News

Study: Tennessee Indigent Defense Fees Among Lowest

A study released by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that Tennessee pays court-appointed attorneys one of the lowest rates in the country. The study suggests that states with low compensation and pay caps discourage experienced attorneys from taking court-appointed cases and create an incentive for quick plea deals. Tennessee pays court-appointed attorneys $50 an hour for in-court work and $40 for office work compared to a national average of $65 an hour. Also in Tennessee, rates are capped at $1,500 for felony cases and $1,000 for misdemeanor cases. Defense attorneys say these rates allow for about a week’s worth of work when such cases can easily take several weeks or even months. The Administrative Office of the Courts told The Tennessean that it has increased payments but is limited by budget constraints and that criminal defense expenditures now represent nearly half of the entire court system's budget.

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Court to Hear DUI Case

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear a DUI case that could determine whether police can arrest people suspected of drunk driving even after they pass field sobriety tests. The case involves a DUI charge in Sevier County that was dismissed because the driver passed a series of field sobriety tests but was still arrested. Blood tests showed he was legally drunk, but three lower courts have said the evidence was gained unlawfully because police had no proof he was guilty of anything other than a traffic violation. News Channel 5 has the story.

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Letters Urge Leniency for Former Judge Baumgartner

In the run-up to former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner’s April 10 sentencing on five counts of misprision of a felony for lying to cover up his mistress’ involvement in a federal drug conspiracy, defense attorneys have filed dozens of letters in support of probation for their client. Among the letters, according to Knoxnews, is a handwritten note from retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert P. Murrian, a former colleague of U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer, who will determine Baumgartner’s fate. Others writing in support of the defense are former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White, Knoxville Bar Association Committee Chairman William Vines III and attorneys John K. Harber and Al Harb.

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Know Your Plea Offers

In the recent Tennessee Bar Journal, Knoxville lawyer Wade V. Davies advises readers about plea offers and preventing ineffective assistance of counsel. For one thing, he says, lawyers need to check the sex offender statute every time they have a case, since the standards often change. "In 2010," for example, "the Tennessee Supreme Court noted that the General Assembly had amended the registration act at least 15 times since 2005."

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50 Years After 'Gideon,' Defense System for Poor in Crisis

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, but even with the help that brought for poor defendants, many lawyers say the system for providing defense attorneys is in crisis. University of Georgia law professor Erica Hashimoto, who studies state defense systems, points out that when the Supreme Court ruled for Gideon, it didn't say anything about who would pay for lawyers for the poor, and those programs usually are at the top of the list to cut during times of belt-tightening. She's also worried about defendants in rural areas. "We know that felony defendants in urban areas for the most part are represented by counsel. We don't know the same about felony defendants in rural areas." Nobody collects that information, so, Hashimoto says, nobody can say whether thousands of defendants are getting their rights under Gideon. NPR has more.

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Maryland Legislature Votes to Overturn Death Penalty

The Maryland House of Delegates today joined the Senate, voting to overturn the state's death penalty, putting it a step closer to becoming the 18th U.S. state to abolish executions, Reuters reports. By a vote of 82 to 56, the House agreed to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole. Gov. Martin O'Malley -- who said the death penalty was expensive, did not work and cited a study that death penalty sentencing was racially biased -- has pledged to sign the bill into law.

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Final Briefs Filed in Baumgartner Sentencing

Both sides on Wednesday made their final case before a federal judge next month decides what punishment to dole out to Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, the once-respected jurist turned convicted felon. Defense attorneys Donald A. Bosch and Ann Short filed a brief asking for the sentence to be served on probation, while federal prosecutors David Lewen and Zachary Bolitho filed a brief seeking jail time, Knoxnews reports.

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10 Apply for Shelby Criminal Court Vacancy

The Judicial Nominating Commission will hold a public meeting on March 27 to interview 10 attorneys who have applied to fill the Criminal Court vacancy in the 30th judicial district serving Shelby County. The vacancy was created by the death of Judge W. Otis Higgs. The Administrative Office of the Courts announced the following candidates: David Michael Bell, Latonya Sue Burrow, Dean Thomas DeCandia, Garland Ingram Erguden, Damon Keith Griffin, Lawrence J. Laurenzi, Kevin Russell Rardin, Carolyn Sherri Watkins, Glenn Wright and David Michael Zak.

