News

Judge Denies Access to Evidence in West Memphis Three Case

An Arkansas judge ruled that evidence collected from the high-profile 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts cannot be released to the victims’ parents, Knox News reports. The lawsuit seeking access to evidence comes in the wake of the release of the three men convicted of the murders known as the West Memphis Three, who were released last year after years of questions about the case. Lawyers for the victims’ parents said they would not appeal right now due to another hearing on the common law rights.

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Jurors Begin Deliberating Baumgartner Case

Jurors deciding the fate of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner began deliberations in the case at 2 p.m. today and retired for the evening without reaching a verdict. The jury spent about two hours conferring about the case before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer sent them home, reports the News Sentinel. The panel will return Wednesday morning.

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Federal Judge Hears Plan to Improve Jail

Responding to complaints that jail administrators ignore or delay requests for medical treatment, withhold nutritious meals and fail to maintain a safe and sanitary facility, lawyers for Maury County were in court yesterday detailing improvements taking place at the county jail. The county is facing 23 suits filed by inmates, according to the Columbia Daily Herald. U.S. District Court Judge William Haynes seemed most concerned by claims that inmates were losing “100, 35, and 50 pounds” and said that protecting their health was the most important priority for the facility.

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Judge Dismisses 1 Count in Baumgartner Trial

One felony count was dismissed against former Judge Richard Baumgartner today, according to WATE. While the defense had filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the whole case, Judge Ronnie Greer dismissed just one count, which related to a conversation in which Baumgartner allegedly made material misrepresentations about his mistress to an Anderson County judge. The presiding judge said there was not sufficient evidence on that issue for a rational jury to find elements of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday morning.

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Haslam Appoints Siskin to 16th Circuit

Gov. Bill Haslam today appointed Keith Siskin to the 16th Judicial District Circuit Court, which serves Rutherford and Cannon counties. He fills the vacancy created by the appointment of Judge Don Ash to a senior judge position earlier this year. Siskin has been a juvenile court magistrate since 2004 and is a past president of the Rutherford and Cannon County Bar Association. The Daily News Journal has more.

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Blackwood Removed from Retrial Cases

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday ordered Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood removed from the retrial cases of three defendants previously found guilty in the January 2007 torture slayings of a Knoxville couple. The ruling comes after a series of hearings, legal maneuvers and decisions about the case following revelations that the judge presiding over the original trials – Richard Baumgartner – was involved in activity that may have impacted his ability to conduct a fair proceeding. The state attorney general and the Knox County district attorney sought to have Blackwood removed, arguing that he had lost his objectivity because of his anger over Baumgartner’s behavior. The News Sentinel has more

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Court Grants Review of 3 Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review of two criminal cases that address retroactivity of a new rule regarding guilty pleas in certain sex offender cases and the sufficiency of evidence in an attempted murder case. A civil case accepted concerns the standard of review in modification of domestic relations Permanent Parenting Plans. The Raybin Perky Hotlist reviews the cases and predicts how they may be decided.

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Opening Statements Presented in Baumgartner Trial

Prosecution and defense attorneys gave opening statements this morning in the trial of former Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner. According to WBIR.com, U.S. attorneys said they will prove that Baumgartner used his power and influence as a judge to cover up the crimes of his mistress Deena Castleman. They also revealed that Baumgartner's former judicial assistant and court clerk of 15 years will testify against him. The defense said it will explain "honest reasons why Baumgartner said what he said and did what he did" for Castleman. Baumgartner won't deny his pill addiction or the relationship with Castleman, but will fight the allegation that he covered up her involvement in a drug conspiracy.

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Judge to Rule on West Memphis 3 Evidence

An Arkansas judge says he plans to rule next week on whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the mother of one of three boys killed in 1993. Pam Hicks filed a civil suit in June in hopes of viewing evidence in the slaying of her son and his friends. Three men, known as the West Memphis Three, were convicted in the boys' deaths, but released from prison last year. Hicks is seeking to examine items from the case, including her son's bicycle and clothes. The state argues that physical evidence is not covered by FOIA law and has asked for dismissal of the suit. Hicks also is seeking three affidavits filed in the case last winter. The state argues these documents also are exempt from disclosure laws. The Commercial Appeal reports

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Jury Selected for Baumgartner Trial

Ten women and two men were picked this evening after two days of jury selection to hear the federal case against former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, Knox News reports. The panel consists of primarily middle-age people, with one African American woman. Two alternatives, a man and a woman, were also chosen. Opening statements begin Thursday in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.

