News

Commissioners Out of 'Probable Cause' Business

Shelby County judicial commissioners are out of the business of holding probable cause hearings for suspects arrested by Memphis police and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office by order of the General Sessions Court. An appeal is expected. The issue arose when the Criminal Court of Appeals called into question the way some suspects are held for 48 hours before they are formally charged. The ruling came in a decision to order a new trial for a murder defendant. Learn more in the Memphis Daily News

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Haslam Announces Anti-Meth Campaign

Gov. Bill Haslam today rolled out a statewide campaign designed to inform Tennesseans about the consequences of violating the "I Hate Meth Act," which took effect last July. The announcement took place in coordination with the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association meeting in Nashville. "The goal of this campaign is to communicate the harsh consequences of violating our anti-meth law," Haslam said. It targets counties in the state that have seen the highest number of children removed from homes because of meth-related incidents and the greatest number of meth lab seizures. Read more on Chattanoogan.com

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Funding Cut Ends Jail-Based Drug Treatment

A residential program to help jail inmates fight drug addiction and take accountability for their actions has ended after federal funding for it was slashed. The Residential Substance Abuse Treatment, or RSAT, operated in the Washington County Detention Center for nearly 12 years, but without the grant of $100,000 from the Department of Justice each year the program is over – much to the disappointment of judges and local law enforcement. "We had about 300 successfully graduate from RSAT," Sheriff Ed Graybeal said Monday. "We were the only one in the state still operating the program at a county facility." The Johnson City Press has more

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High Court: Strip Searches OK

Jailers may perform invasive strip searches on people arrested even for minor offenses, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday. The court's conservative majority declared that security trumps privacy in an often dangerous environment. In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled against a New Jersey man who was strip-searched in two county jails after his arrest on a warrant for an unpaid fine that he had, in reality, paid. The Tennessean has this AP story

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Haslam Budget Update Adds Money for Local Jails

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday a budget amendment that includes funding for a more rapid decrease in a food tax cut and extra money for local jails. Increasing the state's daily payment to local jails by $2 a day is designed in part, Haslam says, to help break an impasse over his proposal to require incarceration for repeat domestic violence offenders. The $4 million jails reimbursement provision is the most expensive item in Haslam's budget plan. He also announced that weekend negotiations resulted in an agreement from the Tennessee State Employees Association to support his plan to overhaul state civil service rules. The Tennessean has this AP story

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Judge Blocks Importation of Execution Drug

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon yesterday blocked the importation of a drug used in executions on grounds that the Food and Drug Administration ignored the law in allowing it into this country. Leon sided with lawyers for death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona and California who want to keep out sodium thiopental because it is an unapproved drug manufactured overseas. The Obama Administration argued it had discretion to allow unapproved drugs into the United States. Read more from the AP in the News Sentinel

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Appointed Attorneys Get Paid More Often in Greene Co.

Greene County leads the state in fees collected from defendants who are assigned court-appointed lawyers, the Greeneville Sun reports. General Sessions Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. said he and Criminal Court Judge John Dugger Jr. make sure that defendants pay their fair share and do not burden taxpayers. "I feel like especially if people can find the money to bond out of jail, they need to find the money to pay for their appointed attorney," Bailey said.

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Baumgartner Under Federal Investigation

Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner is now under federal probe, officials confirmed Friday. "The case remains open and ongoing, and TBI agents are continuing to investigate Baumgartner," federal prosecutor spokeswoman Kristin Helm said in an email. "Specifically, we are looking at possible federal violations with the U.S. Attorney's Office." Read more in the News Sentinel

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Tennessee also has 'Stand Your Ground' Law

Tennessee is among 23 states that have sweeping self-defense laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law that has come into focus with the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin outside of Orlando. In 2005, Florida became the first state to explicitly expand a person's right to use deadly force for self-defense. Under that law, and a similar version in Tennessee, deadly force is justified if a person is gravely threatened, in the home or "any other place where he or she has a right to be." There is no duty to retreat, and once self-defense is invoked, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove the claim. Pro Publica looks at the issue

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Court: Defendants Have Right to Counsel in Plea Bargains

For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that defendants have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in plea bargains. Its 5-4 decision today also declared that when a lawyer acts unethically or gives clearly wrong advice, the defendant may be entitled to a second chance at accepting a plea offer. Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that since 99 percent of all convictions are the result of plea bargains, not trials, the right to adequate assistance of counsel guaranteed in the Constitution cannot exclude the central role plea bargaining plays. NPR has this analysis

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Germantown Eyes 3 for City Prosecutor

The Germantown Board of Mayor and Aldermen will consider three recommendations from City Attorney Tom Cates to replace former senior prosecutor Joe Lee Wyatt, who resigned earlier this month after being charged with driving under the influence and refusing to submit to a breath or blood alcohol test. Of eight applicants, Cates has placed Christopher Nearn, Jennifer Nichols and Charles Bell Jr. on his short list. Nichols and Bell work in the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office. Nearn is a Collierville prosecutor who previously served as prosecutor in Bartlett City for nine years. He focuses on litigation, family, insurance, personal injury and mediation in private practice at Waldrop, Barnett, Lazarov & Nearn PC. Learn more about the candidates in The Commercial Appeal

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Inmate Seeks to Challenge Alabama's Execution Method

Alabama death-row inmate Tommy Arthur says she wants a chance to argue in court that the procedure the state plans to use this month to execute her may be unconstitutional. In 2011, the state changed the first of three drugs administered during lethal injections, substituting pentobarbital when supplies for sodium thiopental ran low. Arthur and her lawyer argue that the change could result in cruel and unusual punishment, and should be significant enough to trigger an appeal. WKRN News 2 Nashville has the story.

