News

Former Knoxville Lawyer Gets 51-Month Sentence

Disbarred Knoxville attorney John Oliver Threadgill was sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay $3 million in back taxes after being convicted of stealing clients’ money and avoiding paying federal taxes and penalties. At the sentencing hearing Monday, Threadgill continued to maintain his innocence arguing he pleaded guilty to theft charges only because it was in his best interest to avoid trial and receive probation, and that he was the victim of a bad investment that left him unable to pay the taxes. He remains free pending a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on where he will serve his sentence, Knoxnews reports.

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Court Grants 4 Case Reviews

The Tennessee Supreme Court has granted review in two criminal cases and two civil matters, Raybin-Perky Hot List reports. The criminal case issues include an ineffective assistance of counsel claim in a death penalty case regarding mental health proof; and whether expunged convictions may still be challenged in post-conviction proceedings where there are lingering immigration consequences. On the civil front, the court will determine whether a trial court may require a prevailing party to draft a summary judgment order without offering its own legal reasoning, and whether an inmate in state custody, but in a privately operated facility, may only bring a lawsuit in the county in which the facility is located as opposed to the corporation headquarters in Nashville. 

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TBI Rejects Families’ Request to See Baumgartner Files

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has declined to give the parents of murder victims Channon Christian and Chris Newsom access to its files on former judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over early trials in the murder case but later was removed from office, WATE-TV reports. The parents had requested access to the files arguing that since prosecutors and defense attorneys were able to see the documents, the victims' families should be able to see them as well. "I'm not sure what we'll find, but we should be allowed to see those files and gain knowledge as to what was taking place during that period of time," said Hugh Newsom, father of Chris Newsom. The parents have filed a petition with the court to see the sealed documents but are awaiting a ruling in the matter. They also have asked the court for time to respond to the TBI’s decision.

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Court: Juries Must Find Factors for Mandatory Minimums

The high court on Monday ruled that juries, not judges, have the final say on facts that can trigger mandatory minimum sentences in criminal trials, WRCB-TV reports. The court overturned the sentencing of a Richmond man who was convicted of robbery and firearm possession. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury said his accomplice did not brandish a weapon but the judge found that he did. The judge’s finding raised the minimum sentence from five to seven years. Lawyers for the defendant argued that the decision should have been left to the jury. The court agreed and sent the case back for resentencing.

Other actions from the court today included rulings in favor of generic drug availability, allowing police to use suspects' silence against them at trial if they do not claim their Fifth Amendment right, and prohibiting lawyers from using state drivers' license records to recruit new clients. SCOTUSBlog has more on these decisions.

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Lawyers to Congress: Too Many Criminal Laws

A panel of four attorneys told members of Congress today that one way to fix the nation's "bloated and convoluted" criminal code is to require prosecutors to prove intent, especially when it comes to regulatory violations. The Blog of Legal Times reports.

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25 Apply for Court of Appeals, Court of Criminal Appeals

Three judges, one magistrate and 21 attorneys have applied to fill the 2014 vacancies on the Court of Appeals Middle Tennessee Division and Court of Criminal Appeals Eastern Tennessee Division, the Administrative Office of the Courts announced today. The openings are the result of announcements by Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Cottrell and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joseph Tipton that they will not seek re-election in August 2014, creating vacancies effective Sept. 1, 2014. Because statutory provisions for the Judicial Nominating Commission expire June 30, 2013, the commission will meet June 27 in Chattanooga and June 28 in Nashville to select a slate of candidates from which Gov. Bill Haslam will choose.

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New Bill Defines Sex Trafficking as Child Abuse

Under proposed legislation, child prostitutes would be considered victims of abuse rather than juvenile offenders and be referred to child welfare, WRCB-TV reports. The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would require state law enforcement, foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect eligible for the appropriate protections and services. Tennessee recently developed one of the nation’s most comprehensive anti-trafficking programs with 12 new laws approved by lawmakers.

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Courts Must Use Sentencing Guidelines in Effect at Time of Crime

The U.S. Supreme Court today found that judges may not use newer, more stringent sentencing guidelines on old cases. The 5-4 ruling came in the case of Marvin Peugh, who was convicted of five counts of bank fraud, sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $2 million dollars. Peugh had argued that his sentence was unfair because 2009 guidelines were used instead of the more lenient 1999 guidelines that were in effect at the time of his offenses. The high court agreed and sent the case back to the appeals court. SCOTUSBlog has the story.

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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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