News

Tree Plantings to Honor Crime Victims

Tennessee ranks among the 10 worst states for domestic assault, with 50,000 cases reported in the first eight months of 2013 alone, according to TBI statistics. This is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and correctional officials and advocate groups are paying tribute to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals in Tennessee with ceremonial tree plantings honoring women and children who have been killed by their domestic abusers. The Tennessean has more.

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Editorial: Is Justice Being Served?

In an editorial, the Johnson City Press urges state lawmakers to increase funding for district attorneys and public defenders. It says that with caseloads surging and resources dwindling, "can we truly say justice is being served under these conditions?"

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October Date Set for Setzer Murder Trial

A Lebanon man charged with murder in the package-bomb deaths of his in-laws has an Oct. 28 trial date, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. Wilson County Circuit Court Judge John Wootten said he set an early date because Richard Parker is awaiting the trial in jail, unable to make his $1 million bond. Parker is the son-in-law of retired lawyer Jon Setzer and his wife, Marion Setzer, who were killed in February after a package bomb exploded at their house.

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Legislature Considers Return of Electric Chair; State Sets 2016 Execution Date

The Tennessee Supreme Court set a date of March 15, 2016, for Donald Wayne Strouth to be executed, the Tennessean reports. Strouth has been on death row since 1978. On Tuesday, a House committee approved a bill that would make electrocution the state's method for killing inmates sentenced to death if lethal injection were declared unconstitutional or the drugs needed to carry it out were unavailable. But, WBIR reports, a handful of members said they have reservations about the electric chair, which the state has used only once since 1960.

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Assistant DA Drops Complaint Against Bebb

The Cleveland Police Department reportedly asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to look into a complaint that 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb assaulted a female assistant district attorney in his office last week. Police spokeswoman Evie West said Cynthia LeCroy Schemel, who works with Bebb, filed a complaint saying he assaulted her Wednesday and then fired her Friday. According to WRCB-TV, Schemel said Bebb grabbed her and acted like he was going to punch her after she tried to intervene in an office argument. Schemel also claimed she was targeted because she is supporting Steve Crump in the race for district attorney over Stephen Hatchett, who is supported by Bebb. Late today, however, Chattanoogan.com reported that Bebb agreed to reinstate Schemel, who in turn, agreed to drop her assault charge.

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Media Group Files Appeal in Vandy Rape Case

Access to records in a high-profile Vanderbilt University rape case is essential to ensuring the public can judge the effectiveness of Metro police and prosecutors, a media coalition argues in a new filing with the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The group is seeking access to records related to the case including text messages between players and coaches, The Tennessean reports. Chancery Court Judge Russell Perkins has ruled that some records in the case that led to charges against four former Vanderbilt football players should be made available under the state’s open records law. But he put a stay on the order pending an anticipated appeal by the city, the victim and/or the state attorney general’s office.

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Nashville DA Candidates Emphasize Differences

The first competitive race in decades to be Nashville's top prosecutor pits three lawyers with very different backgrounds against one another, The Tennessean reports. The candidates are criminal defense attorney Glenn Funk, whose campaign slogan is “GLENN gives a FUNK about JUSTICE"; Diane Lance, who has devoted the last 15 years to victims of abuse and sexual violence, both as a volunteer and as special counsel to Mayor Karl Dean; and assistant district attorney Rob McGuire, who has spent his entire 13-year career in the DA's office. All three have focused on domestic violence, a high-profile issue that came to a head recently with the release of a major plan by the city to overhaul how victims are treated in the system. Further controversy developed when it was discovered the city had withheld a larger, more detailed report critical of police, prosecutors, judges and judicial employees.

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Report: Rodriguez Decision ‘Could be Blow’ to Immigrants

The Associated Press reports that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Friday decision in the case of Jose Rodriguez “could be a blow to immigrants who were never told that they can still be deported for a crime that has been wiped off their criminal record.” AP reporter Shelia Burke interviews immigration advocates, including the attorney who brought the case on behalf of Rodriguez, who say the decision closes an avenue for immigrants to be able to correct bad legal advice they have received in the past. The case also exposes a rift between state and federal law, they claim, since an immigrant can have a criminal record expunged by a Tennessee court but the conviction still can be used by the federal government in deportation proceedings.

