponents have waged successful efforts to convince companies not to provide lethal drugs after learning of new supply chains through freedom of information requests and local news coverage.

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2 Drug Courts Honor 100th Graduate

Two drug courts in the state recently honored their 100th graduate. In Chattanooga, 46-year-old Jonas Richardson Jr. became the Hamilton County Drug Court’s 100th graduate after working on his recovery for two years. Richardson, who had been arrested at least 96 times and was long addicted to crack cocaine, was one of six to graduate. The Times Free Press reports that Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern took a moment to tell Richardson's story to the crowd and confess her initial doubts. "Thankfully I was wrong about that," she said. In addition, the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court in Charlotte recently honored its 100th graduate. A packed courtroom watched as Judge Robert Burch presented a certificate and plaque to Ashley Lloyd, who thanked those in attendance for being her family for the past two years and showing her that a much better life and future exists. The Leaf Chronicle has more.

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DOJ Offers 2 Victim Assistance Fellowships

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is seeking applicants for two fellowship programs. The first is open to lawyers who have experience working on legal or policy issues related to pro bono legal assistance, crime victim legal issues or victims’ legal rights. The candidate selected will assist OVC build capacity for the provision of free legal assistance to victims of crime. The second fellowship will focus on developing communication strategies to reach victims, service providers and other professionals, and proposing ways to better leverage OVC’s existing resources for victims. Each fellowship is designed to span a four-year period with funding of $135,000 provided in the first year. Applications must be submitted by June 10.

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Jury Convicts for 2nd Time in Christian-Newsom Case

After seven trials, an episode of judicial corruption and 302 court appearances, the six-year saga to bring to justice those responsible for the torture-slayings of Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian is one step closer to reality, Knoxnews reports. On Friday, a Davidson County jury, brought to Knoxville to hear a retrial of the case, found George Thomas guilty of the carjacking, kidnapping, rape and slaying of the young couple. But the jury gave Thomas’ defenders what they asked for, opting to impose a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. Senior Judge Walter Kurtz, who is overseeing the case, could add time to the sentence when he considers whether to label Thomas a dangerous offender. That proceeding is set for June 4.

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Federal Appeals Court Slams Police Interrogation

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday reversed a Knoxville district court ruling that a defendant’s confession was voluntary, finding that the investigation was "a stark example of police impropriety and deplorable interrogation techniques." The decision came in the case of Jeffery Siler, who was questioned about a series of burglaries after being arrested for probation violations. During the interview, Siler reportedly was told he would have immunity for any information provided about a stolen gun as well as for a host of other charges the department was considering against him. With those promises, Siler confessed to the burglary and to selling the gun. Later, he was charged federally for felony gun possession and moved to suppress the confession. The appeals court agreed, saying the investigator went too far in making promises he could not guarantee and breaking promises not to turn Siler over to federal prosecutors. Local 8 News has the AP story.

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Knox Prosecutors Contemplating 2014 Campaigns

As many as four prosecutors in the Knox County District Attorney General’s office may run for the top DA post or a criminal court seat that will be open when Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz departs next year. Charme Knight, who specializes in child abuse and child death cases in the office, is running to succeed her boss, DA Randy Nichols. She likely will face attorney Michael Graves in a Republican primary, Knoxnews reports. Meanwhile prosecutors Kevin Teeters (a Republican) and Leland Price (a Democrat) are telling their parties they will seek Leibowitz’s position. Their colleague Jason Honeycutt, a Republican, also said he is seriously considering a run for the seat.

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Baumgartner Completes Probation

Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner reportedly has completed two years of probation, clearing the way for his state criminal record to be expunged. With no objection from prosecutors, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood dismissed the case, WATE News 6 reports. Baumgartner, however, still faces a six-month federal sentence.

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Haslam Vetoes ‘Ag Gag’ Bill

Gov. Bill Haslam today vetoed the so-called "Ag Gag" bill, which would have required images documenting animal abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours, Knoxnews reports. Haslam cited three concerns that affected his decision: the measure’s questionable constitutionality, the possible unintended consequence of making it harder for district attorneys to prosecute animal cruelty cases, and allegations that the bill repeals part of Tennessee’s Shield Law. Animal rights groups, civil liberties groups and a wide range of celebrities applauded the decision.

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Drug Court Honors 100th Graduate

The 23rd Judicial District Drug Court will honor its 100th graduate, Ashley Lloyd, in a graduation ceremony next Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the Circuit Courtroom in Charlotte, the Leaf Chronicle reports. The court serves citizens of Cheatham, Dickson, Houston, Humphreys and Stewart counties. The drug court program promotes responsibility and accountability and teaches participants to become productive citizens in the community. It is an alternative to incarceration and integrates chemical dependency treatment and community resources with the criminal justice system.

