News

Montgomery Takes Reins of Judicial Conference

Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Robert Montgomery of Kingsport was installed last week as the 64th president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference during the group's annual meeting in Nashville. He succeeds Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins. Others taking office at the meeting included Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft of Memphis, who was named president-elect, and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tim Easter of Williamson County, who was named moving vice president.

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Report: 1 in 30 Tennessee Adult Black Males Incarcerated

One in 30 adult black males in Tennessee are incarcerated, only slightly below the average of 1 in 26 for all states, according to new data from The Sentencing Project. The report evaluated the issue on a national scale and found “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least 10 times the rate in five states." Read more from Nashville Scene

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Vandenburg's Retrial Underway

The retrial of former Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vandenburg began this morning in Nashville. The Tennessean reports that Deputy District Attorney General Tom Thurman today indicated that the state will use Vandenburg's statement to police for the first time. It includes Vandenburg admitting to having sex with the woman the next day and attempting to conceal evidence.

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Men Plead Not Guilty in Connection With Ooltewah Rape Case

Attorneys for Gatlinburg police Detective Rodney Burns and Ooltewah High School head basketball coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery today entered not guilty pleas for the men charged in connection with the rape of an Ooltewah freshman. Burns faces charges of aggravated perjury for his testimony in the case; Montgomery was charged for failing to report child sexual abuse. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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Jury Selected in Vandenburg Retrial

The Tennessean reports the 14 jurors who will hear the retrial of Brandon Vandenburg, the former Vanderbilt football player accused of rape, were chosen last night in Memphis. The jury, picked from Shelby County residents, contains nine women and five men. The chosen jurors will be bused to Nashville on Sunday and sequestered. 

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Jury Selection Continues in Vandenburg Retrial

Jury selection is expected to wrap up today in the retrial of former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Vandenburg, The Tennessean reports. More than 160 Shelby County residents were called as potential jurors, and of those dismissed, many felt serving on an out-of-town jury was a hardship.   

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Inmates Have the Right to File Suits, Attorney Argues

A case argued last week before the Tennessee Supreme Court challenged a state law that bars inmates who have past-due court fees from filing new cases. David Veile of the firm Schell & Davies argued the case on behalf of Reginald D. Hughes, an inmate whose appeal of a parole denial was dismissed because he owed hundreds of dollars in fees. Veile added Hughes “was denied access to justice because of two reasons: He is indigent and he is incarcerated.” Assistant Attorney General Michael Polovich argued that the law is in place to keep inmates from filing “frivolous lawsuits,” The Tennessean reports.  

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Judge Denies Raw Data Request in Vandenburg Retrial

Judge Monte Watkins today denied a request by Brandon Vandeburg’s defense team that asked the state to give them all of the digital media collected during the 2013 rape. Attorneys for Vandenburg, a former Vanderbilt football player, said they wanted their forensic expert to argue against what detectives found. Watkins has yet to rule on the defense team’s additional request to call an expert witness in case Vandenburg's sobriety comes into question, WSMV reports. Jury selection in Vandenburg's retrial is scheduled to begin this week in Memphis.

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Report: Tennessee's Expungement Fee Costly

Tennessee has one of the highest criminal record expungement fees in the country at $450. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, takes a look at how the cost is impacting residents wishing to clear their name, and details the battle in the state legislature as lawmakers debate lowering the fee.

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FBI Offers New Guidance for Forensic Experts

The Justice Department today issued draft guidance for forensic experts at the FBI and other of its component agencies, WRCB-TV reports. The new guidelines follow reports last year that experts had overstated the strength of evidence involving microscopic hair analysis in cases dating back decades. The guide clarifies what forensic experts can and cannot say while testifying at trial or preparing scientific reports.

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Prosecutor to Drop Charges Against Handcuffed Kids

Rutherford County prosecutor Jennings Jones today said that he intends to dismiss charges against elementary school students who were taken to a juvenile detention center for allegedly taking part in off-campus bullying. The arrest, which involved handcuffing several of the children ages 9-12, sparked outrage in the community. Jones gave no reason for dropping the charges, the Associated Press reports

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New Trial Date Set for Knox County 'Black Widow'

A new trial date has been set for early next year for Raynella Dossett Leath, a Knox County woman accused of killing two husbands. Leath was released from custody yesterday after posting bond. Senior Judge Paul Summers last month overturned Leath's 2010 conviction in the death of her second husband because former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over her trial, was later convicted in a prescription drug abuse probe. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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AG Accepts Ruling That Strikes Down State Gang Law

Attorney General Herbert Slatery will not seek a state Supreme Court review of a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling that deemed the state’s “gang enhancement statute” unconstitutional due to its “overly broad” language. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports Slatery’s decision comes after the General Assembly passed a new version of that law that increased penalties for crimes committed by alleged gang members. Cases prosecuted under the old statute – an estimated 60 convictions in Knox County alone – are now considered flawed and all pending gang enhancement charges must be dismissed.

