News

Court Still to Rule on Most Controversial Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court issued five decisions Monday, including rulings (1) upholding a patent review procedure known as inter partes review, which has been used by Apple and Google to invalidate patents; (2) directing lower courts in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to re-examine three convictions for evidence of racial prejudice in jury selection; and (3) directing the U.S. Labor Department to do a better job of explaining why it is changing a longstanding policy on whether certain workers deserve overtime pay. With just one week left in the court’s current term, however, the most contentious cases still need to be resolved, including regulation of Texas abortion clinics, the use of race in college admissions, the legality of the president’s immigration executive orders, and the public corruption conviction of Virginia’s former governor. WKRN looks at the remaining cases.

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Prosecutors Drop FedEx Prescription Drug Case

Criminal charges alleging FedEx knowingly delivered illegal prescription drugs to dealers and addicts were dropped suddenly last week after prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges. FedEx was indicted in 2014 and the trial began last Monday. In court on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer said FedEx was “factually innocent” and had repeatedly attempted to identify the customer in question but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was unwilling or unable to provide the information. The Times Free Press has more.

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Alexander, Corker Vote Party Line on Gun Bills

In successive votes yesterday, a divided U.S. Senate defeated four gun control measures, two proposed by Democrats and two put forward by Republicans. The votes fell mostly along party lines. Tennessee’s two Republican senators were no exception, the Nashville Post reports. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker both voted against a measure from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to expand background checks as well as a measure from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to block gun sales to those on a federal watch list. But they both voted for a plan by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to deny gun sales to those on the watch list if a prosecutor shows probable cause within three days, and another proposal by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have increased funding for background checks.

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Alexander, Corker Vote Party Line on Gun Bills

In successive votes yesterday, a divided U.S. Senate defeated four gun control measures, two proposed by Democrats and two put forward by Republicans. The votes fell mostly along party lines. Tennessee’s two Republican senators were no exception, the Nashville Post reports. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker both voted against a measure from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to expand background checks as well as a measure from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to block gun sales to those on a federal watch list. But they both voted for a plan by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to deny gun sales to those on the watch list if a prosecutor shows probable cause within three days, and another proposal by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have increased funding for background checks.

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Judge Slone Receives Public Health Award

Fourth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone recently received the Tennessee Public Health Association’s Visionary Award, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehener presented the award to Slone for his work co-founding the district’s drug court, raising awareness about Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — which affects children born to mothers using opiates during pregnancy — working against legislation that would have imprisoned addicted mothers and establishing transitional housing for pregnant mothers.

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Vandenburg Found Guilty on All Counts

The jury in the retrial of Brandon Vandenburg late Saturday found the former Vanderbilt football player guilty on all eight counts, including charges of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery and unlawful photography. The jury of seven women and five men deliberated four and one half hours before delivering their decision. The verdict ends a three-year ordeal for the victim, who testified in three trials, including the retrial of Vandenburg. The Tennessean has more on the story.

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Searches Allowed Based on Outstanding Warrants

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled 5-3 that police can seize evidence from what would otherwise be an unconstitutional search if they first discover that the suspect has one or more outstanding arrest warrants. Opponents of the decision cited the fact that, in some cities, thousands of people have arrest warrants pending against them, mostly for traffic violations as insignificant as unpaid parking tickets. In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.” The Commercial Appeal has the story.

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Court Declines to Hear Challenge to Assault Weapon Bans

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear a case challenging gun control laws enacted in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The decision, handed down with no additional explanation as to the court’s reasoning, allows assault weapons bans to stand in New York and Connecticut. Gun rights groups had challenged laws in those states banning certain semi-automatic weapons and restrictions on bullet magazines. The Commercial Appeal has more.

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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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