News

Christian-Newsom Defendant Sentenced to 35 Years

Vanessa Coleman was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the 2007 torture-slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, Knoxnews reports. In November, a jury found her guilty of facilitating the kidnapping, rapes, and death of Christian. Coleman was tried and found guilty in May 2010, but was granted a new trial in the wake of a pill scandal involving former judge Richard Baumgartner who presided over the original proceedings.

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DOJ Criminal Division Chief to Step Down

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer says he will step down in March as chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, a post he has held since the 1960’s. Breuer announced his departure the day after BP entered a guilty plea in connection with the 2010 Gulf Oil spill, the biggest criminal investigation and penalty in the department’s history, NPR reports. The failed gun running sting operation known as Fast and Furious also sparked one of the biggest controversies of his tenure.

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Rutherford County Drug Court Helps Addicts, DUI Offenders

Mary Schneider serves as the director of Drug and DUI courts for Rutherford County where up to 50 drug addicts and 25 DUI offenders are treated at a time, the Daily News Journal reports. The program takes referrals from the court, and offers first-time and repeat offenders treatment and extensive therapy. Schneider opened Drug Court in 2000 after researching the success of similar courts in other states.

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DAs Release Legislative Agenda

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference will push an aggressive legislative agenda during the upcoming session, the Leaf-Chronicle reports, including proposed law changes that would facilitate prosecution of serial child sexual abusers, and increase sentences for aggravated child neglect and the most serious attempted first-degree murder cases. Other legislative priorities include changing current law to clearly establish that criminal proceedings can be initiated against defendants who are identified through DNA profiles even if their actual identities are not known at the time the charges are filed; implementing legislation that would allow for more effective prosecution of selling synthetic drugs; changing the law to facilitate the prosecution of prescription drug trafficking; and adding prosecutorial staff in areas with heavy case loads.

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Judge Hopes to Expand Drug Court for Moms

Shelby County Drug Court Judge Tim Dwyer sees the good his court is doing and wants to expand it. There are 13 mothers in the program, affecting 45 children, but he would like to be able to offer the services to 30 women. The special drug court pairs Dwyer up with the district attorney's office, juvenile court and Memphis police. If a mother gives birth to a baby addicted to drugs, she's now charged with reckless endangerment. Her only options are jail time or the treatment program. "We've got a long way to go," Dwyer says, "but at least were doing something." ABC24.com has the story

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Court Clarifies Competency Standards in Reid Opinion

The Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled that advocates for convicted serial killer Paul Dennis Reid may not continue appealing his convictions in state court against his wishes, despite claims he is not competent to abandon his appeals. Despite evidence of Reid’s brain damage and mental health issues, the court agreed with lower courts that his sister and attorneys failed to present clear and convincing evidence that he is incompetent to make his own legal decisions. The court’s opinion also clarifies the standards and procedures to be used to determine mental competency in post-conviction cases.

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Judge Reviews IQ in Death Penalty Case

U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell is reviewing the case file of Byron Lewis Black, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her two daughters in 1988. Black's federal public defender has argued that he is intellectually disabled and cannot be executed under Tennessee law. Judge Campbell will review interpretations of the state’s three-pronged approach to determining intellectual disability, including the use of IQ test scores. The law maintains that a person must have an IQ score of less than 70 to be deemed “intellectually disabled.” Black’s IQ scores ranged from 57-97 over a period of four decades. Campbell has not issued an opinion in the case. The Nashville City Paper has the story.

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Court to Consider Rape Accomplice Law

Under Tennessee law, a victim of statutory rape can be considered an accomplice in the crime, but the state Supreme Court will review a case that could overturn that interpretation, reports The Tennessean. The case involves a 14-year-old girl from Arkansas and a Memphis man, who was convicted of aggravated statutory rape in 2010. Based on a decision from 1895, women in statutory rape cases may be considered accomplices if no “evidence of force” is found. That fact alone is disturbing, but also raises the question of whether evidence beyond the woman’s testimony is necessary to convict the defendant. Observers suggest the court likely will use the case to narrow the definition of “accomplice” to exclude victims of sex crimes.

