News

Program Allows Indigent Defendants to Pick Own Lawyer

A pilot program in Texas is evaluating what happens when indigent defendants are given the ability to choose their own attorneys at government expense. The issue of trust has long been part of a larger discussion about the quality of indigent defense in the United States, the Associated Press writes. Without enough money to hire their own lawyer, defendants may be suspicious that court-appointed attorneys provide a poor defense or try to coerce a quick guilty plea. The experimental program will test whether defendants have a better experience, whether lawyers are more engaged with clients, whether any constitutional issues arise and whether the concept can be adapted to other jurisdictions. The Greeneville Sun has the AP story.

read more »

Legislator, DA ‘Outraged’ Over Probation, Parole Rules

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus say they are outraged over the Department of Correction’s new standards of supervision, which went into effect in August, WJHL reports. The pair says the changes have resulted in less direct supervision for the most serious criminals, including those convicted of murder, arson, burglary and child abuse. Lundberg, who is a member of the governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, said he plans to raise the issue with the group. “I think [this] would outrage everyone,” he said.

read more »

Judge Tosses Stun Gun Suit Against Alcoa PD

The facts in the case are not in dispute: Ryan Darres Craig suffered a skull fracture and is permanently blind in his right eye after an Alcoa Police Department officer used a stun gun on him. But a civil rights lawsuit against the department has been tossed out because the law on use of stunning devices is lacking, Knoxnews reports. In dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan ruled there have been too few cases involving the use of stun guns on suspects who are not resisting arrest to provide legal guidance.

read more »

Sheriff Urges Reform of Citation System

Hamilton County officials are looking at ways to streamline the criminal justice process for those who are not immediately arrested but issued citations to report to jail at a later date. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said that process is often used for minor charges such as issuing bad checks or shoplifting but is “time-consuming and costly.” He hopes to work with state legislators to change the system, the Times Free Press reports. “We’d like to have them go straight to court and if the judge finds them guilty, then they are taken to the jail and booked,” Hammond explained.

read more »

AOC Announces Boards and Commissions Updates

The Administrative Office of the Courts recently released updated membership lists for its various board and commissions, including the Tennessee Code Commission, Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, Board of Professional Responsibility and Integrated Criminal Justice Steering Committee.

read more »

Chattanooga’s Violence Prevention Point Man Reassigned

Lt. Todd Royval asked to be removed from his leadership role as head of the police department's crime suppression unit and point man for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s Violence Reduction Initiative within the police department. Royval — who has 20 years of police experience — was among a group of leaders sent to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice last year to train on how to implement the city's violence reduction initiative, modeled after a program in High Point, North Carolina. Chattanooga Police Department Chief Fred Fletcher confirmed that Royval made the request to be reassigned, citing personal reasons that the chief could not talk about. The Times Free Press has more.

read more »

Former Mo’ Money Managers Banned from Tax Prep

U.S. District Judge Thomas Anderson has banned three tax preparers with ties to the Mo’ Money tax refund scandal from working as tax preparers or having anything to do with the preparation or filing of federal tax returns, the Memphis Daily News reports. Anderson approved a civil injunction against Shandon Allen, Shewanda Hamilton and Tabitha Tunstall based on a request by U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton. Each of the three had managed locations for the company before the government brought charges of widespread fraud in the preparation of tax forms and handling of refunds. They have 15 days to provide the court with a list of anyone they or their companies prepared tax returns for, and anyone who worked for them from 2008 to the present.

read more »

Former DA Takes Job with Knox County Sheriff

Former District Attorney General Randy Nichols has taken a position with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, WBIR reports. Nichols, who retired after 22 years as the county’s top prosecutor, will serve as a special counsel for mental illness, drug abuse and domestic violence awareness. Among his duties will be overseeing the Family Justice Center, creating a safety center for mentally ill individuals who commit crimes and addressing prescription pill abuse. He will start his new role Jan. 5, 2015.

read more »

Feds Drop Case Against Doctor Selling Canadian Drugs

In an unexplained move, the U.S. Department of Justice has asked the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the conviction of a Greeneville oncologist and his wife, Knoxnews reports. The department filed the motion in the case of Dr. Anindya Sen and his office manager Patricia Posey Sen, who were convicted of buying mislabeled cancer drugs from Canada. The couple claims that the supplier had assured them that the drugs were approved by the FDA, and that they did not know until several years later that the drugs came from foreign sources. In what some argued was an overreach by the government, the couple also was charged with health care fraud, with prosecutors arguing that they purchased the cheaper drugs so they could defraud Medicare. A jury rejected that and other felony charges brought against them. The latest move by the DOJ would vacate the misdemeanor conviction and prohibit the case from being resurrected.

