News

21st Drug Court Has New Head, Fundraiser on Monday

Williamson County attorney Vince Wilcox has been named the new coordinator for the 21st Judicial District Drug Court, which provides alternative sentencing programs for non-violent offenders in Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties. The court’s board said it was impressed with Wilcox’s education, credentials, job experience and enthusiasm for the job. Wilcox had been working for the district’s public defender. Prior to earning his law degree at the Nashville School of Law, Wilcox worked in the music business. He also earned a master degree in counseling. Read more in the court's press release. In addition to announcing the new hire, the drug court announced it would hold its annual Community Breakfast Fundraiser at 7:30 a.m. Monday at Puckett’s of Franklin. For more information contact the court at (615) 595-7868 or info@21dc.org.

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Metro Considers Settlement in Shackled Mom Case

Five years after Juana Villegas went into labor while shackled to a hospital bed by the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, Metro Nashville is looking to pay her $100,000 in damages and $390,000 to her attorneys to end an ongoing lawsuit, The Tennessean reports. Following the incident, which garnered national attention, a federal judge ruled in Villegas’ favor and ordered Metro to pay her $200,000. A jury later awarded her attorneys $1.2 million in fees. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned both awards and ordered a retrial. The Metro Council was set to vote today to approve the settlement and end the case.

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Former U.S. Senate Candidate Charged in Murder Plot

Former U.S Senate candidate Thomas Kenneth “T.K.” Owens of Jonesborough has been charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder, the Johnson City Press reports. Washington County Criminal Court Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has appointed David Robbin to represent Owens, who allegedly plotted to have his uncle killed. Owens ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Corker in 2012.

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Court Upholds Sentencing Review Standards for Capital Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, has upheld a death sentence for a Memphis-area man who was convicted of first-degree felony murder. While the entire court agreed that Corinio Pruitt was guilty, the dissenting justices would have modified the sentence to life without parole. The majority concluded that the sentence of death was not imposed arbitrarily, that the evidence supported the jury’s finding of guilt, and that the sentence was not excessive or disproportionate. In their separate opinion, Justice William C. Koch Jr. and Justice Sharon G. Lee wrote that comparing all first-degree murder cases would be more consistent with the Tennessee law that requires proportionality review and with the rule that capital punishment is not appropriate for all murders but is reserved for only the most heinous murders and the most dangerous murderers. The two dissenting justices also pointed to a 2007 American Bar Association study of Tennessee’s death penalty, which said that the limited pool of cases the court adopted in 1997 undercut the purpose of proportionality review.

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Court Accepts 8 Cases; Likely Will Work During Shutdown

The U.S. Supreme Court today granted review of eight new cases, including one from Tennessee seeking to clarify when an individual commits a crime for having a gun after being convicted of domestic violence. Other cases involve questions about the award of attorneys' fees in patent cases; whether it is unconstitutional for a state to require home-care providers to pay a union to represent them before state agencies; whether the federal government has a right to reclaim lands abandoned by a railroad; whether shuttered businesses must pay Social Security and Medicare tax on severance checks; and whether police, after receiving an anonymous tip, must observe drunken or reckless driving before stopping a vehicle. The final case seeks to resolve a long-running copyright dispute in Hollywood over the screenplay for the 1980 movie Raging Bull. Although much of the government is closed because of the budget impasse, the Supreme Court is going ahead with its work, SCOTUSblog reports.

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Tennessee Revises Execution Protocol

The Tennessee Department of Correction announced Friday that it is switching from a three-drug method to a single-drug method to execute death row inmates, the Associated Press reports. The new protocol now calls for using the sedative pentobarbital only to put an inmate to death. Tennessee's supply of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs previously used in lethal injections, was turned over to the federal government in 2011 over questions about how it was imported. The short supply of sodium thiopental in the United States has led many death penalty states to seek out other drugs. Read more in the Memphis Daily News.

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Memphis Leaders Attend DOJ Youth Violence Summit

"A lot of times the international things get all the attention," Memphis Mayor AC Wharton said, "but we've got wars going on right here in our streets." Wharton was part of a delegation to Washington D.C yesterday for the Department of Justice's third annual summit on preventing youth violence, WMC-TV reports. The DOJ selected Memphis as one of 10 cities to take part in the two-day event. Other invited Memphians included police director Toney Armstrong, Tennessee Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and Rev. Keith Norman.

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TDOC, Nonprofit 5K Walk Set For Saturday

The Tennessee Department of Correction and the nonprofit victim advocacy organization You Have the Power will host the “Walk Off Crime for No More Victims,”a 5K walk this Saturday to celebrate 20 years of serving the community. Founded in 1993 by former Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte, the organization's mission is to advocate, educate and empower victims and communities impacted by violent crime. The event will begin at 10 a.m. at the Metro Courthouse steps in downtown Nashville. For more information, contact Melissa Cross at (615) 292-7027.