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Court to Review Statutory Rape Precedent

In the single criminal case it granted review this week, the Tennessee Supreme Court will be considering whether it should modify the existing rule classifying the victim of statutory rape as an accomplice and requiring corroboration of the victim’s testimony. Read more about the case and a forecast in the Raybin and Perky Tennessee Supreme Court Hot List.

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Court Will Hear 6 New Cases in April

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear six cases during its April sitting, which begins April 15. The cases include questions of whether an individual who has not been arrested but is interviewed by police has the right to remain silent; whether federal funds can be withheld from anti-AIDS groups that do not actively oppose prostitution; whether federal law preempts port regulations that limit the operations of federally licensed truckers; whether state or federal law controls the right to receive death benefits from a federal employee’s life insurance policy; whether the federal anti-extortion act applies to a private individual fighting a government recommendation about a pension fund; and whether Congress has authority to make failure to register for a sex crime a federal offense long after the sentence imposed for the crime is completed. Learn more on SCOTUSBlog.

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Court Weighs Whether Judge or Jury Can Impose Sentence Enhancement

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether a jury or a judge should have the final say on facts that can trigger mandatory minimum sentences in criminal trials, reports the Associated Press. The justices heard arguments yesterday in the case of Allen Alleyne, who was convicted of robbery and firearm possession. The jury found that Alleyne's accomplice did not brandish a weapon, but the judge said he did, raising Alleyne's minimum sentence from five to seven years on that charge. Alleyne's lawyers say the brandishing decision should have been the jury's, and it should have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, not the lower standard used by the judge.

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New Trial Granted for 1 in Torture-Slaying Case

Senior Judge Walter Kurtz today denied new trials for two brothers convicted in the 2007 slayings of a Knox County couple, but granted a retrial for a third defendant, Knoxnews.com reports. Lemaricus Davidson, who is facing the death penalty, and his brother, Letalvis Cobbins, who is serving life without parole, will not get new trials because, according to Kurtz, there was DNA evidence linking them to the killings. Their friend George Thomas, however, will get a second chance because former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over the original trial, did not rule on whether he could serve as a "13th juror" in the case. The issue of new trials for several defendants arose in the wake of a pill scandal that implicated Baumgartner and raised questions about the legitimacy of verdicts handed down in his court.

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Tennessee Still Lacks Key Lethal Injection Drugs

It's been three years since Tennessee put an inmate to death, and problems with obtaining lethal injection drugs make it unlikely executions will resume anytime soon, Knoxnews.com says. The state's supply of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs used in lethal injections, was turned over to the federal government in 2011 over questions about how it was imported. The short supply of the drug has led many states to seek out alternatives. Tennessee officials, however, are staying tight-lipped about their plans. According to the Department of Correction, the agency is looking at options while monitoring steps being taken by other states. Records obtained by the Associated Press also show that the state has no supply of pancuronium bromide, a strong muscle relaxant given before the final injection of potassium chloride.

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U.S. Attorney Names New Civil Rights Chief

Ed Stanton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, has appointed veteran federal prosecutor Larry Laurenzi as the new chief of the office’s Civil Rights Unit, The Memphis Daily News reports. Laurenzi replaces Steve Parker who left the office to join a U.S. Justice Department detail in New Orleans. Stanton created the Civil Rights Unit in 2011 to investigate traditional civil rights violations as well as government corruption, human trafficking and hate crimes cases.

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Stites Lawyer Elected Chair of Anti-Death Penalty Group

Stites & Harbison attorney Robert Goodrich has been elected chair of the board of directors for Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (TADP) – a non-profit organization that seeks repeal of the state’s death penalty. TADP will hold its 7th annual Student Conference on the Death Penalty at Lipscomb University in Nashville on Feb. 23. The free conference is open to high school, college and graduate students interested in learning about the death penalty issue and hearing from those directly impacted by the system. The conference keynote speaker is Ray Krone, the nation’s 100th death row exoneree, who spent 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Learn more about the conference

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Court Considers Blood Alcohol Warrant Requirement

The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case testing whether police must get a warrant before forcing a drunk driving suspect to have her blood drawn, NPR reports. The court has long held that search warrants are required when government officials order intrusions into the body, such as drawing blood. However, opponents of the law state that time is of the essence since a person’s blood alcohol starts to dissipate after they stop drinking so the need for quick blood-alcohol testing is necessary.

