News

Funk to Return Salary, Adjust Retirement Plan

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk will return state money and adjust his retirement plan in an effort to curtail the controversy surrounding a job he accepted before taking office in August. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Funk said he would enroll in the current retirement system, which requires an employee contribution, and return any money he was paid in insurance claims or for doing work at the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference between the time he won the primary and took office as district attorney, the Tennessean reports.

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Bill Targets Repeat DUI Offenders

A person convicted of three or more DUI offenses would be prohibited from buying alcohol under a new bill introduced by Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains. If passed, the Department of Safety would print “NO ALCOHOL SALES” on the license or photo ID issued to a person who has been convicted of three or more DUI’s. WATE has more.

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Initiative Provides $41 Million for Rape Kit Testing

Vice President Joe Biden announced a new "Sexual Assault Kit Initiative," aimed at lowering the number of untested rape kits in the U.S. The initiative will invest $41 million in cities across the U.S. that face a backlog of untested kits. An estimated 400,000 rape kits remain untested, the Vice President said. In Memphis, investigators say 6,988 remain untested. Local Memphis has the story.

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Days of Deals: Life as a Public Defender

With funding for public defenders coming under fire in the General Assembly, the Memphis Commercial Appeal shadows an assistant public defender on a typical day in the Shelby County courts. Providing defense attorneys isn’t just fair, a spokesman says, it makes the criminal justice system move faster. “Without that, you would have a jail that is fuller, takes longer to move through.”

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Transcripts in Vandy Rape Case to be Ready This Month

Defense attorneys seeking transcripts they say could lead to a new trial for two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of rape should have the documents in less than two weeks, Judge Monte Watkins said today. Attorneys reviewing the case for appeal say they have concerns that one juror did not disclose that he was a victim of a sex crime and could have been biased. The Tennessean has more.

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Torture Slaying Ringleader Loses Death Penalty Appeal

The first death sentence appeal was denied for Lemaricus Davidson, who was convicted in the 2007 torture slaying of Knoxville couple Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Although Davidson has many appeals left, this first appellate loss shows the odds of a reversal are pretty slim, Knoxnews court reporter Jamie Satterfield writes in her blog "Lady Justice Unmasked". Satterfield goes on to praise the efforts of attorneys originally appointed to defend Davidson. "(David) Eldridge and (Doug) Trant weren’t just competent," Satterfield writes, "they were fearless advocates for the most reviled defendant in modern Tennessee court history, and that kind of advocacy leaves no room for a legal mistake that would force an appellate court to give Davidson a second bite of the judicial apple."

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Child Advocacy Group Blasts DA Over Handling of Rape Case

National child advocacy group Child Justice has released a letter criticizing Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk over a child rape case that hasn't gone to trial after three years. The letter accuses the DA’s office of rejecting a substantial body of evidence and firing a member of the office who investigated the case and was therefore in the best position to successfully prosecute it. A representative from Funk's office said some of the accusations in the letter are not true and the process is consistent with other cases. WSMV has more

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Juvenile Court Seeks Beds to Keep Kids Out of Detention

The Shelby County Juvenile Court is seeking money for more beds at Porter-Leath, a nonprofit organization that accommodates kids who can't go home but shouldn’t be detained. The bed shortage often finds kids locked in detention with some of the county’s worst juvenile offenders. In its fiscal 2015 budget request to the County Commission, court CAO and chief counsel Larry Scroggs said the court needs an additional $140,000 for alternative beds. The Commercial Appeal has more.

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Utah to Bring Back Execution by Firing Squad

Utah lawmakers voted to bring back executions by firing squad if there is a shortage of lethal injection execution drugs. The vote is the most dramatic illustration yet of the nationwide frustration over botched executions and shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections. The Citizen Tribune has more from the Associated Press.

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Appeals Judge Takes Over Ferguson Court

A Missouri appeals court judge was appointed Monday to take over Ferguson’s municipal court and make “needed reforms” after a highly critical report was released by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Missouri Supreme Court said it assigned state appeals Judge Roy L. Richter to hear all of Ferguson’s pending and future municipal court cases, the Greeneville Sun reports. Richter also will have the authority to overhaul court policies to ensure defendants’ rights are respected and “restore the integrity of the system.” The move came after Municipal Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer resigned yesterday.

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Senate Directs Local Law Enforcement to Ban Racial Profiling

The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Monday that requires local law enforcement agencies to enact policies prohibiting racial profiling, Knoxnews reports. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, sponsored the bill and said it would require local agencies to adopt policies by Jan. 1, 2016. A bill passed several years ago encouraged adoption of such policies but only 37 agencies have taken action thus far. The new bill is awaiting committee review in the House.

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Court Blocks Release of Execution Team Identities

The Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed two lower court rulings that had ordered the state to disclose the names of those involved in the execution process. The question of disclosure came out of a lawsuit from death row inmates challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol. While that suit is ongoing, the court decided to weigh in on the specific issue of confidentiality for those participating in the lethal injection process. The court found that the information being sought by the inmates was not relevant to determining the merits of their case. In remanding the issue back to the trial court, the Supreme Court also directed that the case be expedited. Get the opinion and a concurring opinion from Justice Gary Wade.

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Court Requires Strict Interpretation of Civil Forfeiture Laws

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state must present evidence that it has complied with procedural and substantive requirements in civil forfeiture laws before it can seize property. In the case in question, the court found that that the state failed to present affirmative proof it complied with procedural requirements outlined in the law. It thus reversed the trial court’s decision and vacated the forfeiture in question. The court also used the case as an opportunity to emphasize that forfeiture is disfavored under Tennessee’s constitution, meaning that forfeiture statutes must be strictly interpreted. Read more about the decision or download the opinion.

