News

‘Better Call Saul’ Debuts with 6.9M Viewers

Sunday’s premiere of the much-anticipated legal drama “Better Call Saul” was seen by 6.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. AMC is calling it the biggest series premiere in cable history, Fox News reports. The show, which is a “prequel of sorts” to the AMC hit “Breaking Bad,” features shifty lawyer Saul Goodman as he navigates the “murky underworld of drug dealers and villainous scum.” The second episode airs Monday at 9 p.m. CST.

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Court Throws Out Conviction Due to Ineffective Counsel

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals last week gave approval for a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea and get a new trial due to ineffective counsel, Knoxnews reports. Joshua Tyrell Cross pleaded guilty to attempted rape but later approached the court about withdrawing his plea. In looking into the case, the court found that 8th Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Dale Potter advised Cross to accept a plea deal without interviewing any witnesses or the victim and without asking for an arraignment, a preliminary hearing, a bond hearing or a grand jury review. The court also determined that Potter failed to explain to his client the consequences of being listed on the sex offender registry and lied to the court about what efforts he had undertaken on his client’s behalf. The court remanded the case for a preliminary hearing on the original charges.

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Bill Increases Penalties for Attending Animal Fights

The Humane Society hopes its proposal to increase penalties for attending animal fights will be referred to the state's Criminal Justice Committee where it has a better chance of advancing, WSMV reports. Similar bills in recent sessions have died in the Agriculture Committee, but Speaker Beth Harwell said after an especially ugly fight between animal rights activists and the Agriculture Committee, that said she would consider separating pet issues from livestock issues. The legislation would increase the fine from $50 to $2,500.

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Public Defender Funding Could Take Hit Under Proposal

A law that ensures budget increases for prosecutors include a corresponding increase for public defenders would go away under legislation introduced last week by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville. House Bill 241 would delete TCA 16-5-518 in its entirety. The law, which has been on the books since the early 1990s, governs increases in local funding, not state budgets. Go to TBAImpact to weigh in.

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Chattanooga Judge Confirms Plans to Retire

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern made her retirement plans official today, the Times Free Press reports. Stern, 57, submitted her retirement paperwork to the state indicating she would step down June 1. Stern had hinted in November that she might retire to Puerto Rico, where she and her husband have owned a vacation home for years.

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Commentary: Court Upholds Conviction, Ignores Racist Comment

As reported on Friday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week in a case involving the carjacking, kidnapping, rape and torture of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In addition to sealing an investigative file on former judge Richard Baumgartner, the appeals court upheld the conviction of George Thomas on two counts of first-degree murder under the legal theory of criminal responsibility. Unlike others involved in the case, there was no DNA evidence linking Thomas to the crimes, the News Sentinel reports. In addition, the new Lady Justice Unmasked blog from the newspaper notes that the appellate court gave little attention to concerns raised about a racist comment attributed to Thomas, which the prosecutor used to bolster his case. The defense had objected to use of the evidence on a number of grounds.

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Children’s Advocacy Center and Family Justice Center Joining Forces

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County has formalized a partnership with Chattanooga’s Family Justice Center, News Channel 9 reports. In a letter of intent submitted to the city, the advocacy center says it will “co-locate and lease approximately 10,000 square feet at the Family Justice Center facility.” “We are incredibly excited to have a leading organization such as the Children’s Advocacy Center partner on this important initiative,” said Mayor Andy Berke. “Their commitment and willingness to collaborate will produce maximum impact in the community’s effort to address family violence.”

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Study: Court Fees Also Punish Families

A new report on the growth of court fines and fees that are charged to often-impoverished offenders finds that impoverished people who go through the criminal justice system almost always get cash from family and friends to help pay their court-ordered fines, even though those family and friends are often poor, too. Titled "When All Else Fails, Fining the Family," the study notes "the incarcerated individual's friends and family ... become, in effect, a parallel welfare state." NPR has the story.

