News

Court Upholds Use of Execution Drug, Suit Against EPA

Before departing Washington, D.C., for its summer recess, Supreme Court justices gathered for one final conference today, which yielded three opinions, all decided by 5-4 votes. In the first opinion, the majority found that use of the execution drug midazolam does not violate the Eighth Amendment, while two dissenting justices said for the first time they think it is "highly likely" the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, the Associated Press reports. In the other cases, the majority found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have considered costs in the regulation of toxic air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power and that the state of Arizona may use a independent commission to draw congressional districts. The ABA Journal has more on those decisions.

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Court Strikes ‘Physical Injury’ Test for Enhanced Sentencing

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the definition of “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminals Act is unconstitutionally vague, the ABA Journal reports. The law increases sentencing for a gun-related conviction if the defendant has at least three prior violent felony convictions. “Violent felony convictions” are defined to include “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The court found that this vague definition denies due process, but left intact other definitions in the act.

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DOJ Expands Program to Combat Human Trafficking

The Justice Department is announcing a new phase in efforts to combat human trafficking, the Daily News reports. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says federal officials are looking for more cities to participate in a program aimed at streamlining trafficking investigations and prosecutions. The idea is to build on an initiative from 2011 that officials say has resulted in more trafficking cases and convictions. Cities participating in the first phase were Atlanta, El Paso, Kansas City (Missouri), Memphis, Miami and Los Angeles. 

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Court Affirms Dual Convictions

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed multiple convictions stemming from a domestic incident in which Terrence Feaster inflicted serious injuries upon his then-girlfriend, Molly Kate McWhirter, at her Knox County residence. On appeal, Feaster argued that his dual convictions for attempted voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault arising out of the same incident constituted double jeopardy, or being sentenced twice for substantially the same offense. The Supreme Court rejected Feaster’s claim, concluding that the dual convictions could stand because the offenses are composed of different elements. The AOC has more.

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AG Investigating Federal Crimes in South Carolina Shooting

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says the government is reviewing the deadly church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to determine whether any federal crimes were committed. Lynch said an investigation is continuing, and she can't discuss specifics, but said hate crimes are what she calls "the original domestic terrorism." WMC News 5 has more from the AP.

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Court Decides Patent, Excessive Force, Other Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday issued four decisions in argued cases, including major decisions on the Fourth Amendment, patent law, the Takings Clause and excessive force claims by pretrial detainees. SCOTUSblog provides a wrap up of the day’s events.

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DA Conference Names New Director

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference has named Athens attorney Jerry Estes as its new executive director, the Cleveland Banner reports. Estes, a former district attorney general in the 10th Judicial District, succeeds Wally Kirby, who retired in February. Since Estes stepped down as district attorney, he has been in private practice.

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Judge Grants Mistrial In Vanderbilt Rape Case

Nashville Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins has granted a mistrial for Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of rape. “The defendants have a right to a fair and impartial trial, a right that was violated by juror #9’s conduct," Watkins’ order reads. Following the trial, defense attorneys discovered a juror had been a rape victim 15 years ago. They argued the juror could not be impartial based on his experience, the Tennessean reports. The decision did not address how the case will go forward or whether a new trial date will be set.

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Tennessean: DA Builds Staff With Defense Attorneys

One-third of new prosecutors hired by Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk served most recently as defense attorneys, a review of records by the Tennessean shows. Of the 23 attorneys he has hired, eight came from a public defender’s office or a private criminal defense practice. Four others worked as defense attorneys at some point in their careers. The newcomers “represent a shift in the type of experience” for the office, the paper says.

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More Tools Available to Aid Domestic Violence Victims

The Upper Cumberland Family Justice Center has begun using a training program to help law enforcement better help domestic violence victims who are in critical danger, the Herald-Citizen reports. Several area law enforcement jurisdictions are using the Maryland Model Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), which has 11 assessment questions for a police officer to ask domestic violence victims. And in Grundy County, the Sheriff's Office is using a tracking device able to alert victims when an offender is close, in hopes of warding off another attack.  WRCB has more.

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Governor Rejects 3 for Judge, Asks for More Names

Gov. Bill Haslam has rejected three nominees submitted to him for appointment to a vacant Hamilton County Criminal Court judgeship and asked for a new slate of nominees. The additional names are choices to replace Rebecca Stern as Criminal Court judge. The 11-member Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments had nominated two assistant district attorneys general, Leslie Longshore and Boyd Anderson, along with Mike Little, a deputy public defender. The seat was left open by the retirement of Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern. Knoxnews has more.

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Annual Judicial District Report Shows Improvement

The state comptroller’s office has released its annual review of funds administered by Tennessee’s district attorneys general and judicial drug task forces for the fiscal year ending June 30. The report shows continued improvement in the way funds are managed across the state, Chattanoogan.com reports. Comptroller Justin P. Wilson complimented the District Attorneys General Conference for its efforts to improve financial operations by offering training and education to its members.

