News

'Just Mercy' Author to Speak at Knox PD Anniversary

Bryan Stevenson, New York Times Best Selling Author of “Just Mercy," will be the featured speaker at the upcoming 25th anniversary celebration of the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University School of Law. The event is planned for Nov. 9, 7 – 9:30 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Knoxville. Tickets can be purchased online

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Lt. Gov. Calls for More Action on Prison Staffing Problem

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, is calling recent attempts to fill more than 300 vacant correctional officer positions a “Band-Aid” approach, according to The Tennessean. The Department of Corrections announced Thursday it will pay new officers a $600 signing bonus and offer a $100 referral bonus starting Aug. 17. Gov. Bill Hassam and department Commissioner Derrick Schofield have downplayed the effects of the worker shortage, but Ramsey said, “When there’s this much smoke, there’s usually fire somewhere.”

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Injunction Bars DAs from Enforcing Abortion Clinic Law

U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp issued a preliminary injunction today barring district attorneys in Davidson and Sullivan counties from enforcing a new abortion clinic law, the Tennessean reports. The decision comes after the prosecutors were unwilling to submit a written statement that they would not enforce the law. Sharp had lifted a temporary restraining order on Monday but made its fate contingent on the DAs pledge not to prosecute.

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Government, Judges Clash Over Mug Shot Privacy

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the government must release mug shots of federal criminals in four states, including Tennessee. However, the panel encouraged the U.S. Justice Department to ask the full court to take a look at the issue given that online technology has changed since the 1996 ruling used as a precedent for the decision. Memphis Daily News has more.

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Nashville Peer Court Educating Students, Saving Money

Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Shelia Calloway conducted training at Lipscomb University in Nashville for her court’s Peer-Driven Youth Justice program, which offers an alternative to juvenile courts. Participating students learn about court proceedings including courtroom etiquette and sentence determination. Calloway estimates that the program has saved more than $1 million by keeping juveniles out of the court system. The AOC has more on the story.

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Gangs Big Contributors to Youth Crimes, Judge Says

Gangs are alive and are actively recruiting young people in Chattanooga, Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw told members of the Pachyderm Club on Monday. He said gangs use children to commit crimes because adult gang members would face felony charges if arrested. They convince youth they will not. In reality, Philyaw said he transfers one or two juvenile cases a week to adult courts. "It breaks my heart literally every time," he said. Chattanoogan.com has more.

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Groups Attack Task Force Report on Sentencing

Groups that represent African-Americans, prison inmates and defendants are saying they were locked out of a state task force on repeat offenders, Nashville Public Radio reports. The task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam last week recommended longer prison stays for those convicted three or more times for burglary, drug trafficking or domestic violence. It also proposed changing state law to provide “truth in sentencing” so that convictions result in a clear minimum period of incarceration.

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Law Enforcement Academy Coming to McMinn County

The McMinn County Sheriff’s Department is partnering with Tennessee Wesleyan College to offer a Citizen’s Law Enforcement Academy this fall, Chattanoogan.com reports. The free academy will focus on the policies and operations of criminal justice agencies.

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Prison Director Defends Safety, Staffing

Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield disputes claims of overcrowded prisons, staffing problems and increased violence previously reported in the Tennessean. Appearing Monday in front of lawmakers, Schofield acknowledged that pay does not increase for correction officers’ overtime shifts and some employees are working consecutive 16-hour-a-day shifts, but said prisons are safer than when he took over the department, the Tennessean reports.

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Fees, Fines Accumulate With Little Hope for Recovery

Convicts owe Knox County millions of dollars in fines and court costs that may never be collected. Four alone owe more than $600,000 dating back to the 1980s, WBIR reports. County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond hopes to recover at least some of the money with a plan that includes cracking down on those who can pay and a possible community service program, but some are skeptical.

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Data Suggests State Could Declare Prison Emergency

According to data obtained by the Tennessean, as of June 30, the state prison system was operating at 98.5 percent capacity, with 95.1 percent of total beds filled. Under state law, if capacity exceeds 95 percent for more than 30 days, the Tennessee Department of Correction can ask the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency. But that does not appear likely. The department says it is not required to declare an emergency and does not believe such a declaration is necessary at this time.

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New CAO Named for Shelby DA Office

Scott Sharpe has been named chief administrative officer (CAO) of the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office following the departure of longtime CAO Priscilla Campbell. Sharpe has been with the office since last November. In his new role, he will be responsible for personnel management, budget and finance, and procedural systems design and implementation. He recently sat down with the Memphis Daily News for an interview.

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Audit: Courts Not Complying with Reporting Requirements

A performance audit of the state court system has found that court clerks may not be sufficiently reporting information to the FBI database used to keep the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, Knoxnews reports. The report calls on the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to “implement improvements to fully comply with state statutes designed to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals with mental health issues.” The AOC concurred with the findings and said the problem is “partly due to a funding issue.” It pledged to devote the resources necessary to track the submission of mental health reports in the short term, but said it would need additional federal or state funding in the long term.

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Report Calls for Longer Prison Stays, ‘Truth-In-Sentencing’ Law

Faced with a state violent crime rate higher than the national average, a task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam yesterday recommended longer prison stays for those convicted three or more times for burglary, drug trafficking or domestic violence. The panel also called for domestic violence crimes to become felony offenses after a third conviction. The other major recommendation from the task force was to change state law to provide “truth in sentencing” so that convictions result in a clear minimum period of incarceration. The Tennessean has more on the report.