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State Investigating Drug Task Force

State officials are investigating the Eighth Judicial Drug Task Force after District Attorney General Jared Effler asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Comptroller’s Office to review procedures and protocols governing the storage and disposition of evidence and cash. The district covers Campbell, Claiborne, Union, Scott and Fentress counties, Knoxnews reports.

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Former UT Football Players Plead Not Guilty to Rape Charges

Former Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and suspended Tennessee defensive back Michael Williams have pleaded not guilty to aggravated rape charges, WKRN reports. The pair was arraigned today after being indicted last month by a grand jury. Lawyers for both players say their clients are innocent of the charges. Trial is set for Aug. 24.

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District Launches Veterans Treatment Court

The 13th Judicial District Recovery Court (formerly known as the drug court) will expand its services to assist former military service members who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system. The new Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) will address the underlying causes of criminality among veterans by focusing on treatment and rehabilitation. The expansion will offer both outpatient and residential treatment. The 13th Judicial District covers Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties. The Crossville Chronicle has more.

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DA Conference Replaces Embattled Director

Former Rutherford County District Attorney Bill Whitesell has been named interim executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Murfreesboro Post reports. Whitesell took the position following the resignation of executive director Wally Kirby, who had earlier been suspended by the conference for hiring Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk for a part-time position with the conference before he was sworn in so that Funk could join a state pension plan that was about to change. News Channel 5 has more.

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Georgia Postpones Executions to Examine Lethal Injection

Officials in Georgia announced yesterday that the state was suspending executions indefinitely while it tests the drugs that it had planned to use in an execution on Monday night. The decision came a day after Georgia called off the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row, several hours after it was set to take place. No new dates were announced for the executions, instead the Department of Corrections said that when it "is prepared to proceed," sentencing courts will issue new execution orders, the Crossville Chronicle reports from the Washington Post.

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Bill Keeps Judicial Discretion on Domestic Violence Arrests

Judges in Tennessee will retain the authority to waive a 12-hour "cooling off" period after domestic violence arrests, according to the latest draft of a proposed bill. An amendment approved yesterday to HB41 keeps judicial discretion to release suspects before the end of the period, while also adding elements to the law meant to improve transparency and guarantee victims are notified before the hold is waived. The Tennessean has more.

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Opinion: Will Task Force Change American Policing?

In a mere 90 days, a task force assembled by the Obama administration has issued an ambitious plan for improving police forces around the nation, including 59 recommendations for improving police diversity, training, use of technology and transparency in policies and practices, according to Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. The advisory group also recommended that the president create another task force to examine the entire criminal justice system. Whether these efforts will lead to any real change remains to be seen says Gest. “Some federal reports have led to dramatic change, while others have been left to gather dust.”

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Report Finds Racial Bias in Ferguson Police, Court

Federal officials will not bring civil rights charges against former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson but will release a scathing report tomorrow documenting patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson police department, jail and court, the Washington Post reports. The investigation – launched after Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18-year old African American – found that police officers disproportionately used excessive force against blacks and too often charged them with petty offenses. The investigation also revealed racial bias among court and jail employees. The U.S. Justice Department is negotiating a settlement with the police department to change its practices, though some are calling for a more radical response.

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Bill Would Limit Where Private Prison Suits Are Filed

A bill filed in the state legislature would require that suits against private prisons, including those operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), be filed in the county where the prison is operated, the Associated Press reports. The legislation is a response to a Tennessee Supreme Court decision involving a former CCA inmate who sued over bad medical care. The court said a state law requiring inmates to sue in the county where the prison is located did not apply to private prisons. Supporters say the bill will prevent inmates from being transferred across the state to go to court. Opponents argue that judges and juries in small towns are likely to be biased in favor of a local prison. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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President: Court-Appointed Lawyers Should Get Raise

The March issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal includes a lot of criminal justice-related information, including articles exploring the “unnecessary rigor” provision of the Tennessee Constitution, legislative initiatives on privacy and criminal law, and the successes of a residential drug treatment program. In his column, President Jonathan Steen explains why the rate for court-appointed lawyers should be increased. "The compensation rate for lawyers appointed by Tennessee state courts to represent indigent parties in criminal, juvenile and civil cases has not changed in 20 years. The current rate for court-appointed lawyers is $40 per hour for out-of-court work and $50 per hour for in-court work," he writes. "At $40 an hour for out-of-court work, Tennessee court-appointed lawyers are the lowest paid in the nation."

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Senator Criticizes Post-Conviction Defender’s Office

The state agency that defends death row inmates is being criticized for using taxpayer dollars to pay for a lawsuit seeking information on executions, Knoxnews reports. State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said the Office of Post-Conviction Defender exceeded its authority when it filed a civil suit seeking the identities of executioners and types of drugs used in an execution. The office disputes Yager’s interpretation saying the law allows it to get involved in “collateral matters.”

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Officials Sign Off on Plan to Avoid Wrongful Arrests

Knox County leaders have put together a blueprint designed to streamline the criminal justice process so that authorities do not wrongly arrest residents – something that actually did happen because of poor record keeping and improper training at the county criminal court clerk’s office. In a letter signed by eight judges, the district attorney general and the sheriff, officials agreed to better protect records, formalize training programs and implement a real-time data entry process in county courtrooms. Officials hope to begin testing the new system by the end of March in one courtroom, WBIR reports.

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