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Jury Finds Y-12 Protesters Guilty

The Y-12 protesters accused of interfering with national security when they broke into the nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge in July have been found guilty, the Johnson City Press reports. An 83-year-old nun and two fellow protesters were charged with sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property.

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Tennessee to Create 9 ‘Recovery Courts'

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will create nine recovery courts to combat mental health and substance abuse issues across the state by combining services currently found in drug courts, mental health courts and veterans’ courts. A department spokesperson said the decision to combine resources was based on the fact that so many people dealing with substance abuse also have a mental health issue. Locations have not yet been determined for the courts, but the department says it has been working with community leaders, law enforcement and the treatment community to identify the best places for the new resources. The Chattanoogan has more.

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Robertson Co. Agrees to Jail Reforms

Robertson County has agreed to changes at its jail after a federal investigation found constitutional rights violations. The Nashville City Paper reports that the U.S. Department of Justice filed the civil rights complaint against the county as well as a settlement agreement on April 26. The agreement lays out a plan to bring the Robertson County Detention Facility up to standards through policy, training and employment changes. The department’s 2011 investigation found problems involving inadequate food, mental health care and supervision of inmates on suicide watch. But it praised the county for expeditiously responding to complaints and taking corrective actions.

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Drug Court Offers Justice and Mercy

Judge Tim Dwyer started the Shelby County Drug Court in 1997 to offer intensive treatment for nonviolent drug offenders with criminal cases. After his teenage cousin had been killed by a drunk driver, Dwyer said he learned the lesson that people with substance abuse issues need justice tempered with mercy. “I’m a judge. I’m sworn to uphold the law,” Dwyer said. “But all of us in the system have a responsibility to try to help people who want and need it. We’re not just trying to lock people up. We’re trying to save lives” he told the Commercial Appeal.

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Ignition Interlock Bill Aims to Reduce DUIs

A new bill to require ignition interlocks for first time offenders and lower the intoxication rate awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, WATE reports. The ignition interlock device requires drivers to blow into the device and if there is no alcohol present then they will be able to start the vehicle. The new law also requires a camera attachment to ensure the person taking the test is the person driving. According to state lawmakers, the bill could result in up to 10,000 more drivers with this safe guard on their vehicle. Since 2011, there have been 7,670 ignition interlocks ordered, although the number is only about a quarter of the number of people convicted of DUIs.

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Judge Tests Video Arraignments

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steven Sword is testing a new video teleconferencing system for suspect arraignments, WBIR reports. In the past, he says it could take weeks just to get the initial hearing with the courts if a suspect is being held in a jail across the state. The new system, which cost about $10,00 in equipment, wiring, and technology upgrades, has been showing benefits, Judge Sword said. "The time that it saves is one thing. But on top of that, if you're not transporting prisoners across the state, think about all the gas money that you're saving," he added. "This is going to save, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars."

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Pilot Puts Workers on Leave, Ramps up Audit and Compliance Functions

A week after federal agents raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, company CEO Jimmy Haslam is taking steps to address charges that Pilot withheld millions of dollars in rebates from its trucking customers. Actions announced yesterday include placing several sales employees on leave, eliminating the manual rebate system that appears to be at the center of the investigation, using the company's field audit team to review all 3,300 trucking contracts, creating the new position of chief compliance officer, and tasking a nationally-recognized individual to conduct an independent investigation. Knoxnews has the latest in this developing story.

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Pilot Hires Nashville Defense Attorney

In the wake of a federal raid and criminal investigation, Pilot Flying J has retained Nashville defense attorney Aubrey Harwell Jr., who also "has brought a team in with him," according to a Pilot spokesman. In addition, at least one top Pilot executive has hired his own attorney, with Vice President of Sales John Freeman retaining Knoxville criminal defense attorney John E. Eldridge. Knoxnews reports the developments.

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House Panel Named for Bebb Inquiry

The Tennessee House on Friday voted to form a committee to review the TBI's four-month investigation into 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb's office. Lawmakers voted 75-10 to name six members – three Republicans and three Democrats -- to a special committee that can meet during the recess. The six were selected from among the members of the Criminal Justice and Civil Justice committees, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. The group said it would begin reviewing the files as soon as practical. Also on Friday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a resolution directing the TBI officials to turn over all files, records, back-up materials, notes, interview transcripts and other exhibits. Senators previously had approved a similar resolution.

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Court Grants New Trial for Miranda Violations

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court Friday ordered a new trial for a Gibson County man after determining that statements he made during a police interrogation should not have been used as evidence at trial. The case involves the 2007 arrest of David H. Climer Jr., during which he asked whether he could “have … an appointed lawyer right now.” The detective questioning him said “not at this time” and proceeded to question him for three hours. The trial and appeals courts found that the statements were properly admitted because Climer never unequivocally invoked his right to counsel. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the prosecution failed to prove that the defendant understood and waived his constitutional right to appointed counsel. Download the opinion.

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