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Court Passes on Range of Controversial Appeals

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to enter the controversy over businesses refusing to serve gay and lesbian customers, Scotusblog reports, turning aside an appeal from the owners of a photography studio who had refused to work with a lesbian couple. The decision leaves intact an appellate court ruling that the studio violated state law prohibiting discrimination. In other significant denials, the court refused to hear a case upholding a ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates, declined to hear a case expediting a challenge to the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s telephone data gathering, refused to hear a case on testing federal court power to overturn an arbitration award, and denied a case assessing whether death-row inmates have a right to know the method of their execution in advance. The justices did grant one appeal to be reviewed in the next term. That case tests what information a party in a state court case must provide to have the case transferred to federal court.

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Court Rules Completed Diversion Not a ‘Conviction’

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled that a guilty plea expunged after successful completion of judicial diversion is not considered a conviction, and should not be subject to review in post-conviction proceedings. The ruling came in the case of Jose Rodriguez, a Mexican citizen, who entered a guilty plea in 2007 for patronizing a prostitute in the Nashville area. He was then placed on judicial diversion. Rodriguez successfully completed his diversion and his criminal record was expunged in January 2010. The Tennessee Supreme Court found that since Rodriguez was not “convicted,” he was not eligible for post-conviction relief, which he had sought to avoid any negative immigration consequences of his guilty plea. The Chattanoogan has more.

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Nashville AG, PD Plead for More Staff

Public Defender Dawn Deaner said her office is suffering from crushing caseloads and losing too many attorneys to higher-paying jobs during a budget pitch to Mayor Karl Dean Wednesday. Deaner asked for an additional $423,000 mostly to help bring salaries in line with state lawyers. Deaner’s counterpart, District Attorney Torry Johnson, asked for some $240,000 to increase attorney salaries, in addition to hiring a new social worker to help reach domestic violence victims within 48 hours of a crime. The Tennessean has more.

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Davidson County Sheriff Considers Moving Jails

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall says a big move could save taxpayers big money, and according to WSMV News Channel 4, he is considering a plan to move the city's two jails from downtown Nashville to a less expensive location, possibly in the Antioch or Harding Place area. The Hill Detention Center, which holds about 500 inmates, is located on Second Ave. North beneath the sheriff's administrative offices. The Criminal Justice Center, which holds another 800 inmates, is located across the street from the criminal courts building. Hall is asking county commissioners for $5 million to study the idea.

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Knox Criminal Courts Seek Comments on Rules Changes

The Knox County Criminal Court is seeking written comments on proposed changes to its rules, which have not been amended since 1989. Judges, lawyers, bar associations, members of the public and any other interested parties are invited to submit comments by April 11 to Knoxville Bar Association (KBA) Executive Director Marsha S. Wilson, P.O. Box 2027, Knoxville, TN 37901, or by email to mwilson@knoxbar.org or by fax to (865) 523-5662.  All comments received will be posted on the KBA’s Criminal Justice Section's webpage.

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Special Judge Assigned to Joe Brown Case

Senior Judge Paul Summers has been assigned to preside over former judge Joe Brown’s contempt-of-court hearing, according to a spokesperson with the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts. The hearing, which was originally scheduled for Friday, was canceled when all 10 criminal court judges in the 30th Judicial District recused themselves, citing Brown’s former role as a Shelby County judge. The Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story.

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Attorney: Reports of Clerk’s Exoneration Premature

A motion to dismiss contempt of court charges against Hawkins County Clerk of Courts Sarah Davis, which was filed last week, has not been acted on by the judge assigned to the case and reports of Davis' exoneration are premature and “troubling,” the clerk's defense attorney tells the Rogersville Review. TBA Today reported on March 25 that the charges against Davis had been dismissed based on a story in the Kingsport Times News.

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Applicants Sought for 2 Appellate Court Vacancies

The Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments is accepting applications for two upcoming appeals court vacancies created by Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jerry L. Smith’s announcement that he will not seek to retain his seat in the August general election, and Court of Appeals Judge Holly M. Kirby’s appointment to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Candidates for the Court of Criminal Appeals must reside in the Middle Grand Division and apply by April 25. A public hearing on applicants will be held May 13 in Nashville. Candidates for the Court of Appeals must reside in the Western Grand Division and apply by April 30. A hearing on those candidates will be held May 16 in Memphis.

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2nd Rape Kit Lawsuit Names More Officials

A second federal lawsuit over the Memphis Police Department’s backlog of 12,000 untested rape kits was filed last week and casts a wider net of defendants, including the current and former Memphis police directors and the current and former district attorneys general, the Memphis Daily News reports. Like the first suit, however, it seeks more information about how the backlog came to exist. Lawyers representing the three rape victims bringing the suit have their own ideas about how that happened though, suggesting that the city had no effective system to organize and preserve rape kits that were taken as well as those that were processed.

