News

West Memphis Murder Documentary Premieres Tonight

Free, advanced screenings of Peter Jackson’s documentary “West of Memphis” begin tonight in Memphis and will continue over the next several weeks throughout the Memphis area and Arkansas. The documentary covers the well-publicized case of the "West Memphis Three" who were released in 2011 after being wrongly imprisoned for murder for almost 20 years. The documentary is set for national release on Dec. 25. Read more in the Commercial Appeal.

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DA’s Office Evacuated After Suspicious Letter Found

The downtown office of Nashville District Attorney General Torry Johnson was evacuated yesterday, The Tennessean reports, after a suspicious package was delivered. Spokeswoman Susan Niland said the office received a threatening letter that included white powder in the envelope. Law enforcement evacuated the office and closed part of Second Avenue near the county courthouse. Keith Moses, with the FBI’s Nashville office, said the package was taken to a state laboratory for analysis.

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Baumgartner Loses Evidence Motion

U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley has ruled that former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner will not get access to a list of evidence that prosecutors intend to use at trial. Baumgartner is facing federal charges he covered up a pill distribution conspiracy. While documents and materials that could be used at trial have been turned over, Shirley found that the prosecutors are not required to pinpoint exactly what materials they will use or to outline their trial strategy. Read more in the News Sentinel

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Blackwood Says He Has Not Lost Objectivity

In an order made public today, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood wrote that he has not lost his objectivity and will not step down in presiding over the torture slayings of a Knox County couple. "The court concludes that a person of ordinary prudence in the court's position, knowing all the facts known to the judge, would not find a reasonable basis for questioning the judge's impartiality," Blackwood wrote. The Knox County District Attorney General's pushed Blackwood to recuse himself from the cases of three of four defendants in the January 2007 slayings. The News Sentinel reports

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Court Clerk Suspended After Confrontation With City Manager

East Ridge city manager Tim Gobble publicly confronted a court clerk in her office because he was upset over the handling of an armed robbery case in which his daughter was the victim, Chattanoogan.com reports. Gobble, who suspended Court Clerk Joanne Thomas for five days without pay, said "it is well established that the city manager is over the court clerk's office and not the judge. ... I'm going to get it fixed."

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Paper Explains Series With Bebb

An editorial in the Cleveland Banner explains why it made the decision last week to let 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb tell his side regarding accusations made against him in a Chattanooga Times Free Press series. The Banner said that the coverage was not to defend Bebb against the charges nor was it to persecute the veteran prosecutor, but that Bebb's position had been left incomplete. "Rhetoric from political rivals, selected details from past investigations and juicy finger pointing by former law enforcement employees had dominated media coverage and street-corner conversation," it said and that prompted the paper to interview Bebb.

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Charges Dismissed After 24-Year Prison Stint

An Ohio judge today dismissed a 24-year-old murder charge against Michael Keenan, who spent much of the past two decades on death row. The decision came after a ruling in April that Keenan had to be tried again or have his verdict set aside. That ruling was based on the discovery of evidence favorable to Keenan and a co-defendant that had been withheld by prosecutors. Learn more in the Cleveland Plain Dealer

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District, U.S. Attorney Pool Efforts

The Memphis Daily News reports that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton have joined forces to handle cases that cross state-federal boundaries. Weirich and Stanton talked about the partnership, which includes an anti-gang initiative and focus on gun crimes, during a program called “Behind The Headlines” on WKNO TV.

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Judge Issues First Baumgartner Ruling

U.S. Magistrate Clifford Shirley has responded to some of the motions filed in the trial against former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, who was indicted in May on seven charges of misprision of a felony. Shirley suggested in a written filing late last week that certain evidence against Baumgartner should be allowed in court. WBIR has more

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Court Asked to Appoint Special Judge

The Tennessee Supreme Court has been asked to appoint a special judge to oversee a $9.9 million lawsuit filed against Sullivan County by county sheriff Wayne Anderson. All local chancery and circuit judges recused themselves. Anderson is seeking additional resources to fund the county jail and sheriff’s office as, according to him, he is charged to do by state law. On the defense side, the county attorney also has stepped aside, saying it is a conflict of interest to represent one agency of the county against another. The Times News has more

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Lightning Damages West Tenn. Criminal Justice Complex

Lightning struck the Henderson County Criminal Justice Complex in Lexington in west Tennessee on Sunday morning, causing damage estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars, the Jackson Sun reports. The strike destroyed the complex's fire alarm system, electronic key system, National Crime Information Center records system and the 911 system.

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DA Paul Phillips Retires After 33 Years

After serving the 8th Judicial District for more than 33 years, District Attorney General Paul Phillips is retiring from the post, WATE reports. "I think his legacy will be that he helped the children of these counties," said his friend, Charles Herman.

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Bebb Defends Record, Says Criticism is Political

District Attorney General Steve Bebb, the subject of a recent investigative series in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, is speaking out, defending his record and calling allegations of wrongdoing unfounded and politically motivated, telling the Advocate and Democrat  that  "I have not broken any laws or violated any rules of ethics." He said he is proud of his 10th Judicial District staff, which prosecutes cases in Monroe, McMinn, Polk and Bradley counties. The Chattanooga paper has raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and misuse of public money by Bebb and his staff.

