News

Rape Kit Backlog: Legislature Wants Data Before Dollars

In the waning days of the legislative session, lawmakers defeated a proposal that would have provided $2 million to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits statewide. Senate Republican leader Mark Norris says the proposal was rejected because the legislature wants to know the size of the problem before authorizing money to fix it. He tells the Memphis Daily News that the legislature also is asking localities to explain how their situations came to exist and to offer a credible plan for eliminating backlogs. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is collecting the information and is expected to report to the legislature on its findings. Until then, the state has repurposed $500,000 in federal money to help the city of Memphis work through its backlog.

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City Wants to Use Grant for Federal Prosecutor

The city of Chattanooga is sitting on $300,000 from a federal grant intended to help crack down on crime, WRCB-TV reports. City officials said they plan on using the money to help fund a special federal prosecutor but need approval from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to change the grant’s purpose. Originally, the city applied for and was granted the money to hire a special prosecutor in the district attorney's office. City officials say they will submit the required paperwork in the next few weeks and should hear back from the DOJ within 30 to 60 days.

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Blackwood Appointed to Handle Poston Case

Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has been tapped to preside over the case of Bruce Poston, a Knoxville defense attorney accused of giving prescription painkillers to the wife of a client. Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade issued an order Thursday appointing Blackwood as a special judge after all of Knox County’s judges recused themselves. A special prosecutor also has been assigned, Knoxnews reports. Poston is being represented by defense attorney Mike Whalen. An arraignment date has not yet been set.

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Brown Contempt Upheld, Case Sent to Appeals Court

Senior Judge Paul G. Summers, who is acting as a special judge in the case of former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown’s contempt citation, ruled today that Brown was in contempt during an outburst in March before Juvenile Court Magistrate Harold “Hal” Horne. He then turned to the issue of whether the appeal of the contempt charge was improperly filed in criminal court instead of an appellate court. As Brown’s attorneys argued for the appeal, Summers replied, “Sounds to me like you’re wanting to have an extra charge lodged against your client,” WREG News Channel 3 reports. He ultimately decided to send the case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

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Brown Contempt Hearing Delay Denied

Former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown’s contempt citation in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court is set to be heard tomorrow by Senior Judge Paul G. Summers, who is acting as a special judge in the case, after Summers denied motions to delay the hearing. Brown’s lawyers had sought to delay the hearing to add additional claims regarding Brown’s unsuccessful attempt to get a hearing before Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr., who set bail in the original contempt case.

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New Sevier County Prosecutor Joins Staff

Keith Cole was sworn in as a new Sevier County prosecutor yesterday, Knoxnews reports. Cole, who was given the oath of office by Circuit Court Judge Richard Vance, will be assigned to Sevier County General Sessions Court. Cole earned his law degree from Lincoln Memorial University's Duncan School of Law and was licensed in October.

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New Head Named for Civil Rights Unit

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton has named Brian K. Coleman, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, to lead the civil rights unit of his office. Coleman has been a federal prosecutor since 2008 and was a state prosecutor before that. Stanton created the unit in 2011 to handle traditional civil rights violations, as well as government corruption, human trafficking and hate crime cases. Larry Laurenzi, who previously led the unit, has been named first assistant in the office, the Memphis Daily News reports.

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Rape Kit Backlog Poses Testing, Prosecution Challenges

The former federal prosecutor investigating the rape kit backlog in Memphis says clearing the backlog will mean more than an investment in testing the rape kits for DNA. “Let’s say out of the 2,000 there are 1,000 that are prosecutable," Veronica Coleman-Davis said. "Think about what the prosecutor’s office is going to have to do in terms of resources.” Coleman-Davis said she has interviewed more than 25 people so far in trying to determine how the backlog occurred. She expects to have a report to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. in about two weeks.

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Court Hears Arguments in Cellphone Privacy Cases

The Supreme Court seemed wary Tuesday of allowing police unbridled freedom to search through cellphones of people they arrest, taking on a new issue of privacy in the face of rapidly changing technology, WATE reports. The court heard two cases today involving a drug dealer and a gang member whose convictions turned in part on evidence found on their cellphones. A key question is whether Americans' cellphones, with vast quantities of sensitive records, photographs and communications, are a private realm much like their homes. Decisions are expected by late June.