Vet Goes on Trial in Animal Abuse, Starvation Case

Jurors saw photos of dogs who were allegedly starved to death as the trial of a former Memphis Animal Services veterinarian got underway this week, the Commercial Appeal reports.  Angela Middleton faces six counts of cruelty to animals for her part in the case, which has already seen two former employees receive jail time for aggravated animal cruelty charges. Shelby County Sheriff's Office deputies raided the animal shelter in 2009 after tipsters complained of abuse and cruelty there.

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Jury Selection in Baumgartner Case Underway

Jury selection in the federal case against former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was to begin today, Knox News reports. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Lewen and Zachary Bolitho filed various motions indicating how they intend to prove Baumgartner is guilty on seven counts of misprision of a felony for allegedly lying to cover up a drug conspiracy involving Baumgartner's pill-supplier and mistress. U.S District Judge Ronnie Greer has summoned 100 potential jurors from East Tennessee counties.

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Vanderbilt Sues Former Employee, Partner Convicted of Fraud

Vanderbilt University has filed a civil lawsuit against the two men convicted of defrauding the school of more than $560,000, the City Paper reports. On Oct. 9, Jason Hunt, former administrative manager at Vanderbilt Law School, and his partner Samuel Wakefield pled guilty to fraud, theft and statutory rape. The lawsuit asks for compensatory damages, interest, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

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State Rep. Graduates from TBI State Academy

State Rep. Eric Watson was among the inaugural class of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) State Academy, an intensive six-week training program to help Tennessee law enforcement personnel expand their education and training in the crimination justice field. Watson chairs the House Judiciary Committee and co-chairs the National Conference of State Legislatures Law and Criminal Justice Standing Committee, the Cleveland Daily Banner reports.

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Magistrate Leave Request Denied, Stricter Timeclock Rules Set

Hamilton County Commissioners voted to deny a request by Magistrate Larry Ables to cash out 787 hours of annual leave before moving to a lower paying position on Nov. 1, the Chattanoogan reports. Commissioners questioned if the hours had been verified, contained prior accumulated leave time transferred from the district attorney’s office, and the fairness of allowing the magistrates benefits other county employees do not receive. The Commissioners also passed a resolution requiring magistrates to be on a timeclock and check out each time they leave the premise to curb “three hour lunch breaks and going to civic club meetings” while on the clock.

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Memphis Lawyer’s Diverse Career Brings Him Full Circle

Memphis lawyer Josh Spickler began his legal career at the Shelby County’s Office of Public Defender, and 12 years later he has come full circle. The Memphis Law grad left the public defender after a few years, started his own firm, then moved on to The Hardison Law Firm PC where he did defense work for hospitals, long-term care, nurses, and doctors instead of criminal cases. He took a break from the legal field for a while to serve as social media manager for a start-up company, but returned to his love of law when offered a position back at the public defender’s office. Spickler is now director of the nascent Defender’s Resource Network, a program that helps people in custody receive services if they are suffering from serious mental illness or substance abuse. Read the full feature on Spickler at the Daily News.

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DOJ Wants End to Fast and Furious Lawsuit

The Justice Department is seeking dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a Republican-led House committee that demands Attorney General Eric Holder release records about Fast and Furious -- a failed law enforcement operation in which agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tracked illegal weapons to high-level arms traffickers in the hopes of dismantling their networks. Of the 2,000 illegally purchased guns federal agents identified, they lost track of about 1,400.  Holder is being held in contempt by the House for refusing to turn over records that explain why the department initially denied utilizing the controversial tactic. WATE.com has the story.