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23 Apply For 2 Magistrate Posts in Hamilton County

The Chattanoogan.com reports that 23 individuals have applied for two vacancies as Hamilton County magistrates or judicial commissioners. The applicants include incumbents Larry Ables and Jeffrey Davis. The County Commission will select two candidates, who will set bonds and sign warrants at the county jail. See the list of candidates on the paper’s website.

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Hamilton D.A. to Retire

Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox announced yesterday he will not seek re-election in next year's voting, Chattanoogan.com reports. "I love this job," he said, but cited his age as the primary factor in the decision. Cox has nearly 40 years experience in the criminal justice system. In 1972, he joined the Chattanooga Police Department and obtained his undergraduate and law degrees while working there. He then joined the district attorney’s office after graduating from the Nashville School of Law. Cox cited his office's success in reducing crime as a great achievement, but also advocated for two reforms: requiring equal discovery rules for both the prosecution and defense, and allowing prosecutors to show a photo of the victim to the jury, which he said some courts have ruled against.

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Stanton: New DOJ Strategy is ‘Smarter’ on Crime

In an opinion piece published Saturday in the Jackson Sun, Western District U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton applauds the Justice Department’s new “Smart on Crime” initiative and lays out his plans for implementing its core objectives. Under the plan, announced last month by Attorney General Eric Holder, federal prosecutors are to focus on the most serious criminal cases, pursue alternatives to incarceration, improve reentry efforts and focus on protecting the most vulnerable in society. Stanton touts the work his office already has done in these areas and explains how the initiative will further refine and extend those efforts.

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Nashville Lawyer Honored for Indigent Defense

Nashville attorney Patrick Frogge, who frequently represents indigent federal defendants, has been selected as Panel Lawyer of the Year by Federal Public Defender Henry Martin and former recipients of the award. He will be honored at the 22nd annual Criminal Justice Act Panel Appreciation Banquet Oct. 9 in Nashville, The Tennessean reports. Speaking about Frogge, Martin said he “represents the underdogs” and “continues to show that he’s a lawyer for the people” having worked on thousands of cases. Frogge earned his law degree from Fordham University School of Law in 1999. He worked as Nashville’s assistant public defender before entering private practice in 2005.

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Death Sentence Commuted for Sick Inmate

John Patrick Henretta, a death row inmate awaiting execution for the 1988 murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery of a Cleveland woman, had his sentence commuted after Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood determined his natural death is imminent. Blackwood also ruled that Henretta likely would not survive post-conviction proceedings given his “dire physical state,” the Times Free Press reports. Lawyers argued that execution would be cruel and unusual punishment given Henretta’s condition. According to a doctor who testified, Henretta suffers from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, skin cancer, prostate cancer, chronic hepatitis C, severe cirrhosis of the liver and a backup of blood into the intestinal wall and spleen.

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Memphis Woman Charged with Threatening Prosecutor

Betty Frazier, the sister of a nurse charged in the death of a 3-year-old, has been arrested for threatening the prosecutor in the case. According to The Commercial Appeal, Frazier allegedly said, “I could see myself putting a bullet in her head,” about Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Nichols, after a hearing in the case. Frazier’s sister Demequa Bonds is charged with reckless homicide after a child with a rare neurological disorder was left in her care and died in her home.

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Rep. Hawk Convicted of Reckless Endangerment

Rep. David Hawk was convicted of reckless endangerment by an East Tennessee jury yesterday, the Johnson City Press reports. The case stems from an incident in which his ex-wife alleged he had struck her. Judge Paul Summers earlier dismissed a felony charge of aggravated assault against Hawk, saying that prosecutors hadn't proved that his ex-wife suffered serious bodily injuries.

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Kingston Attorney Joins D.A.’s Office

Kingston attorney Terry L. Stevens II has joined the staff of District Attorney General Russell Johnson as an assistant district attorney in the 9th Judicial District, covering Roane, Loudon, Morgan and a portion of Meigs counties. Johnson called Stevens a “good fit” for the position. “The judges, lawyers and clerks are all familiar with him," Johnson said. "And when I started looking for a person for this position, his name was first on almost everyone’s list of recommendations.” The Roane County News has the story.

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Court Increases Attorney Compensation

The Tennessee Supreme Court today announced increases to the maximum attorney compensation for some non-capital felony cases. Where the defendant is charged with first degree murder or a Class A or B felony, the Court raised the maximum from $1,500 to $2,500. They also raised the maximum in complex or extended cases for the same offenses to $5,000. The increased limits apply to cases where counsel is appointed after Jan. 1, 2014. These changes were among those advocated by petitions filed two years ago by the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers with TBA support.

