News

Prosecutor May be Planning Run for Judgeship

Leland Price, a Knox County assistant attorney general who’s helped prosecute defendants in the slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, indicated over the weekend that he is planning to run next year to succeed Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz, who is retiring. Knoxnews columnist Georgia Vines writes in today’s paper that Price once considered running for Knox County district attorney general but apparently has changed his mind. Another prosecutor in the office, Republican Charme Knight, has indicated an intention to run for the DA position.

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Gideon’s Promise Holds Nashville Event May 1

Atlanta-based Gideon’s Promise will host a “Law Day Soiree” May 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Nashville offices of Frost Brown Todd. During the event, the group's president will discuss the state of the nation’s public defense system and share about the mission of the organization. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also will be honored and select outtakes from an upcoming HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army, will be shown. The event is sponsored by Nashville Public Defender Dawn Deaner; Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Bell Tennent & Frogge; Bone McAllester Norton; Dodson, Parker, Behm & Capparella; and Frost Brown Todd, located in the Pinnacle at Symphony Place, 150 3rd Ave. S., Suite 1900, Nashville 37201. RSVP for the event by April 24 to Roshonda Carter. Learn more about Gideon’s Promise, formerly known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, by watching this recent New York Times video about a young prosecutor who graduated from its program.

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Workers' Comp Overhaul Adopted; McNally Amendment Still Alive

The bill (SB 200) to overhaul the workers’ compensation system, transfer responsibility to an administrative judiciary and narrow the range of discretion in the system received easy final passage in the state House today.

Meanwhile, budget deliberations, which will formally resume on Monday afternoon, continue to include the McNally amendment. With only one week likely left in the session, and most notice and other rules suspended, advocates must now expand their focus to all members of the Senate Finance Committee to try to head off quick adoption of the proposal by the chair.

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Rivera Named Acting Federal Prosecutor

David Rivera has been named acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, replacing Jerry Martin who left office to create a Nashville office for Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. Rivera is a veteran federal prosecutor who worked in federal prosecutors’ offices in Puerto Rico, Florida and New York, and has been recognized for work on prosecutions of international drug trafficking organizations as well as his work on public corruption and economic fraud cases. Knoxnews has the story.

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Prosecutors Oppose Probation for Baumgartner

Federal prosecutors are asking U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer to disregard probation requests and lock up former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner for “at least two years,” according to Knoxnews. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zachary Bolitho and David Lewen said in a filing Monday that Baumgartner’s misdeeds “significantly disrupted” the Knox County criminal justice system. The pair point to the half dozen new trials granted to defendants as a result of the fall-out of the pill scandal, most notably within the high-profile case regarding the Christian-Newsom torture-slayings. Baumgartner’s defense attorneys Donald Bosch and Ann Short argued the former judge gave up the bench when the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe became public in 2011 and that damage to the justice system has not been as bad as anticipated.

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Important Issues Still at Play in Legislature

A number of bills of interest to lawyers may see action before the end of the session. They include:

Lawyer Regulation -- A bill (SB 779/HB 635) to impose criminal sanctions on Board of Professional Responsibility panel members, staff, lawyers subject to discipline, and their counsel for certain procedural violations could see action in committees in both chambers. The TBA has resisted this unwelcome intrusion in the Supreme Court’s disciplinary process.

Tort -- Codification of comparative fault with limitations of joint and several liability in several types of cases that the courts have carved out by common law -- including products liability and cases with combined intentional and negligent actors -- still awaits House committee action (SB 56/HB 1099).

Collateral Source Rule -- The effort to limit the effect of the collateral source rule (SB 1184/HB 978) will be studied for now but could return next year.

Workers Compensation Overhaul -- The Workers Compensation overhaul (SB 200/HB 194) continues its march towards expected passage. According to the Associated Press, the plan is scheduled for a full Senate vote on Monday night with the House Finance Committee taking it up on Tuesday.

Conservatorship -- The work of the TBA’s Special Committee on Conservatorship Practice and Procedure has been adopted by the Senate (SB 555/HB 692) and should see action in the House Civil Justice Committee this week.

Trust Law -- A bill (SB 713/HB 873) to rewrite Tennessee trust law and a 52-page amendment debuted 10 days ago will see action in the House Civil Justice Committee.

Criminal -- The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear about legislation (SB 1362/HB 1293) permitting prosecution of an alleged repeat child abuser in any county where an act of of abuse allegedly occurred, and permitting evidence of all prior child abuse by declaring past offenses to be a "continuing offense.”

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DA Names Domestic Violence Prosecution Team

Addressing a growing need to help victims of domestic violence, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office will create a special team to handle domestic crime-related cases. District Attorney Torry Johnson said the Domestic Violence Prosecution Team will devote six assistant district attorneys and five victim witness coordinators to the effort. A similar team was disbanded 10 years ago because of budget concerns, WTVF NewsChannel 5 reports, but it has been reconstituted after Mayor Karl Dean recognized the growing need. "The trend has to be to bring these cases into the criminal justice system and break the cycle of violence," Johnson said in announcing the team.

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Drug Court Running Low on Funds

The Sumner County Drug Court, which is in its 11th year and annually serves 40 to 60 adults, is running low on funding, with one general sessions judge saying the program could be as much as $35,000 short in the next fiscal year. The program is funded by an annual state grant and fines paid by those convicted of drug or alcohol-related crimes in the county. The 2013 Leadership Sumner class also recently made a three-year financial commitment to the drug court. As one class member observed, “Either we can fund the program…or we can pay for them to stay in the county jail. Either way, we are going to pay for it.” The Tennessean looks at the history of the program, including a number of success stories.

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Baumgartner Defense Makes Final Push

Lawyers for former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner are making a final push to fight federal charges that he lied to judges and a prosecutor to protect his pill-supplying girlfriend Deena Castleman. New motions filed with U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer allege that Baumgartner could not have been collaborating in the pill distribution network since Castleman was locked up when he spoke to Anderson County Judge Don Elledge about her release. A second motion argues there is no proof that Baumgartner lied to Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Jeff Blevins when he asked Blevins to “do what you can” to help the woman, as she was facing burglary charges at the time. Baumgartner faces sentencing April 10 Knoxnews reports. Greer is expected to rule on the validity of the convictions before the sentencing.

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DA Cleared of Criminal Acts

State Attorney General Robert Cooper has found no prosecutable criminal acts by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb, though a report criticizes the district attorney’s office for poor judgment, mismanagement and deficient record keeping. State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, had called on the attorney general to investigate allegations after the Times Free Press ran a series last August that alleged Bebb’s office botched important cases through ineptness or misconduct, misused taxpayer money and played favorites in criminal prosecutions.

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Watson Appointed to Criminal Justice Committee

Tennessee House of Representatives Speaker Beth Harwell has appointed Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, to the Tennessee Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. The purpose of the committee, according to Chattanoogan.com, is to identify issues in the criminal justice system that are harmful to public safety and recommend changes. Rep. Watson’s appointment commences immediately and will run until Nov. 2, 2014.

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6th Circuit Clarifies Test for Ineffective Counsel Claims

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently clarified the requirements for a successful claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The decision in the case of Howell v. Hodge found that a claimant must show that the deficient performance resulted in prejudice, and that, but for the counsel’s ineffectiveness, he or she would not have pled guilty and instead would have gone to trial. Writing for Chattanoogan.com, commentator Lee Davis says the test is a “demanding one that requires claimants to prove that the likelihood of a different result is substantial, not just conceivable.”

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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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