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Blount County Officer to Face Trial in Wrongful Death Suit

Blount County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Doug Moore will stand trial in a wrongful death lawsuit in the 2008 shooting death of Leeroy Hickman Jr. and an alleged cover-up, Knoxnews reports. The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals supported an earlier ruling by U.S District Judge Tom Varlan who opined there were too many questions left unanswered not to bring the case before a jury. A date has not been set. 

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Former Judge Taylor Gets Additional Jail Time, Probation

Former Hawkins County Judge James F. Taylor pleaded guilty Friday to stealing from private clients and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the Rogersville Review reports. Taylor received two three-year sentences, which will run concurrently. However, he only will have to serve one year, with the remaining years to be served on probation. The sentence is in addition to a three-year sentence imposed in Davidson County. Taylor also must pay $71,783 in restitution to former clients and $32,757 to the AOC. Finally, he agreed to not seek reinstatement until his probation ends in 2028.

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U.S. Attorney: Trafficking Crimes Are a Priority

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton, working in the Western Division of Tennessee, says his office views prostitution and sex trafficking as “akin to modern-day slavery" and as a priority. As prostitution continues to plague the Lamar Ave. area of Memphis, Stanton says, “We will be very vigilant in prosecuting and bringing to justice those individuals that would seek to sex traffic.” His comments come on the heels of high-profile statements about trafficking from President Barak Obama and ABA President Laurel Bellows. Read more from WMC-TV

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Former Court Clerk Given Diversion

Former Germantown deputy court clerk Janet Donnell was placed on diversion after pleading guilty to felony theft for stealing $3,500 from the court, the Commercial Appeal reports. Donnell was facing a two-year prison sentence, but received diversion after numerous sources testified that the theft was out of character. The terms of Donnell’s probation allow her conviction to be erased after 10 years if she makes full restitution and abides by the law.

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Report: Jail Must Improve Suicide Prevention Measures

Memphis' juvenile jail needs to take both immediate and long-term steps to better prevent detained youths from harming or killing themselves, according to a new national assessment. The report, authored by jail suicide prevention consultant Lindsay Hayes, is part of an ongoing overhaul of the Shelby County Juvenile Court and its detention center following the U.S. Justice Department's finding of due-process and safety violations. The jail has not had a suicide in almost 40 years, but the evaluation states that the court needs to improve suicide prevent training for staff and in-jail school teachers. The Commercial Appeal has more

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Court Considers Role of Inmate Competence

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday considered whether appeals should wait until inmates are mentally competent enough to assist their lawyers, and according to an Associated Press story in TriCities.com, seemed inclined to eliminate the authority of federal judges to indefinitely delay appeals. However, the justices spent considerable time talking about the differences in a proposed delay of six or nine months, or as much as a year. Lawyers for two death row inmates, however, urged the court to leave that discretion to the sitting judge. “No individual should lose potentially meritorious claims because of mental illness,” one of them argued.

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Evidence Issues in Baumgartner Case Go to Judge

In the upcoming federal trial of former Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner, both sides have a laundry list of details they would like to keep from jurors, but it will be up to U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer to decide what jurors will learn about the many issues involved in Baumgartner’s downfall, reports the News Sentinel. Meanwhile, one of the defendants in a murder case thrown into chaos by Baumgartner’s actions is defending special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who is overseeing possible retrials of cases heard in Baumgartner’s court. George Thomas, a defendant in the Christian-Newsom case, and his attorney say Blackwood should be kept on the case, arguing he is impartial and has done nothing wrong. Prosecutors have argued for his removal. Read more from WBIR

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First Black Female Assistant DA Followed Dream to Get There

Karen Willis was sworn in by Judge Mike R. Jones on Friday, joining the 15 assistant district attorneys in the 19th Judicial District -- and making history in the process. Willis, 41, became the first black female assistant district attorney in Montgomery and Robertson County. She will also serve as a U.S. assistant attorney for Middle Tennessee. Willis will specialize in the prosecuting of federal gun and drug cases and will work with the U.S. district attorney of Middle Tennessee and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to put violent criminals in prison. It was not an easy journey as a single mother -- who served in the Navy, has been an electrician, a jail booking clerk and a police officer -- but she never gave up her dream to become a lawyer. Read her story in the Leaf-Chronicle

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