News

AG Calls for Halt to U.S. Executions

Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for a national moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue later this year. Late last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from death row inmates in Oklahoma who are challenging the state’s procedures for lethal injections. Holder went on to say he disagrees with Justice Antonin Scalia, who has said the U.S. has never executed an innocent person. “There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed,” Holder stated. “And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” The Hill has more.

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Latest Numbers in Rape Kit Backlog

The latest update on the city’s rape kit backlog was disclosed during a Memphis City Council committee meeting Tuesday, the Commercial Appeal reports. A total of 5,386 kits, or 43.5 percent of all kits found, have been tested or are at the lab awaiting testing. Another 1,965 kits cannot be processed for DNA, which means they essentially are finished and the victims they represent will be left without a case to pursue. That leaves 6,988 kits still to be tested. The work done so far has been productive says Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, noting that police have initiated 352 investigations, secured 58 indictments and made 20 arrests.

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1st Amendment Groups Want to Join Rape Records Lawsuit

Two national First Amendment groups – the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and the University of Virginia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic – want to file briefs in support of a lawsuit seeking access to records in the rape case against four former Vanderbilt University football players. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the suit in May after the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled against the media coalition that filed the suit, the Tennessean reports.

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Bill Would Make Exploding Targets Legal

Less than a week after a state attorney general’s opinion declared that commercially available exploding targets used for shooting practice are illegal under current Tennessee law, legislators have introduced a bill to specifically allow their recreational use. The bill filed Thursday by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, and state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, would create a new exception to the general ban allowing possession and use of an exploding target in “lawful sporting activity.” Knoxnews has more on the measure.

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Pennsylvania Governor Halts Executions

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf halted all executions in his state Friday, citing the state’s “error prone” justice system and “inherent biases” among his reasons for the moratorium, CNN reports. Wolf also said the moratorium would remain in place until a task force examining capital punishment in the state issues its final report. At lease one district attorney expressed opposition to the move, saying “the governor has usurped the authority of the legislature and courts in setting the lawful punishment for convicted killers.” WCYB has the story.

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Shelby DA Won’t Handle Murder Re-trial

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has recused her office from involvement in a new trial for Noura Jackson, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009 for allegedly stabbing her mother more than 50 times. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Jackson a new trial after it determined that Weirich, who was the lead prosecutor in the conviction, failed to turn over a key witness’s statement to the defense. Weirich has asked the Tennessee District Attorney Generals Conference to appoint a pro tem attorney to handle re-trial of the case, WREG reports.

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Former, Current UT Football Players Indicted in Rape Case

Former University of Tennessee football linebacker A.J. Johnson – who graduated in December – and suspended cornerback Michael Williams have been indicted on charges of aggravated rape, Knoxnews reports. The charges are based on allegations from a 19-year-old female student. Williams also was accused of sexual assault by another woman in the same incident, though she declined to pursue charges. A Knox County grand jury returned the indictment Thursday, charging each player with two counts of aggravated rape, “aided and abetted by” the other.

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Council to Fill 2 Upcoming Judicial Vacancies

The Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments is accepting applications for two upcoming judicial vacancies. Apply by Feb. 26 to be considered for the 22nd Judicial District Circuit Court, which covers Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties. This vacancy is being created by the retirement of Judge Jim T. Hamilton of Columbia. Or apply by Feb. 27 to be considered for the 11th Judicial District Criminal Court, which serves Hamilton County. This vacancy is being created by the retirement of Judge Rebecca J. Stern. Both judges have informed Gov. Bill Haslam that they will retire effective June 1. Applicants must submit their paperwork to the AOC by noon on the due date.

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Supreme Court to Decide on Death Row Inmates’ Lawsuit

The Tennessee Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether a death row inmate can properly challenge the constitutionality of the possibility of electrocution as a method of execution. The lawsuit by 34 death row inmates challenges several aspects of Tennessee’s death penalty protocol. In an order filed today, the Court agreed to hear the State’s request to dismiss the plaintiffs’ challenge to electrocution as a method of execution, asserting that none of the plaintiffs is subject to execution by electrocution at this time. The case will be heard in oral arguments May 6 in Knoxville.

