News

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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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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