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Blackwood: No Authority to Open TBI Files

Special Judge John Kerry Blackwood said at a specially-called hearing in Knox County Criminal Court that he has no authority to make public the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's file on former judge Richard Baumgartner. Blackwood said the portions of the file not made public contain phone records and recorded conversations in which Baumgartner discusses sex with two women and makes "crude remarks" about people. "What you're not going to find (in the TBI file) is a great big conspiracy among officials to protect Richard Baumgartner," he said. The News Sentinel reports.

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Former Public Defender Joins AG's Office

Colin Johnson, a long-time attorney from Dresden, has joined the staff of the 27th Judicial District Attorney General’s office as a full-time assistant district attorney general. Johnson, a graduate of Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at Memphis State University, had served as the 27th Judicial District’s assistant public defender since 1998. NorthWest Tennessee Today has more.

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Court Changes Rules for Convictions of Multiple Crimes

In three unanimous decisions issued today, the Tennessee Supreme Court significantly changed the tests and procedures for determining when multiple convictions are permissible under the state and federal constitutions. State v. Watkins and State v. Cross confronted the issue of whether multiple convictions under different statutes violate the state constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. In State v. White, the court announced changes in cases involving charges of kidnapping and an accompanying felony. The court concluded that a separate due process test is no longer necessary for determining whether convictions for kidnapping and an accompanying felony may be upheld. In today’s decision, the court set out temporary jury instructions and invited the Tennessee Pattern Jury Instruction Committee to develop permanent guidelines for future cases. The court also pointed out that its decision does not create a new rule of constitutional law and, therefore, does not require retroactive application. Learn more from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

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Court: Inmate Can’t Change Court-Appointed Lawyer

The Supreme Court says a California death row inmate can't change his court-appointed appeals lawyer because he didn't like the lawyer's defense tactics. The justices on Monday turned away the appeal from Kenneth Clair, who was sentenced to death in 1987 for burglary and murder. Clair wanted to change his federal public defender in 2005 because he says they were trying to stop his execution instead of trying to prove his innocence. TriCities. com has the Associated Press story.

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Requests to Expunge Criminal Records on the Rise

Tennessee has reported a 71 percent jump since 2007 in the number of people filing to have charges expunged. Davidson County has seen cases more than double in that same time frame. Officials say this rise is related to the economy -- as jobs become scarcer and employers are able to be pickier, people want their records cleaned up to help them in the job market. The Tennessean reports.

Court Stops New Trials for Baumgartner-decided Cases

The Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a stay of new trials ordered for three of the four defendants in the January 2007 torture slayings of a Knox County couple and an unrelated attempted murder case. Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood late last year ruled the trials of the defendants in the slayings were constitutionally flawed because of the misdeeds of former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The reprieve, however, is temporary, designed to allow the respective defense teams time to respond to the state Attorney General's Office request for permission to appeal orders granting the new trials. Read more in the News Sentinel.

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Attorney General's Office Asks Court to Hold Off on New Trials

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office confirmed Friday it will ask the state Court of Criminal Appeals to put on hold new trials already awarded in the wake of revelations of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner's actions. The News Sentinel has details.

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Editorial: Take the Deal, Unseal TBI File

In an editorial, the News Sentinel praises a recent deal struck between Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols and defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs saying that it could help with the fallout from Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner's drug abuse. The paper encourages Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to unseal the full Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file into the ex-judge's misdeeds. Read the editorial.

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Study: Federal Sentences Vary Widely

A new study by the Associated Press shows that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes, 30 years after Congress tried to create more uniform outcomes with the Sentencing Reform Act. The law set up a commission that wrote guidelines for judges to follow as they punished convicts, with similar sentences for offenders with comparable criminal histories convicted of the same crimes. But the law's requirement that judges stick to these sentencing guidelines was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005. TriCities.com has the AP story.

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Judge Chooses Where Jury Pool Will Come From For Retrial

Although he's keeping them secret, Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has already picked the locations from which juries will be selected to try for a second time the defendants in the slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. The state Attorney General's Office is considering asking the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to put on hold retrials in the case to allow the office to appeal Blackwood's decision that the four defendants were denied constitutionally sound trials because of former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner's crimes while presiding over their original trials. The first retrial, of LeMarcus Davidson, is set for April 16. The News Sentinel reports.

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Knox DA to Allow Access to Baumgartner File

Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols this week agreed to release the entire TBI file on former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner to any attorney challenging a clients' conviction or sentencing imposed in trials presided over by Baumgartner. The move marks a reversal from an earlier decision not to release the file and not to stipulate it as unchallenged evidence. All eyes now fall on Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who will ultimately decide whether the TBI file should be made public. Learn more in the News Sentinel

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Anonymous Reward Offered for West Memphis 3 Killer

A new, $100,000 reward is on the table for anyone with information to help exonerate the West Memphis Three, WMC-TV reports. The three men convicted for three brutal murders that happened nearly 20 years ago are hoping the reward, from an anonymous source, brings the real killer to justice. Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols struck a deal last year that released them from prison but only after pleading guilty to the murders. They have maintained their innocence. Read more from the Memphis Business Journal

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Security Tight in Third Week of Federal Memphis Trial

The third week of testimony began today in the trial of two cousins in Memphis who are charged with drug trafficking, murder and money laundering. Because they are also charged with racketeering under a federal law designed to decimate the Mafia, much testimony has focused on crimes of the organization as a whole, not just on the alleged roles of the cousins. Security for the trial has been heightened, with court officials shielding jurors' identities and manning extra checkpoints. Armed U.S. Marshals pick jurors up daily from a secret location and escort them to and from the Memphis courthouse. Follow it in the Commercial Appeal.

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