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Concubines and Dead Partners? TBJ Has Them This Month

The Standard of Clear and Convincing Evidence has never been so interesting, as when Judge Tom Wright and Ben Welch write about it, using concubines and dead partners as examples, in the February Tennessee Bar Journal. Also in this issue, Monica J. Franklin explains the ABLE Account, an alternative to special needs trusts, and Edward G. Phillips and Brandon L. Morrow delve into wage and hour issues in the high court. Bill Haltom has in mind a perfect Valentine's gift for the lawyer on your list.

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MacArthur Foundation Pledges $75M to Fix U.S. Jails

To reduce the number of people in jail, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation plans to give $75 million to jail officials working on ways to remove nonviolent offenders, people too poor to afford bail and the mentally ill from behind bars. The foundation plans to award $150,000 to up to 20 local jurisdictions — states, cities, tribes and judicial districts — that operate a jail with 50 beds or more and are proposing ways to change how their jails are run. Next year as many as 10 of them will receive $2 million per year to support those plans, officials said. WRCB has more from the Associated Press.

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ABA House Acts on Range of Issues

The ABA House of Delegates met Monday in Houston, adopting a number of resolutions, including: (1) calling for counsel to be appointed to unaccompanied minor immigrants and special training be provided to courts that hear their cases, (2) opposing stand-your-ground laws, (3) condemning foreclosure rescue fraud, (4) urging states to grant protective orders even though a victim and perpetrator have no established domestic relationship, (5) requiring a unanimous jury verdict before imposing the death penalty, (6) calling for open and transparent disclosure of execution protocols, (7) urging governments to adopt a presumption against the shackling of juveniles in court, and (8) urging law schools and bar associations to counsel young attorneys on student loan debt. The body considered but sponsors ultimately withdrew resolutions calling for federal regulation of paid tax preparers and stronger laws to protect the privacy of consumer data.

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Funk Faces Questions Over Pension Favor

Two months prior to taking office as Nashville’s district attorney, Glenn Funk was hired by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference as special prosecutor, reportedly so he could get on the state payroll and take advantage of a pension program that was being phased out, News Channel 5 reports. In a lengthy piece yesterday, the news station raises questions about how much work Funk performed for the state and whether he continued to defend clients in criminal proceedings during the time in question. Funk said he was just using the rules to his own advantage. “Nothing I did that was anything other than completely upfront and above board,” he said.

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‘Better Call Saul’ Debuts with 6.9M Viewers

Sunday’s premiere of the much-anticipated legal drama “Better Call Saul” was seen by 6.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. AMC is calling it the biggest series premiere in cable history, Fox News reports. The show, which is a “prequel of sorts” to the AMC hit “Breaking Bad,” features shifty lawyer Saul Goodman as he navigates the “murky underworld of drug dealers and villainous scum.” The second episode airs Monday at 9 p.m. CST.

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Court Throws Out Conviction Due to Ineffective Counsel

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals last week gave approval for a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea and get a new trial due to ineffective counsel, Knoxnews reports. Joshua Tyrell Cross pleaded guilty to attempted rape but later approached the court about withdrawing his plea. In looking into the case, the court found that 8th Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Dale Potter advised Cross to accept a plea deal without interviewing any witnesses or the victim and without asking for an arraignment, a preliminary hearing, a bond hearing or a grand jury review. The court also determined that Potter failed to explain to his client the consequences of being listed on the sex offender registry and lied to the court about what efforts he had undertaken on his client’s behalf. The court remanded the case for a preliminary hearing on the original charges.

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Bill Increases Penalties for Attending Animal Fights

The Humane Society hopes its proposal to increase penalties for attending animal fights will be referred to the state's Criminal Justice Committee where it has a better chance of advancing, WSMV reports. Similar bills in recent sessions have died in the Agriculture Committee, but Speaker Beth Harwell said after an especially ugly fight between animal rights activists and the Agriculture Committee, that said she would consider separating pet issues from livestock issues. The legislation would increase the fine from $50 to $2,500.