read more »

Knox County Medical Examiner Gets New Facility

Knox County officials cut the ribbon on a new regional forensic center near the University of Tennessee campus last week that will give the medical examiner much greater room to conduct his work, Knoxnews reports. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett was the driving force behind the move, the newspaper says in an editorial commending the teamwork that helped get the project done. The move coincides with the transition of the medical examiner’s office from a contract service to a department within county government. The new center also was supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, who put $4.25 million in his budget to renovate a former surgical center to house the facility. In the new space, staff will be able to store up to 80 bodies and conduct up to 800 autopsies a year.

read more »

Lawyers to Lead State Drug Court Association

The Tennessee Association of Drug Court Professionals has elected attorney Kevin Batts as president and Richard Taylor as vice president of the statewide group. Batts is director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court in Middle Tennessee. He also is an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University. Taylor has been affiliated with the Tennessee Public Defenders Conference since 1997. He has been involved with drug courts since 1999 and served as the program manager for the Davidson County Drug Court. Read more about the pair and their plans in the Chattanoogan.com.

read more »

Court Unlikely to Release Executioners’ Names, Lawyers Say

Two Tennessee lawyers with experience in criminal law predict that the state Supreme Court will not release the names of those who serve on execution teams – information that is being sought by 11 death row inmates challenging the state’s death penalty. Johnson City attorney Mark Fulks predicts the court will rule that the names of the individuals are not relevant and should not be disclosed. However, if the court were to release the names, he says, it also would have to decide whether a 2013 law exempting information from public disclosure also exempts it from release in court proceedings. Nashville attorney David Raybin also predicts the court will not order the disclosure of executioners’ names. “I think the potential for harm is significant and could potentially go on for years. It’s not only a privacy interest that I think is a concern here. I think it is a safety issue.” Read more in the Tennessean.

read more »

Atlanta Prosecutor Nominated for Deputy AG

President Barack Obama announced today that he intends to nominate Sally Yates, a federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Georgia, to fill the second-highest ranking position at the Justice Department. Yates, 54, has a record of fighting public corruption and has handled several high-profile cases, including the prosecution of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. Though she faces confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Yates will assume the job on an acting basis on Jan. 10, according to Reuters.

read more »

State Fights to Block Access to Vanderbilt Rape Records

Attorney General Herbert Slatery has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court not to hear an appeal from a coalition of media agencies seeking the release of certain records in the Vanderbilt rape case. The Tennessean-led coalition in November requested the Supreme Court reverse lower-court decisions barring access to records such as third-party text messages and videos. The state's 14-page filing cites at least three other cases in which courts prevented review of third-party documents or entire court files while investigations were ongoing. The attorney general refutes claims from the media group that withholding the records would create a blanket exception to public records law.

read more »

Obama Commutes Prison Sentences of 8 Federal Drug Offenders

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short the prison sentences of eight federal drug offenders, part of an administration initiative to foster equity in criminal sentencing, the Crossville Chronicle reports from the Washington Post. Four of the offenders had been sentenced to life in prison. All will be released next year. The commutations are part of an administration push to increase the number of clemency requests it reviews from low-level, nonviolent inmates - many of whom are serving long sentences based on tough federal sentencing guidelines that have since changed.

read more »

Executions, Death Sentences Down in 2014

Executions and death sentences have fallen to levels not seen in decades, an anti-death penalty group says in a new report. The Death Penalty Information Center says 35 inmates were executed in 2014 and 71 have so far been given death sentences. That’s the fewest executions since 1994, and the fewest new death sentences in the 40 years that the center calls the modern death penalty era. WRCB has more.

read more »

24th Judicial District DA Cuts Ties with TBI

District Attorney Matt Stowe of the 24th Judicial District has cut off all ties with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), News Channel 5 reports. Under state law, the TBI is only allowed to work on local cases at the request of the district attorney for the area where the crime occurred. Stowe’s action would mean that TBI agents will no longer be assigned to work that district, which includes Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin and Henry Counties. The TBI crime lab would also no longer be available to help local law enforcement, and TBI experts likely would not be able to testify in cases in that district.

read more »