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1 in 25 Sentenced to Death Are Likely Innocent, Study Says

A new study suggests that about one in 25 people who are sentenced to death are likely innocent, the ABA Journal reports. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that while only 1.6 percent of those on death-row are exonerated and released, the actual figure is likely a minimum of 4.1 percent when statistical assumptions are applied to the cases of people who are removed from death row and given life sentences.The new study also refutes a statement made by Justice Antonin Scalia in a concurring opinion in 2007 in which he wrote that American criminal convictions have an error rate of 0.027 percent “or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.”

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Defense Lawyers Can Stay on Vandy Rape Case

Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins ruled yesterday that California attorney Albert Perez Jr. and retired judge Eugene Osko meet state requirements to stay on the legal defense team for Brandon Vandenburg, one of four former Vanderbilt University football players charged in the June 2013 rape of a female student inside a campus dorm. Watkins also said that Perez did not err in making statements about the case in a local TV news interview. The comments by Perez, "although colorfully opinionated, do not rise to the level of material prejudice," the judge wrote. The Tennessean has more.

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Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Review of Judicial Diversion

The Tennessee Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion today clarified the standard of appellate review for a trial court’s decision regarding judicial diversion, the Administrative Office of the Court reports. When a case is appealed, the court must determine what standard of review applies. In the case State v. King, the defendant argued that the Court of Criminal Appeals used the wrong standard when reviewing the trial court’s decision to deny judicial diversion. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Court of Criminal Appeals, adopting as the appropriate standard of review for judicial diversion rulings “abuse of discretion with a presumption of reasonableness.”

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Documentary Looks at Recidivism in NE Tennessee

"Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection," a locally produced documentary that looks at the high cost of recidivism and its impact on Northeast Tennessee, will premier Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Wellmont Regional Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Northeast State Community College. Produced by Jane Hillhouse of Hillhouse Video Works in Kingsport, "Outcasts" also examines viable solutions that are making a difference. After the premiere, the documentary will air on East Tennessee PBS and affiliates nationwide. Learn more or RSVP online. The Kingsport Times News has more on the making of the film.

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Accused Gang Member Fatally Shot During Trial

An accused street gang member standing trial in federal court in Salt Lake City who was shot by a U.S. marshal this morning has died of his wounds, according to an FBI spokesperson. The defendant was shot when he attacked a witness who was testifying against him, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said. The defendant, Siale Angilau, 25, who was not handcuffed, lunged at the witness on the first day of testimony in his trial. After the shooting, a group of marshals continued to hold Angilau at gunpoint near the jury box. The incident is being investigated by the FBI. The Chicago Tribute reported.

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Shelby DA Race Heating Up

The two candidates -- incumbent Amy Weirich and Joe Brown -- vying to be the next district attorney general in Shelby County won’t face each other until August, but they were making news this week with what panelists on News Channel 3's "Informed Sources" called "questionable comments." The program reviewed recent developments in the race.

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Meet 1st District's Candidates for AG, Criminal Court Judge

Candidates for attorney general in the First Judicial District -- incumbent Tony Clark, Jerome Cochran and Dan Smith -- answer questions about what they would bring to the office. The Johnson City Press reports. The paper also looks at the race for Criminal Court Judge Part I. The seat, held by Judge Robert Cupp since 1998, has two candidates seeking the seat. Cupp did not file paperwork to seek re-election to the bench. Dennis Brooks, an assistant district attorney, and Lisa Nidiffer Rice, a private practice lawyer, will go head-to-head on the May 6 Republican primary ballot. The district includes Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington counties.

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New Clemency Criteria Aims to Reduce Prison Rolls

New Justice Department criteria for evaluating clemency petitions will likely result in thousands of new applications from federal prisoners, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday. The new criteria are aimed at inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses and are intended to reduce the nation's federal prison population. Holder said the change will "ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens." WRCB carried the Associated Press report.

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House Approves Electrocution Bill

The Capital Punishment Enforcement Act, which would allow the state Department of Correction to use the electric chair for executions if lethal injection chemicals are unavailable, passed in the House by a 68-13 vote, the Tennessean reports. HB 2476 sponsored by state Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, allows the department to petition the governor to use the electric chair if it is unable to obtain the proper chemicals for administering a lethal injection. Having passed the Senate last week 23-3, the bill now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam. State Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion in March that deemed the bill constitutionally defensible, the Nashville Scene notes.