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Parents of Slaying Victims, Public Barred from TBI Files

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that both the parents of two Knox County slaying victims and the public are barred from reviewing an investigative file on former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, whose crimes led to new trials in the high-profile case, Knoxnews reports. The court ruled that Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files have been given special protection from the state Open Records Act — even when such a file is entered as an exhibit in judicial proceedings that do fall under the act.  

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Nashville Mayoral Candidates Discuss Marijuana Decriminalization

More than half of the candidates running for Nashville mayor either support or are receptive to the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the Tennessean reports. Their stances were revealed last night at a mayoral forum hosted by WPLN, the Nashville Bar Association and other lawyer-related organizations. The conversation comes on the heels of a petition drive to hold a public referendum on whether local dollars should go toward the prosecution of adults for possession of 2 ounces of marijuana or less.

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3 Graduate from Veterans Court

Three men graduated yesterday from the Davidson County Veterans Court, the first under Judge Melissa Blackburn’s tenure. Veterans court is an alternative supervision program designed to help veterans who are charged with non-violent offenses. Davidson County has had a veterans court for about five years, but last fall the program got its first federal funding when the U.S. Department of Justice committed $140,000 annually for the next three years. The Tennessean has more.

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Training Offered for Handling Domestic, Sexual Violence Cases

The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence is offering a legal advocacy training in Memphis on Feb. 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Topics to be covered include the basics of civil and criminal law in domestic and sexual violence cases, the differing roles of advocates and attorneys and benefits for immigrant victims of domestic violence and sex crimes. Robin Kimbrough, legal counsel for the Coalition, will conduct the training, which will be held at The Urban Child Institute at 600 Jefferson Ave. Attendance is free but registration is required. Contact the Coalition at (615) 386-9406 for more information.

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Court to Hear 8 Oral Arguments

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear eight cases in oral arguments today and tomorrow in Nashville. Details of the four civil and four criminal cases and a schedule of oral arguments can be found at the AOC website

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Jackson to Get New Victim Resource Center

A new facility to deal specifically with domestic and sexual abuse crimes is coming to Jackson. The Safe Hope Center, which will soon be under construction, is a partnership of several agencies designed to provide comprehensive trauma services under a single roof. Victims will be able to talk to an advocate, plan for their safety, interview with police officers, meet with prosecutors, receive medical assistance, receive shelter, receive spiritual support and get transportation at the center, explains Jackson-Madison County Family Center psychological coordinator Jennifer McCrew. The Jackson Sun has more on the story.

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Judge Seals All Vandy Rape Trial Evidence

A Nashville criminal court judge has sealed all evidence presented in the trial of two former Vanderbilt University football players, a move that open records advocates say is unprecedented in Nashville courts, the Tennessean reports. It is the third ruling in the case prohibiting increasingly more information from public disclosure. The newest order says it is “reasonable and appropriate” to seal all evidence that was presented at trial. The Tennessee Press Association objected to the move saying it was “dangerous” for such a decision to be made without a public hearing on whether the extra protection is needed.

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Defense to Ask for Mistrial in Vandy Rape Case

Fletcher Long, an attorney for one of the former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of raping an unconscious student, says he will ask that a mistrial be declared after learning that a jury member was a rape victim. Long says the individual was asked during jury selection about past experience with the criminal justice system as either a victim or defendant. In failing to disclose the rape, Long says, the juror lied to the court. The juror’s attorney says her client did not make misrepresentations and that the individual's past had “no impact whatsoever” on decision-making in the case. News Channel 5 has the Associated Press story.

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DA Pushes Bill Allowing Jurors to See Photos of Murder Victims

The Rutherford County District Attorney’s Office is pushing for legislation that would allow photos of murder victims to be shown at trial, the Murfreesboro Post reports. Under state law, it is difficult to introduce a picture of a murder victim while alive as the case is being tried, Assistant District Attorney J. Paul Newman says. His office contends that being able to show a photo helps identify the victim and helps a jury understand this was a real person. State Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, sponsored legislation last session to change the law. He said he plans to revive it this session or find another legislator to handle it.