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Public Defender Funding Could Take Hit Under Proposal

A law that ensures budget increases for prosecutors include a corresponding increase for public defenders would go away under legislation introduced last week by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville. House Bill 241 would delete TCA 16-5-518 in its entirety. The law, which has been on the books since the early 1990s, governs increases in local funding, not state budgets. Go to TBAImpact to weigh in.

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Chattanooga Judge Confirms Plans to Retire

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern made her retirement plans official today, the Times Free Press reports. Stern, 57, submitted her retirement paperwork to the state indicating she would step down June 1. Stern had hinted in November that she might retire to Puerto Rico, where she and her husband have owned a vacation home for years.

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Commentary: Court Upholds Conviction, Ignores Racist Comment

As reported on Friday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week in a case involving the carjacking, kidnapping, rape and torture of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In addition to sealing an investigative file on former judge Richard Baumgartner, the appeals court upheld the conviction of George Thomas on two counts of first-degree murder under the legal theory of criminal responsibility. Unlike others involved in the case, there was no DNA evidence linking Thomas to the crimes, the News Sentinel reports. In addition, the new Lady Justice Unmasked blog from the newspaper notes that the appellate court gave little attention to concerns raised about a racist comment attributed to Thomas, which the prosecutor used to bolster his case. The defense had objected to use of the evidence on a number of grounds.

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Children’s Advocacy Center and Family Justice Center Joining Forces

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County has formalized a partnership with Chattanooga’s Family Justice Center, News Channel 9 reports. In a letter of intent submitted to the city, the advocacy center says it will “co-locate and lease approximately 10,000 square feet at the Family Justice Center facility.” “We are incredibly excited to have a leading organization such as the Children’s Advocacy Center partner on this important initiative,” said Mayor Andy Berke. “Their commitment and willingness to collaborate will produce maximum impact in the community’s effort to address family violence.”

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Study: Court Fees Also Punish Families

A new report on the growth of court fines and fees that are charged to often-impoverished offenders finds that impoverished people who go through the criminal justice system almost always get cash from family and friends to help pay their court-ordered fines, even though those family and friends are often poor, too. Titled "When All Else Fails, Fining the Family," the study notes "the incarcerated individual's friends and family ... become, in effect, a parallel welfare state." NPR has the story.

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Parents of Slaying Victims, Public Barred from TBI Files

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that both the parents of two Knox County slaying victims and the public are barred from reviewing an investigative file on former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, whose crimes led to new trials in the high-profile case, Knoxnews reports. The court ruled that Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files have been given special protection from the state Open Records Act — even when such a file is entered as an exhibit in judicial proceedings that do fall under the act.  

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Nashville Mayoral Candidates Discuss Marijuana Decriminalization

More than half of the candidates running for Nashville mayor either support or are receptive to the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the Tennessean reports. Their stances were revealed last night at a mayoral forum hosted by WPLN, the Nashville Bar Association and other lawyer-related organizations. The conversation comes on the heels of a petition drive to hold a public referendum on whether local dollars should go toward the prosecution of adults for possession of 2 ounces of marijuana or less.

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3 Graduate from Veterans Court

Three men graduated yesterday from the Davidson County Veterans Court, the first under Judge Melissa Blackburn’s tenure. Veterans court is an alternative supervision program designed to help veterans who are charged with non-violent offenses. Davidson County has had a veterans court for about five years, but last fall the program got its first federal funding when the U.S. Department of Justice committed $140,000 annually for the next three years. The Tennessean has more.

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Training Offered for Handling Domestic, Sexual Violence Cases

The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence is offering a legal advocacy training in Memphis on Feb. 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Topics to be covered include the basics of civil and criminal law in domestic and sexual violence cases, the differing roles of advocates and attorneys and benefits for immigrant victims of domestic violence and sex crimes. Robin Kimbrough, legal counsel for the Coalition, will conduct the training, which will be held at The Urban Child Institute at 600 Jefferson Ave. Attendance is free but registration is required. Contact the Coalition at (615) 386-9406 for more information.

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