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Knoxville Lawyer Charged with Swapping Pills for Sex

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) arrested prominent Knoxville defense attorney Bruce Poston today, charging that he swapped hydrocodone pills for sex, Knoxnews reports. Poston, 67, was arrested at the City County Building in downtown Knoxville on three counts of the delivery of hydrocodone in January and February. The charges also accuse him of making those deliveries while driving on a suspended driver’s license. According to the TBI, a woman stepped forward in January to complain Poston “was supplying her with money and pills.” The woman further alleged that Poston had represented her husband in a criminal case and “mishandled her husband’s case in order to further his sexual relationship with her.” Retired District Attorney General Greeley Wells has been assigned to the case in place of the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, which has recused itself.

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General Assembly Faces Critical Votes in Final Hours

The last week of the legislative session is seeing several high profile bills die or finally make their way through the process, though at the end of today’s Senate session, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said more than 120 bills are still pending before the body. Among the proposals failing to gain traction were Gov. Bill Haslam's voucher bill, which failed to pass the House Finance Committee and was withdrawn, and an open carry gun bill, which was killed by the same committee. Measures limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine Tennesseans may buy are headed to a conference committee to hammer out differences between Senate and House versions. Bills moving on to the governor’s desk include a measure allowing the sale of high-gravity beer in grocery stores and authorizing criminal assault charges against women using illegal drugs during pregnancy. The latter issue gained national attention with a story in the New York Times today.

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Justice in Motion Run/Walk Benefits Crime Victims

The First Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Washington County Sheriff's Office will hold the Justice in Motion 5K run/walk April 26 to raise awareness of victims’ rights. The event, held each year during National Crime Victims' Rights Week, benefits Safe Passage, a domestic abuse shelter in Johnson City, and CHIPS, a family violence shelter in Erwin. Local domestic abuse shelters, sexual assault centers, victims groups and law enforcement agencies are invited to attend the race and set up booths with information about their services.

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No Money in Budget to Tackle Rape Kits

The state budget passed last week does not include money to tackle the huge backlog of untested rape kits, and the sponsors of legislation that would have set money aside to test the estimated 20,000 kits are not hopeful for relief this year. Rape victim Meaghan Ybos continues to tell her story to help push the legislation and eliminate the state's massive backlog, the Tennessean reports. She was raped in 2003, but her kit was not tested until almost a decade later when she called to check on her cold case after hearing about a possible serial rapist in her area. He was later convicted of raping Ybos and six other women.

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DA Drops Charges Against Clarksville Attorney

Charges have been dropped against Clarksville attorney Fletcher Long after the local district attorney declined to prosecute the case. A former employee had accused Long of harassing her by sending threatening text messages and emails, calling in the middle of the night and driving slowly by her house. An order expunging the charge and dismissing a temporary order of protection was signed by the presiding judge. "The result of a nolle is simply that the State is declining to pursue the charge(s) against the defendant at the present time,” the district attorney said. “Unlike a dismissal with prejudice, a case that has been disposed of via a nolle prosequi may be readdressed in the future. Should any additional evidence be discovered in the near future or should any additional instances arise…the State may choose to revive this matter after careful review."

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Former Knox Court Employee Charged with Child Porn

Former Knox County Criminal Court employee Joshua Ryan Fettig, 20, was arrested Wednesday on charges of sexual exploitation of a minor, Knoxnews reports. Investigators began looking at Fettig last December after receiving tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that someone had attempted to use their email account to send images of child pornography. Fettig worked as a night clerk in the judicial commissioner’s office at the time the probe was initiated. A forensic examination of “confiscated computers” revealed 356 images of child pornography, investigators said. Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey fired Fettig after his work computer was seized in mid-January.

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DA Candidates to Discuss Domestic Violence

Domestic violence will be the focus of an upcoming candidate panel in Nashville, where the three candidates running to be Davidson County District Attorney will share the stage. The event is sponsored by the YMCA and the Legal Aid Society and will feature its managing attorney for Nashville, DarKenya Waller, as moderator. The forum runs from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Monday at Woodmont Christian Church, 3601 Hillsboro Pike in Nashville.

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