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Judge Issues Stay in UT Rape Case, Keeps Records Sealed

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee today issued a stay of the trials of former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Prosecutors requested the hold due to an appeal still pending in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals over access to social media by the players' accuser and witnesses. McGee also denied a request by the News Sentinel to access sealed records in the case. 

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Judge Issues Stay in UT Rape Case, Keeps Records Sealed

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee today issued a stay of the trials of former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Prosecutors requested the hold due to an appeal still pending in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals over access to social media by the players' accuser and witnesses. McGee also denied a request by the News Sentinel to access sealed records in the case. 

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COA: Facility Dogs Permitted in Courtrooms

Facility dogs are permitted in courtrooms to aid in comforting witnesses, according to a ruling this week by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. The decision came in an appeal brought by a convicted rapist who argued the trial court was wrong in allowing the facility dog to be present to comfort his underage victim. Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said that he will draft a jury instruction for use of comfort dogs in trials to present it at a June judicial conference, The Commercial Appeal reports

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Indicted Detective Will Continue to be a Witness

Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said he will continue to use Detective Rodney Burns, who has been indicted for perjury, as a witness in pending cases in Sevier County. Burns was charged with two counts of aggravated perjury following statements he made during a hearing in the Ooltewah rape case. His arraignment has been set for June 10, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports

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DA Drops Charge Against Ooltewah Assistant Coach

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston today dropped the charge of failing to report child sexual abuse against a volunteer-assistant basketball coach at Ooltewah High School. The Times Free Press reports the charges were dropped against Karl Williams because he "was not provided any training regarding the mandatory reporting law.” The school’s head basketball coach was indicted last week on four counts of failing to report child sexual abuse. 

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Court Rules in Favor of Death-Row Inmate in Racial Bias Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a black death-row inmate's claim of racial bias in jury selection. The 7-1 verdict, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said prosecutors unconstitutionally barred all potential black jurors from the Georgia man’s trial nearly 30 years ago. Defense attorneys later discovered the bias through a series of prosecution notes obtained through an open-records request. USA Today notes that this happened one year after the court’s landmark 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky that declared such actions unconstitutional. 

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Memphis Juror's Death Results in Mistrial

A mistrial was declared today in a first-degree murder case in Memphis following the death of a sequestered juror overnight, The Commercial Appeal reports. "In my 30 years as an attorney and judge, I have never even heard of it, let alone experienced it," Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan said of the juror's death. Only 11 jurors remained due to issues with two other jurors who were previously released. The trial was reset to Feb. 27, 2017.

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Speedy Sentencing Not Guaranteed Under 6th Amendment, Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not protect the right to a speedy sentence, the ABA Journal reports. The unanimous opinion was against a Montana man who argued for a reduction in his sentence after waiting in jail more than 14 months following his guilty plea.

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Report: TDOC Allowed Parolees to Avoid Mandatory Classes

A WSMV investigation revealed the Tennessee Department of Correction allowed for 115 parolees to avoid taking mandated domestic violence classes and hundreds of other criminals are still not enrolled in the classes. A TDOC administrator said there was a backlog of parolees assigned to classes because there were not enough parole officers to teach them. The department later hired a private company to teach the classes, but sentences has already expired for the 115 parolees. 

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Judge Rules Social Media Threats Were 'Obstruction of Justice'

Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan today ruled that the Facebook messages and memes an East Tennessee man used to threaten a witness were an obstruction of social justice. The judge sentenced Daniel Ray Sands to 37 months in federal prison after Sands used social media to threaten a witness against his drug-trafficking father. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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Editorial: Mentally Ill Should be Excluded from Death Penalty

“Excluding individuals with severe mental illness from the death penalty on a case-by-case basis is just smart policy,” Hannah Cox writes in an opinion editorial for The Tennessean. Cox, coordinator of Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion, argues that the current lack of treatment for mental illness has resulted in law enforcement becoming responsible for these individuals. She adds excluding the mentally ill from death row will allow resources to be redirected to mental health care and victims' compensation. 

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Sentencing Delayed for Former Vanderbilt Football Player

Sentencing of convicted rapist Cory Batey has been postponed two months, the Nashville Post reports. The former Vanderbilt football player was to be sentenced on May 20, but scheduling conflicts led to a delay until July 15. Batey was convicted this spring in the June 2013 assault of a former Vanderbilt co-ed in an on-campus dormitory. The woman was unconscious at the time of the attack. Batey is one of four former Vanderbilt football players charged in the case.

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