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Criminal Prosecutor Critically Wounded in Attack

Shelby County criminal court prosecutor Kate Edmands was severely injured in an attack inside her home last week, the Commercial Appeal reports. As of Monday night, no arrests had been made and Vince Higgins, a spokesman for district attorney Amy Weirich, wouldn’t speculate on whether the attack could have been an act of retaliation related to the violent criminals Edmands routinely prosecutes. “The extent of her injuries were initially critical,” Higgins said Monday. “She’s stabilized and as of today she’s in intensive care."

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Woman Embezzles $300,000+ from Law Office

Former law office comptroller Lisa Potter was sentenced to a year in jail and 30 years on probation for allegedly embezzling more than $300,000 from attorney Tony Seaton to support a cocaine habit. Potter had pleaded guilty to the crime last year. Washington County Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp ruled Monday that if Potter repays the remaining $157,000 owed to Seaton, her probation would end after the original sentence. She will report to jail to begin serving her sentence May 3. The Johnson City Press has the story.

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Memphis Law Symposium to Focus on Trafficking

The University of Memphis Law Review’s annual symposium will be held March 22. The full-day event will look at the issue of human trafficking in the court system from an international, national, statewide and local perspective. Tennessee recently passed some of the strongest anti-trafficking laws in the country, which means these cases likely will arise more frequently in state courts. The symposium will feature speakers from state and local law enforcement, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. Learn more or register online.

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Obama Pardons 3 Tennesseans

President Barack Obama pardoned 17 people Friday, including three Tennesseans. Roy Eugene Grimes Sr. of Athens was pardoned on charges he falsely altered a U.S. postal money order; Donald Barrie Simon Jr. of Chattanooga was pardoned on charges he aided and abetted in the theft of an interstate shipment; and Donna Kaye Wright of Friendship was pardoned for embezzlement and misapplication of bank funds. Knoxnews has more on the three and their cases.

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Inmate Indicted for Threatening Letters

A prisoner at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville was indicted for sending threatening letters to the governor that falsely claimed to contain anthrax, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release today that Brandon Frady of Johnson City sent out six threatening letters, four containing white powder he claimed was anthrax. Prosecutors said the letters disrupted government operations, causing the evacuation of the offices of the Nashville district attorney’s office and nearby buildings.

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Violence Against Women Act Renewed

Renewal of the Violence Against Women Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives 286-138 today, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. All seven Tennessean Republicans in the House voted against the legislation which reauthorizes various dating and domestic abuse initiatives including rape prevention programs, HIV/AIDs counseling and specialized training for law enforcement officials handling sexual assault cases. The bill now heads to the Oval Office.

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Supreme Court Considers DNA Sampling

U.S. Supreme Court justices argued Tuesday whether to let police take DNA without a warrant from those arrested in order to use it to solve old cases, according to Knoxnews. In the case Maryland v. King, Alonzo King was arrested and charged with felony second-degree assault. Police took a cheek swap of King’s DNA, which identified him in the 2003 rape and robbery of a 53-year-old woman, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, the state Court of Appeals said warrantless DNA samples violated King’s rights and that he had “a sufficiently weighty and reasonable expectation of privacy against warrantless, suspicionless searches.” The court is reviewing that ruling and will make a decision later this year.

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File for Shelby Criminal Court by March 11

The Judicial Nominating Commission is accepting applications through March 11 for a vacancy on the 30th Judicial District Criminal Court, which serves Shelby County. The seat on the court is available following the death of Judge W. Otis Higgs. Services for the former judge were held last week.

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Court to Hear 3 Criminal, 3 Civil Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review to three criminal and three civil cases. The criminal cases address consecutive sentencing and two variations of the admissibility of confessions recorded by civilians who are acting as agents of the government to “get the truth” from the accused regarding alleged sexual abuse of the civilians’ relatives. The civil cases concern life insurance disbursements, the “two dismissals” rule and whether summary judgment is appropriate on statutory interpretation in a declaratory action. The Raybin-Perky Hot List examines the new cases and predicts how each will be decided.