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Judge to Decide If Court Clerk Staff is Immune from Liability

Knoxville Circuit Court Judge Harold Wimberly’s ruling in the wrongful arrest of a local woman will set the stage for future lawsuits against the county in the wake of revelations that mistakes made by the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s office had led to wrongful arrests, unlawful detentions and improper suspension of drivers licenses. The county is seeking to dismiss the suit, aruging that government employees are immune from liability when they are carrying out routine functions of their jobs — even if they were negligent.

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Memphis Judges Recuse Themselves from Brown's Case

All 10 criminal court judges in the 30th Judicial District have recused themselves from hearing former Shelby County judge and TV personality Joe Brown’s contempt-of-court case, the Commercial Appeal reports. The judges cite Brown’s former role as a local judge as the reason. The contempt case was originally set to be heard on April 4 but has been postponed until the state Supreme Court can appoint a special judge. Brown was charged with contempt after an outburst before Juvenile Court Magistrate Harold “Hal” Horne last week. Brown called the court “a circus” and a “sorry operation.” In related news, the Memphis Daily News looks at how the charge may affect Brown's campaign and the larger Democractic Party's election chances.

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Second Lawsuit Filed over Rape Kit Backlog

The second federal lawsuit since December was filed against the city of Memphis over the backlog of more than 12,000 untested rape kits, the Memphis Daily News reports. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three women allegedly raped by Anthony Alliani during a string of rapes covering a decade. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for all three women arguing that the failure to test the rape kits and investigate the complaints is negligence and a violation of due process guarantees and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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Judge: Beware of Jury Duty Phone Scam

Hamilton County residents report that a man identifying himself as a lieutenant with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has called them saying they failed to appear for jury duty and must purchase a Green Dot Card to avoid going to jail. Court officials who work with jurors say there have been other similar calls. In each case, the "victim" had never been given a jury summons, the Chattanoogan reports. "This is a complete fraud that our citizens should be beware of," General Session Judge Christie Sell said after being alerted to the scam. "It is a travesty when someone tries to undermine the justice system in this way." If you receive such a call or have information on those perpetrating this scam, contact the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office at (423) 209-8940.

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DA Fires Longtime Prosecutor, Names New Claiborne Lead

Eighth Judicial District Attorney General Lori Phillips-Jones has fired Jared Effler, a 14-year prosecutor in the district who is challenging her in the Aug. 7 DA race, Knoxnews reports. The firing occurred Friday after Effler held a campaign event and received a key endorsement Thursday night. Phillips-Jones said the campaign event and endorsement had nothing to do with her decision but that the move was “in the best interests of the office” since Effler had asked for 60 days of paid leave to campaign. “We have a lot of courts to cover and a lot of work. I didn’t feel I could accommodate that request,” she said. Effler said he would establish a private practice and continue to campaign. Also on Monday, Phillips-Jones named David Ballard with the Campbell County firm of Basista, Balloff and Pollard as Effler's replacement as lead prosecutor in Claiborne County.

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Bebb: Paper Engaged In ‘Disgraceful Witch Hunt’

Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb said Monday that the Chattanooga Times Free Press carried out "a disgraceful witch hunt" against him. In a statement reported by Chattanoogan.com, Bebb also chastised state legislators "who put personal and professional gain” over fulfilling their oaths of offices. The state Board of Professional Responsibility dismissed complaints against Bebb last week, closing a nearly two-year chapter for the retiring DA, who had served 23 years as a criminal court judge before taking over as district attorney general.

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City Opposes Expedited Appeal for Vandy Rape Documents

Metro Nashville attorneys on Friday argued against a media coalition's request for a speedy hearing of its appeal to gain access to records in a high-profile Vanderbilt University rape case. The coalition argues that the newsworthiness of the case, the fact that two defendants are scheduled to go to trial Aug. 11 and the upcoming election of a new district attorney justify an expedited appeal. Metro attorneys countered that the significance of the legal issues at stake, the importance of thoroughly briefing the court, the failure of appellants to pursue the matter for two months, and the need to preserve criminal court authority over criminal matter outweigh those concerns. Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Russell Perkins had ruled last week that some records related to the case should be made available under the Public Records Act, but put a stay on the order, pending an anticipated appeal.

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Appeals Court: Felons Cannot Be Bondsmen

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that felons cannot serve as bondsmen -- despite an opinion to the contrary by the Tennessee attorney general, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. In a ruling issued last week, the appeals court affirmed a judge's decision to strip Phillip Cole Hatmaker of approval to write bonds. Hatmaker had been convicted of felony possession of more than 10 pounds of marijuana, but later had his citizenship rights and voting privileges restored.

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