Hill Portrait Unveiled at Event Last Friday

Friends and colleagues gathered Friday at the Washington County Justice Center in Jonesborough to honor retired Criminal Court Judge Arden Hill and unveil his official portrait, the Johnson City Press reports. Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street organized the event, while Hill’s son, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hill, General Sessions Judge James Nidiffer, District Attorney General Tony and attorney Jim Bowman recalled the career and character of the retired judge. Hill was elected as a Carter County General Sessions judge in 1966 and then elected criminal court judge in 1974.

read more »

Court Upholds N.C. Traffic Stop

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 today that police did not violate the constitutional rights of Nicholas Heien when they stopped his a car for a broken taillight and subsequently found a plastic bag containing cocaine. Heien was convicted of cocaine trafficking and on appeal argued that police had no legal right to stop him in the first place, because it is not an offense in North Carolina to have a single broken taillight. Because the traffic stop was illegal, he argued, the evidence from the search should not have been allowed at trial. The justices, however, found that the officer’s mistake was reasonable and therefore did not violate the constitution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a lone dissent, warned that the decision could exacerbate public suspicion of police. NPR has more on the decision.

read more »

Judge Refuses Ex-Lawyer's Addiction Claim

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips refused former Knoxville lawyer John Oliver Threadgill’s bid to have the court amend a report to say that he was a longtime alcoholic in need of treatment. Threadgill is now blaming “alcohol use and addiction” as “factors” in his theft of client money and failure to pay the IRS more than $3 million in taxes and penalties, Knoxnews reports. The new report would have helped Threadgill get into a substance abuse program, which, if completed successfully, would earn him an early release.

read more »

AG in Memphis Talking About Profiling

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Memphis today urging state and local law enforcement to develop rigorous policies regarding profiling, Knoxnews reports. The visit came just a day after the announcement of new guidelines limiting the ability of federal law enforcement agencies to profile on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics. Holder discussed the expanded ban at My Brother's Keeper Communities Challenge Summit in Memphis. He previously visited Atlanta and Cleveland to help local communities engage in a discussion about race and law enforcement reform.

read more »

Haslam Addresses Public Safety Summit

While there has been progress in making Tennessee a safer state, much remains to be done, particularly on domestic violence, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday while kicking off a meeting of his public safety subcabinet in Nashville. The group, which Haslam formed four years ago, will focus on Tennessee’s sentencing laws, homeland security concerns, drug abuse and trafficking, the Associated Press reports. Haslam touted progress in reducing the number of domestic violence offenses in the state since 2010 (down nearly 14 percent) but said the state is 10th in the nation for domestic violence deaths and that rate is “still too high.” The Memphis Daily News has the story.

read more »

New Policy Expands Ban on Profiling by Federal Law Enforcement

The Obama administration today issued new guidelines banning federal law enforcement from profiling on the basis of religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, the Associated Press reports. The move expands the current ban on profiling based on race or ethnicity. Civil rights advocates say they welcome the broader protections, but are disappointed that the rules do not apply to airport security and border checkpoints and are not binding on state and local police.

read more »

Obama Responds to Public Perceptions of Local Police

President Barack Obama yesterday focused on issues associated with what appears to many to be the lack of public confidence in local law enforcement. After meeting with cabinet members, civil rights leaders and law enforcement, Obama said he wants to guard against a “militarized culture” within police departments, and proposed $263 million to fund body-worn cameras and  training for police. Responding to criticisms about a federal program that provides military-style equipment to local departments, the president directed agencies to consult with law enforcement and civil rights groups over the next four months to make sure the programs are accountable and transparent. Finally, Obama announced he would create a task force of law enforcement and community leaders to examine how to maintain public trust in community policing. Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking in Atlanta yesterday, said his department would update guidelines for federal law enforcement to end racial profiling “once and for all.” WRCB-TV has the Associated Press story.

read more »

Court Vacates Execution Set for February

Today is the fifth anniversary of the execution of Cecil Johnson, the last inmate to be put to death in Tennessee. And it looks like it might be a while before another execution takes place. Last week, the state Supreme Court vacated the execution date for Stephen Michael West, who was set to die Feb. 10, 2015, the Tennessean reports. The move comes after West and nine other death-row inmates filed suit to challenge the state’s methods of execution. The court indicated it would set a new date after final disposition of the inmates’ suit. In related news, death row inmate Gregory Thompson, 52, died of natural causes last week, the Times News reports. Thompson, who was convicted in 1985, was the subject of a CBS 60 Minutes film about whether a state can medicate a mentally ill person enough to render them sane enough to be executed.

read more »