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Study Shows Racial Disparity in Sentencing

According to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black men on average are given sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those served by white men for similar crimes. The ABA Journal reports that the findings show the racial divide in sentencing has widened since the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in U.S. v. Booker, which struck down a 1984 law requiring judges to impose sentences within the sentencing guidelines. The study showed black men are also 25 percent less likely to receive a sentence below the sentencing guidelines. 

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Memphis DA Honored By Mayor

At the city of Memphis’ 11th annual "Tea and Talk at the Top" on Sunday afternoon, Mayor A C Wharton and his wife Ruby honored six women who have made significant contributions to the community. Each of the women received the Ruby R. Wharton Outstanding Women Award for their respective field. Among the group was Amy Weirich, who was presented with the Distinguished Government Service Award. According to The Commercial Appeal, Weirich was honored for her service as the city’s first female district attorney.

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Only Female on Death Row Files Federal Appeal

The only woman on death row in Tennessee is asking a federal judge to prevent her execution, Knoxnews reports. Convicted killer Christa Gail Pike has exhausted state court appeals and now has turned to the U.S. District Court. Among her claims, Pike contends that her trial attorney was incompetent, and that she was "a mentally ill, cognitively impaired, immature adolescent" suffering from brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the incident. Her federal petition contains claims previously raised but also includes a new charge: that state courts violated her constitutional rights during the trial and penalty phases of her case.

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DOJ to Announce Death Penalty Decision Next Month

The Justice Department will announce whether it is going to pursue the death penalty against former prison guard Chastain Montgomery, who was charged with killing two West Tennessee postal workers during a robbery. WDEF News 12 reports that U.S Assistant Attorney Tony Arvin told U.S District Judge Jon McCalla that the government’s decision is expected to be disclosed March 7, three days after a hearing to address the legality of Montgomery’s confession.

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Proposal Would Increase Assault Sentences

State Rep. Cameron Sexton has introduced HB 31, or Boomer’s Law, which proposes to change the state law regarding the punishment for aggravated assault. The legislation is named after 20-year old Boomer Smith, who was killed last March following an argument with a friend. The assailant was charged with aggravated assault with serious bodily injury, a crime that has a penalty of three to six years. Boomer’s father, Richard Smith, has been working with a number of officials to redefine aggravated assault under Tennessee law and increase the sentence up to 10 years. The Herald Chronicle has the story.

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Former Judge, Bristol Attorney Dies

Frank Slaughter Sr. died Feb. 12 at the age of 78. A prominent criminal defense attorney in Bristol, Slaughter was a graduate of Tennessee High School, Stetson University School of Business, and the University of Tennessee College of Law. He was appointed to the bench in the mid-1990s and served briefly as a criminal court judge. Slaughter was a member of the American Judicature Society, American Bar Association, American Trial Lawyers Association, and Bristol Tennessee Bar Association. The funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Akard Funeral Home Chapel. A private burial will be in Campground Cemetery with military rites conducted by the Bristol VFW Honor Guard. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be sent to the charity of your choice.

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ABA House Adopts Range of Resolutions

The ABA House of Delegates approved a range of resolutions today at its winter meeting in Dallas, the ABA Journal reports. Proposals garnering support included those urging lawmakers to provide adequate funding for federal courts and the Legal Services Corp.; creating a new national entity to help public defenders dealing with excessive caseloads; providing guidance for an amicus brief in a case on the patenting of isolated human genes; giving foreign lawyers limited authority to serve as in-house counsel in the United States; encouraging lawyers to provide unbundled legal services; clarifying a model rule dealing with conflicts of interest in multi jurisdictional cases; and urging federal courts to instruct grand jury members that they are not bound to indict just because a conviction can be obtained. The body also approved a series of resolutions addressing human trafficking, a key issue for ABA President Laurel G. Bellows.

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Grand Jury Chair’s Felony Record Uncovered, 800 Cases in Question

Indictments from nearly 900 cases in the Nashville area are under review after officials discovered that 2011 grand jury chair Eugene Grayer is a convicted felon. According to the ABA Journal, an appeals court is set to decide whether any of the cases will need to be retried. Grayer was convicted of theft in 1977, but his felony status was not uncovered until he applied for a handgun permit and underwent a background check.

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