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Chattanooga Family Justice Center to Open July 1

The new Chattanooga Family Justice Center, scheduled to open July 1, will provide a central location for victims of family violence to access needed services. Executive Director Valerie Radu tells WRCB-TV that the center’s first goal is to increase reporting of domestic violence by educating the community about available resources. Local law enforcement estimate that more than 30 percent of violent crime is driven by domestic abuse.

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Rep. Armstrong Indicted on Fraud, Tax Charges

A federal grand jury today indicted veteran state Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, on charges he used insider knowledge on a bill he supported to earn $500,000 in a scheme involving the purchase and sale of cigarette tax stamps. He has been charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, attempting to evade and defeat income taxes and making false statements. Armstrong’s accountant already pleaded guilty to helping the legislator by funneling the profits through the accounting firm and lying on Armstrong’s tax return. Knoxnews has the story.

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Judicial Commissioner Charged with Assault

Lincoln County judicial commissioner Brian Thomas Rutledge has been indicted on an assault charge stemming from an incident in February in which he allegedly grabbed a man by the neck following an argument at a Fayetteville market. Rutledge was released on his own recognizance, Knoxnews reports.

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State Agency Withdraws from Execution Lawsuit

Facing objections from legislators and a Senate Government Operations Committee hearing set for August, the Office of Post-Conviction Defender has decided to abandon its role in a lawsuit seeking information about executions, Knoxnews reports. The office, which is tasked with representing death row inmates in appeals, was representing a group of inmates suing the state for information about the people and drugs involved in executions. Nashville attorney Kathleen G. Morris now will provide pro bono representation to the death row inmates.

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Judge's Ruling Could Affect Up to 80 Cases

Law enforcement in Sullivan County has not been in compliance with Rule 3 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure for at least two decades, putting 75 or 80 pending cases in jeopardy, according to a local judge. Rule 3, which requires a written and sworn statement of the arresting officer before a magistrate, apparently was not being followed during after-hours arrests. Local law enforcement has been scrambling to re-file thousands of affidavits of arrest but the ruling has caused defendants in pending cases to file dismissal motions, the Kingsport Times-News reports.

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Judge Hears Vandy Rape Mistrial Motion

Nashville Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins heard more than four hours of testimony and arguments yesterday related to requests for a mistrial in the Vanderbilt rape case. Defense attorneys for Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, who were convicted in January of raping an unconscious student in a dorm, say a juror heard 104 questions during jury selection that should have prompted him to disclose he was a victim of statutory rape as a teen. Watkins is expected to rule on the motions next week. The Tennessean has more.

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Public Defender to Host Session on Expungement

Richard Hughes, public defender for the 10th Judicial District, will host an educational program on June 30 to explain the process by which certain offenders may have the chance to expunge their criminal records. The session is scheduled to run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Hughes’ office located at 85 Central Ave. in Cleveland. For more information, contact the public defender’s office at (423) 478-0329. The Cleveland Banner has more.

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New Website Presents Database of Collateral Consequences of Conviction

A new National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction is now available through a website produced by the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section. The interactive site lets attorneys select one or more jurisdiction in the database, then identify legal sanctions and restrictions imposed. The work is part of the ABA’s efforts to reform collateral consequences so that they serve public safety goals, but do not impose high social and economic costs.

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Former Public Defender Questions Treatment of Inmates

Policies that send non-violent offenders to jail and require fees for many services and products should be reconsidered, a former public defender contends. Bill Shulman, a 25-year associate professor of criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and former elected public defender for Davidson County, told the Daily News Journal he thinks the solution is to quit locking up so many people who are not a threat physically to society and allow more to serve punishments in other ways. 

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TBI Releases New Data on Domestic Violence

A recent study by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows domestic violence resulted in 270 murder victims in Tennessee from 2012 to 2014. The review also found that simple assault accounted for more than 68 percent of all domestic violence offenses, that females were three times more likely to be victimized than males and that victims were six times more likely to be abused by a spouse than an ex-spouse. Read more in the Memphis Daily News.

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DA’s Conference Issues New Training Resources

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference’s Justice and Professionalism Committee has released the first installment in a series of training resources to be provided to all Tennessee prosecutors, Chattanoogan.com reports. The DVD-based training focuses on the responsibilities of prosecutors during constitutional discovery. Additional resources will review advances in DNA, forensic science and digital evidence in cases involving children, the elderly and victims of sex crimes, human trafficking and domestic violence.

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Inmate Wants to Donate Organs to Ailing Parents

Kenneth Thomas, an inmate housed at the Turney Center in Only, is asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to allow him the right to die in prison so his organs can be harvested for his ailing parents. Thomas, 37, was convicted of a 1999 murder and sentenced to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2063, but believes he will never be released, WKRN News 2 reports. 

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Developer in Assault Case Sues Nashville Government

Nashville real estate developer David Chase has filed suit against Metro government and its police department, the Business Journal reports. In the complaint, Chase claims police violated his civil rights, failed to follow proper procedure, used excessive force and subjected him to false arrest. He also alleges that his former girlfriend was friends with at least one of the officers who arrested him. Chase’s arrest made news when reports surfaced that a judge waived the required 12-hour cooling off period, which allowed Chase to leave the county jail and allegedly assault the woman a second time.

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