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Rutherford D.A. Won’t Seek Re-election

Rutherford County District Attorney General Bill Whitesell announced Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2014, the Daily News Journal reports. “I want to retire with good health, which I have right now, and after 34 years, somebody else probably has a fresh idea.” So far, two assistant district attorney generals -- Trevor Lynch and Jennings Jones -- have announced their intention to run as Republicans.

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Memphis Veterans’ Court Sees First Graduates

Half a dozen military veterans “completed a most difficult tour of duty recently as the first graduates of the Shelby County Veterans Court,” WDEF News 12 reports. The program allows veterans to have their criminal cases set aside while they participate in an intensive regiment that includes counseling, group meetings, alcohol and drug screens, anger management sessions and other support programs. At the conclusion of the process, successful graduates receive expungement orders erasing their offenses from the public record. The court holds session every Wednesday. Another 42 veterans are participating in the program.

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2014 Rules Package Published for Comment

The Tennessee Supreme Court today published the annual package of recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rules of Procedure and Evidence. Proposals include new authority for appellate courts to suspend rules; requirements for electronic copies of transcripts; specification of the color of applications; responses and amici in TRAP 9 and 11 matters; and refinement of criminal contempt provisions. Four TBA sections -- Appellate Practice, Litigation, Tort and Insurance Law and Criminal Justice -- will be asked to review the recommendations and propose comments on behalf of the association. Comments on the proposals are due Nov. 27. 

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Prosecutor Defends Himself at Ethics Hearing

Paul Rush, assistant district attorney in the 10th Judicial District, defended himself yesterday against three ethics allegations brought by the Board of Professional Responsibility. The board contends that during a 2010 murder trial that resulted in a mistrial, Rush hid information that would have been helpful to the defense and questioned a witness about an issue he was ordered not to pursue. The board also alleges that he disobeyed the trial judge’s order to turn himself in for possible discipline after the case. Rush’s lawyer addressed each charge and summed up his client’s defense saying he made "good-faith" decisions and, if he made mistakes, they were not willful violations of ethics rules. The Times Free Press reports the hearing panel expects to issue a ruling in 10 days.

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Memphis Finds Funding to Test Rape Kits

Memphis officials have added $500,000 to the city's budget to pay for testing of backlogged rape kits and have committed $1 million to construct a new climate-controlled facility to store and catalog the evidence, the Jackson Sun reports. The issue surfaced last month when the police department reported there were some 8,000 kits dating back to the 1980s that had not been tested, and more than 6,000 pieces of evidence that need to be moved into rape kits. Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said her department has enough staff to handle the testing. “If all 109 prosecutors in my office have to take all the new files and split them up, that’s what we’ll do,” she said. “This is about getting violent criminals off the street.” The Commercial Appeal has her remarks.

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Decision Overturned Due to Juror-Witness Communication

The Tennessee Supreme Court today overturned trial and appellate court rulings in a murder case, finding that the lower court failed to follow appropriate procedures after a juror contacted a witness during the trial. Though the witness informed the judge of the contact, the judge allowed the proceedings to continue and sentenced the defendant after the jury found him guilty. The judge also denied requests by the defendant to question the juror and order a new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld those decisions. In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed, ruling that when communication between a juror and a third party is brought to a trial court’s attention, the court must immediately inform the parties and conduct a hearing to determine the nature and extent of the communication and whether it affected the trial's outcome. Under the ruling, the trial court must now conduct such a hearing.

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Judge Defends Court's Collection of Fines

Circuit Court Judge Clayburn Peeples countered claims that his court is not assessing and collecting fines designated to fund the 28th Judicial District Drug Task Force, telling the Jackson Sun that “Everybody who can be fined is fined. The law requires in some cases that fines be waived. I don’t write the law, I simply apply it. I am totally flabbergasted by [these] accusations.” The retired head of the task force has said that the interagency group may not exist next year because it is not receiving enough fee revenue from the court.

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Shelby Judicial Officials Reflect on Sentencing Changes

In a video interview with the Memphis Daily News, Shelby County’s Public Defender Stephen Bush and County Corrections Division Director James Coleman say county courts and prisons are improving, but more intervention should take place before citizens come into contact with the justice system. “The prison system is probably the worst place to engage people … struggling with other life issues,” Bush said. The program is the second in a series of interviews reflecting on changes in federal prosecution guidelines announced last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The first installment featured District Attorney General Amy Weirich and U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton. Watch that interview here.

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