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Sealed Rape Trial Tapes Aired by 20/20

Friday’s episode of the network news magazine show 20/20 aired sealed surveillance video and interrogation tapes from the Vanderbilt rape case, WSMV-TV reports. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk responded to the coverage saying, “Neither the District Attorney’s office nor the police department has ever released any video from this case to any media outlet.” Funk also said release of the material may be a violation of the court’s protective order and the matter will need to be addressed before Judge Monte Watkins, who presided over the recent trial of two former university football players. Two defense lawyers, John Herbison and Worrick Robinson, also denied leaking the videos.

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Gun, iPad Missing from Judge’s Office

A secretary for Judge Robert Holloway says a handgun and iPad were stolen from her desk last week, the Columbia Daily Herald reports. According to a Columbia Police Department report, the theft occurred between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. An Apple iPad Air, valued at $600, was reported missing from the top of her desk, while a Smith and Wesson .38 handgun was missing from inside the desk. No signs of forced entry were visible. An investigation is ongoing.

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New ADAs Sworn In for 4th Judicial District

Brad Jones and Mark Strange were sworn in Tuesday in Cocke County as Assistant District Attorneys for the Fourth Judicial District by Circuit Court Judge Ben W. Hooper II. They both were appointed by the Fourth Judicial District Attorney General James B. Dunn to serve Sevier, Cocke, Jefferson and Grainger counties. The Citizen Tribune has more.

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2 Fired, 1 Position Created in Criminal Court Clerk’s Office

Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond cut two positions and created a new one this week, laying off two longtime supervisors in the Fourth Circuit Court. The changes are expected to save the clerk’s office more than $157,000 in salary expenses. The staff reductions had nothing to do with the employees’ performance but are part of an ongoing reorganization, Hammond told Knoxnews.  He had earlier released six other employees from the office.

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Group to Examine Tennessee Sentencing Law, Recidivism

A task force formed by Gov. Bill Haslam met today in Nashville to examine Tennessee's sentencing structure and examine ways to reduce the state's high recidivism rate. It's the group's third meeting since being formed by Haslam last year in an overall effort to reduce crime and improve public safety. The Task Force will develop recommendations to give to the Governor's Public Safety Subcabinet by June. News Channel 9 has more.

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Supreme Court Stays Oklahoma Execution

In a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court yesterday granted a stay of execution to three inmates who had challenged Oklahoma's use of the drug midazolam as a part of its lethal injection protocol, WCYB reports. The inmates, all convicted murderers, contend that Oklahoma’s planned use of midazolam could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The sedative failed in the state’s bungled execution last April of Clayton Lockett, who awoke and apparently writhed in pain before dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after being injected. Arguments are scheduled for April 29, with a decision expected before July, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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Future Uncertain for First Judicial District Drug Task Force

The future of the Drug Task Force (DTF) for the First Judicial District hangs in the balance, as three officers, covering four counties, will soon become just two. District Attorney Tony Clark told WJHL that at one time there were as many as 12 DFT officers covering Washington, Unicoi, Carter and Johnson counties. Now, Johnson City is preparing to pull its DTF officer, Mike Adams, who is also the current director. "It's very difficult to keep a DTF going without the manpower that you need to do it," Clark said. “And three or four agents, while they're working and they're making cases, is just not enough when you're talking about working in an rea that is as large as we have in this entire district.

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Rape Kit Testing Leading to Indictments in Memphis

Officials say nearly 5,000 of 12,000 backlogged rape evidence kits have been tested in Memphis, leading to dozens of indictments, Memphis Daily News reports. Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s office says investigations have resulted in 52 indictments of known individuals or their DNA profiles. From those indictments, 19 alleged rapists have been identified, including 14 believed to be multi-case offenders. Experts say Memphis has one of the nation's largest known backlogs of rape kits. Rape victims have filed a lawsuit over the untested kits.

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