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Summers to Lead Probe of DA

Former Tennessee attorney general and judge Paul Summers has been asked to lead an investigation into allegations of misconduct in the 10th Judicial District. Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said he asked Summers to take the lead after current District Attorney Steve Bebb requested a pro tem DA. Bebb has been the subject of a six-day series in the Chattanooga Times Free Press that alleges financial and professional misconduct in his office and the district’s drug task force, and raises questions on procedures used in the seizure of cars and cash. The Cleveland Banner reports

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PD Drops Recusal Motions Against Judge

A two-week standoff between the Chattanooga public defender and local criminal court judge that tied up 143 cases ended Tuesday with a one-sentence motion. Ardena J. Garth, public defender for the 11th Judicial District, gave notice yesterday that she is striking all of her motions for recusal effective immediately. The move may break the impass between the two, but the Times Free Press  reports that it may not settle the dispute, which has Garth on the record accusing the judge of creating a hostile work environment and questioning his impartiality. Likewise, the judge is on record accusing the public defender's office of poor management, sloppy lawyering and undermining justice. Both parties declined to comment about the recent dispute.

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Conviction Upheld on Threatening YouTube Video

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on Monday upheld the conviction of Franklin Delano Jeffries II for transmitting an interstate threat. He appeared in a YouTube video singing a menacing song about Knox County Chancellor Michael Moyers, who was handling Jeffries child custody case at the time. The Jackson Sun has more

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Prosecutors: Baumgartner Distributing Drugs, Too

Assistant U.S. attorneys Zachary Bolitho and David Lewen allege that former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner lied not only to cover up his mistress' misdeeds but to protect a network of drug pushers, of which he was a part, the News Sentinel reports. Defense attorney Donald A. Bosch said the claims presented at a hearing yesterday in U.S. District Court were outrageous.

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Robertson Judge Recuses Self in Sexual-Abuse Custody Case

Robertson County Circuit Judge Ross Hicks recused himself today in a matter involving a mother who defied his court order, going on the run with her son instead of turning him over into the custody of his father, who she believed was sexually abusing the boy. At the time, an 11-person state investigative team had decided that William Cone, the boys' father, was doing just that but in Hicks' court, Georgia Dunn lost primary custody. Cone was arrested and charged with rape of a child last week, and now Dunn has surrendered to police. Tomorrow she will be back in court to determine whether the felony she is charged with will stand. WSMV reports

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Defense Attorneys Look for Compromise in Logjam

Chattanooga defense attorneys were granted several days to work out a compromise in the conflict that has caused a logjam in Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom. Public Defender Ardena Garth has sought to have Judge Steelman recuse himself from 150 cases of indigent defendants, saying he has been "venomous" toward her office and is biased against her and her staff. Members of the local chapter of the Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorneys Association offered to look for middle ground in the conflict and hope to have a proposal in the next couple of days, the Chattanoogan.com website reports.

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Challenger Announces 2014 Run for Brown's Seat

A Johnson City assistant district attorney general, Dennis Brooks, has announced he will seek the Criminal Court, Part II, judgeship in 2014. It is the seat held since 1988 by Judge Lynn Brown. Brooks said he is starting his campaign so early because he has little money to advertise and a lot of work to do getting his name known to approximately 30,000 active voters in the four counties. His printed campaign materials say Brown is "mishandling the job." Johnson City Press has more

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3 Make Short List for 30th District Vacancy

Three candidates were chosen today for the 30th Judicial District Criminal Court vacancy when the Judicial Nominating Commission met in Memphis. They are:

• John W. Campbell, deputy district attorney general, 30th Judicial District;
• Dean Thomas DeCandia, special assistant U.S. attorney, Western District of Tennessee; and
• Lawrence J. Laurenzi, federal prosecutor, Western District of Tennessee.

The vacancy was created by the appointment of Criminal Court Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. as U.S. District Court judge for Western Tennessee. The list of three candidates, who are all of Memphis, now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for a decision. The Administrative Office of the Courts has more

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Federal Suit Filed Against McMinn County

Gussie Vann, a McMinn County man serving time for the rape of his 13-year-old niece, has filed suit against the county claiming that he was held for 48 hours without probable cause and held for 10 months without being allowed to see an attorney in relation to separate charges of murder and incest of his daughter. Those charges ultimately were dismissed by now District Attorney Steve Bebb, who was serving as a judge at the time. Vann was later convicted on the rape charges by a jury. Vann’s lawyer said both Bebb and the prosecutor in the case likely would be immune from civil suit while acting in their official capacity, but that the county could be held liable. The Times Free Press has more

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Justices Let Lethal Injection Ruling Stand

The Tennessee Supreme Court has decided not to hear an appeal by two death row inmates who claim that changes to the state's lethal injection procedure are unconstitutional. The high court on Monday declined to hear the case brought by Stephen Michael West and Billy Ray Irick. Their attorneys argued that the state's protocol does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that condemned inmates don't suffocate while fully conscious, which could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. WATE.com has this AP story.

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Cases Backing Up With 50+ Recusal Requests from PD

Claiming that Judge Barry Steelman is biased against her office, Public Defender Ardena Garth filed more motions today asking the judge to recuse himself from cases in which her office is involved. So far, she has filed for recusals in more than 50 cases, beginning last week. Cases are backing up in Steelman's division of Hamilton County Criminal Court, the Chattanoogan reports.

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Blackwood Says He Will Stay on Case for Retrials

Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood today refused to step aside in the criminal cases involving Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Assistant District Attorney General Leland Price argued that Blackwood's disgust with the misdeeds of disgraced former Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over the trials of the torture slaying defendants, had caused him to lose objectively in the case.