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State Searches for New Death Penalty Drug

The federal government has confiscated Tennessee’s entire stock of sodium thiopental, a key drug for lethal injection, amid questions of whether it was legally obtained overseas during a 2010 shortage in America. Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said the state is pursing alternative drugs in order to maintain its lethal injection protocol. Eighty-four inmates currently sit on Tennessee’s death row, 67 of whom have been there for more than 10 years. While death penalty opponents view the sodium thiopental shortage as a godsend, advocates think the state’s delay in finding an alternative drug is preventing justice from being carried out. The Tennessean has the story.

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Judge Kurtz to Retire After Christian-Newsom Case

Senior Judge Walter Kurtz says he will retire after presiding over the trials of Christian-Newsom murder defendants Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas. His retirement will be retroactive to Dec. 31, 2012,  WATE Knoxville News Channel 6 reports.

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Lawyer Seeks to Sue Connecticut Over School Shooting

A Connecticut attorney is requesting permission to sue the state over the Sandy Hook school shooting, saying his six-year-old client was left with emotional and psychological trauma because authorities failed to make the school safe. The attorney, Irving Pinsky, is seeking $100 million in damages on behalf of his client, a survivor of the shooting identified only as Jill Doe. The girl was at the elementary school during the attack and heard everything including gunfire, screaming and conversations over the intercom, Pinsky said. WCYB Channel 5 Bristol has this CNN report.

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ABA Commemorates 50th Anniversary of Gideon Decision

The ABA will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18 with events and public education programs that draw attention to the challenges facing the criminal justice system. The landmark Supreme Court ruling required state courts to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who cannot afford their own. For more information, contact Tori Jo Wible or Karyn Linn.

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Christian-Newsom Murder Defendant Requests New Trial in Light of 'Explosive' New Information

Attorneys for Lemaricus Davidson, who was convicted of the torture slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, are asking for a new trial due to outside influences on the jury during deliberations, WATE Knoxville News Channel 6 reports. In newly released, post-trial information, a juror blogged about his experience in 2009 during Davidson’s first trial stating the jurors had a “praise service” during the deliberations. Eight jurors believed Davidson should receive death, while four were unsure. The juror blogged that out of the five-plus hours spent deliberating, four hours were spent in prayer and reading the Bible. The judge will hear Davidson’s latest amended motions for a new trial on Jan. 10.

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Court Rules Against Death Row Inmate's Disability Claim

The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision that death row inmate David Keen may not reopen his post-conviction proceeding 19 years after his original death sentence to assert he is intellectually disabled. In an opinion authored by Justice William C. Koch, the court ruled that the statute permitting inmates to reopen their post-conviction proceedings did not apply to Keen’s claims since the statute allows reopening a proceeding when there is scientific evidence that an inmate is “actually innocent of the offense,” and Keen was not claiming that he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.

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Court to Review 2 New Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review to two cases. The first, a civil case, looks at whether a time-share salesperson is entitled to unemployment compensation. The second, a criminal case, calls for interpretation of the statute governing fabrication of evidence when the tampering occurs before police learn a crime may have been committed. The Raybin Perky Hotlist looks at the cases and offers a prediction as to how they may be decided. 

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Obama Presses for Swift Gun Control Policy Changes

In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last Friday, President Barack Obama is pressing for “concrete proposals” to curb gun violence, the Chattanooga Free Press reports. Obama asked Vice-President Joe Biden, a longtime gun control advocate, to lead the group that will include members of Obama’s administration and outside groups. The president said once he receives recommendations from the group, he will push legislation “without delay.”

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Court Upholds 'John Doe' Warrant

The  Tennessee Supreme Court  upheld the conviction of a man known as the “Wooded Rapist” in a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Gary R. Wade. The opinion maintains that the state can prosecute an unknown suspect by issuing a John Doe warrant that identifies them by gender and/or unique DNA profile if that criminal prosecution is properly and timely commenced within the statute of limitations.

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