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No Rape Charges for UT Football Player

Prosecutors said Wednesday they will not pursue rape charges against University of Tennessee wide receiver Von Pearson, who has been suspended from the team and the school since April. “After a thorough review of the investigation, I have determined that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a criminal prosecution,” Charme Allen, Knox County district attorney general, said in a news release. Knoxnews has more on the story.

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ABA Asks Court to Clarify Right to Ineffective Counsel Claims

The American Bar Association has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court urging the high court to take up the case of Loden v. Mississippi to clarify an earlier ruling affecting a defendant’s ability to raise claims of ineffective counsel. The court ruled in 2007 that a defendant who actively prevented counsel from investigating mitigating evidence was precluded from later raising claims of ineffective counsel. The brief argues that lower courts should not interpret the 2007 opinion as a bright line waiver rule but rather should consider the role played by counsel in a defendant’s decision to waive the right to present mitigating evidence.

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Trial on Constitutionality of Lethal Injection Concludes

The trial to decide the constitutionality of Tennessee’s preferred method of executing prisoners concluded today in Davidson County Chancery Court. During closing arguments, attorneys for 33 death row inmates discussed technical aspects of theprocedure, including the role of compounding pharmacists in producing the lethal injection drug pentobarbital. The Daily Journal has more from the Associated Press.

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Study: ‘Fair Sentencing’ Law Leads to Decrease in Crack Prosecution

A federal law that closed the gap in sentence severity for offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine has led to fewer federal prosecutions and a reduction in the federal prisoner population, according to a new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The commission, which provides guidelines to aid federal judges in sentencing, estimated the law will save the Federal Bureau of Prisons 29,653 bed years — each of which represent 12 months of prison time. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has the story.

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Memphis to Host Summit on Sexual Assault Kits

The Memphis Sexual Assault Task Force will host in October a gathering of city leaders from across the U.S. grappling with the problem of rape kit backlogs, Memphis Daily News reports. Prosecutors, police officers, victim advocates, medical lab personnel and city administrators from 11 cities have been invited to the Oct. 19-20 gathering. The summit will offer sessions and training for sexual assault nurse examiners and public information officers, as well as look at best practices among the cities in evidence collection, victim notification, the use of forensic laboratories and the filing of charges and case prosecution.

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Judge Refuses to Dismiss Rape Charges Against Ex-Vol

Knox County Judge Bob McGee denied a request Thursday to dismiss rape charges against a former University of Tennessee football player, the Tennessean reports. Former star linebacker A.J. Johnson and ex-teammate Michael Williams pleaded not guilty to raping a former female student-athlete at Johnson's apartment in November 2014. Attorneys for Johnson argued that the indictment returned by a Knox County grand jury in February alleged more crimes than had actually been committed and sought dismissal of the charges.

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Chattanooga, Hamilton County Launch Mental Health Court

The new Chattanooga-Hamilton County Mental Health Court launched yesterday, News Channel 9 reports. The mental health court aims to provide services and break down barriers to recovery for defendants with serious mental illness. The program offers judicial supervision combined with treatment services to help defendants who would otherwise be released without additional support.

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NAACP, Others Seek Input on Prison Sentencing Reform

Representatives of human rights organizations and public defenders have sent a joint letter to the Governor's Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism asking it to reconsider its process before finalizing recommendations, the Tennessean reports. The letter argues that the makeup of the task force is "weighted toward the law enforcement community" and its meetings have had a "dearth of public input." Signers include representatives from the Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice, No Exceptions Prison Collective, Human Rights Defense Center, Tennessee NAACP, NOAH Criminal Justice Task Force, the Davidson County Public Defender's Office and the Knox County Public Defender's Office. The Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent a letter to the task force earlier this week expressing similar concerns.

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Collierville Attorney Pleads Not Guilty of Trying to Kill Wife

Collierville attorney Fred Auston Wortman III yesterday pleaded not guilty of trying to kill his wife. After a grand jury indictment, Wortman was charged with one count of attempted first-degree murder and two counts of solicitation of first-degree murder for allegedly trying to hire a hitman to kill her. His trial date is set for Dec. 1. Wortman also faces one charge of attempted murder in Shelby County for allegedly attempting to kill his wife by poisoning her toothpaste. Knoxnews has the story.

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ABA Establishes Task Force on Body Cameras

The ABA Criminal Justice Section has formed a Task Force on Law Enforcement Body Cameras to analyze whether the use of these cameras by law enforcement promotes public safety and guards against unsubstantiated claims of police misconduct. The task force also will assess the cameras' impact on the criminal justice system and individual liberties. Finally, it will be charged with reporting on best policies and practices for the deployment and use of body cameras. The group will announce task force members and detail objectives tomorrow at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

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TACDL Tells Governor’s Task Force More Input is Needed

The Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (TACDL) today sent a letter to the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism regarding its policy recommendations and the lack of input solicited from interested and educated parties. TACDL writes that the task force has not asked the opinion of TACDL, correctional officer organizations, prisoner advocacy organizations or former prisoners whose experiences in correctional facilities might aid in formulating recommendations. “This deficiency impairs the credibility and the efficacy of any recommendations by the task force,” TACDL writes in a press release. “Absent critical input from those with expertise in the criminal justice system, any recommendations run the risk of increasing the length of sentences, incarceration rates, prison costs and recidivism.” The task force's final meeting is set for Aug. 6 in Nashville.

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