News

3 High School Staff Members Face Charges in Rape Case

Two Ooltewah High School coaches and the athletic director will be charged in connection with the OHS basketball rape case, The Chattanoogan reports. District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who filed the complaint earlier today, said that none of the men notified the Department of Children's Services or law enforcement after the incident happened, which is required under state law. "Additionally, we are investigating allegations of an ingrained culture of violence among the football and basketball teams at OHS reaching back several years,” the district attorney’s office said.

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High Court Strikes Down Florida's Death Penalty Law

The U.S. Supreme Court today declared Florida’s death penalty law unconstitutional because it requires the trial judge, not the jury, to decide whether convicted criminals deserve the death penalty. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough," wrote Sonia Sotomayor. The 8-1 majority ruling sends the case of a man convicted of fatally stabbing his co-worker back to the lower courts. NBC News reports it is unclear how many other cases the ruling will affect.

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Attorneys for Ex-Vols Appeal Social Media Ruling

Attorneys for A.J. Johnson and Michael Wiliams, ex-Vol football players accused of rape, are asking the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to rule on a legal issue over access to social media accounts of witnesses. Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee in November denied a request for a social media subpoena, but later authorized the appeal, known as an interlocutory appeal because it is filed pretrial, in hopes of getting legal guidance on both the defense's right to such information and the method in which it should be obtained. McGee has repeatedly said the case is plowing new legal ground at a time when communication via social media, Internet messaging services and text messages is now the norm. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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Accomplice in Christian-Newson Case Seeks U.S. Supreme Court Review

A man who was an accomplice in the 2007 killings of Knoxville couple Channon Christian and Chris Newsom is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. George Thomas and his defense attorney Stephen Ross Johnson say that Thomas’ convictions “present the perfect test case of criminal responsibility laws across the nation.” Thomas was one of three men convicted for for the crimes; he admitted to knowing the plan for the carjacking that led to the murders. He also admitted in doing nothing to rescue one of the victims. "Accordingly, this case involves an important issue in which there is a split of authority in the lower courts over the constitutional limits to accomplice liability in criminal cases involving the common law doctrine of natural and probable consequences," Johnson wrote in the petition.

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Lawyer, Author Bryan Stevenson to Speak at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt University will host lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson Jan. 15 as part of its Chancellor's Lecture Series and to kick off the school's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration weekend. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice & Redemption, a book about "the potential of mercy to redeem our society and fix our justice system." A reception and book signing is 5:30 - 6:30 p.m.; the lecture is 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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New Assault Definitions Announced for Tennessee Prisons

The Tennessee Department of Correction today released new definitions for assault following recommendations in October from the American Correctional Association, The Tennessean reports. The changes include the elimination of the "staff/inmate provocation" category and create new definitions for specific types of assault. Although Gov. Bill Haslam boasted a decrease in prison violence, the new definitions are likely to impact those statistics. "Of course, their numbers look better than what they should, because they're recording wrong." Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, said.

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Inmates File Death with Dignity Requests

Three inmates at Turney Center Industrial Prison, none of whom are terminally ill, have filed death with dignity requests. The prisoners said they want to be euthanized and donate their organs. WSMV reports two of the letters refer to the case of John Jay Hooker, a terminally-ill attorney who is fighting for death with dignity legislation in Tennessee. “The Tennessee Department of Correction sees me as an animal, so I want to be afforded the same compassion that one’s pet would be afforded if they were suffering,” Michael Adams, an inmate currently serving a 32-year sentence, wrote in the request.

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State Prison to Split into 2 Facilities

The Tennessean reports the state plans to split West Tennessee State Penitentiary into a female facility and a maximum-security male facility. A memo by Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said the changes are expected this spring at the penitentiary, located roughly 50 miles east of Memphis. "This mission change will assist in managing the growing female population and provide instant relief to our partners operating county jails," Schofield said in the memo.

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Cash Bail System Brings Harm, Magazine Asserts

The Economist asserts the cash-bail system in American highlights racial inequalities and brings harm to thousands of Americans every year. “(The system) undermines the very purpose of a criminal justice system: identifying criminals, and punishing them appropriately,” the author writes. The article details a case in San Francisco, filed in October by Equal Justice Under Law, that challenges the city’s bail system.

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New Policy for Agencies Responding to Reports of Sexual Assault

The Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission approved a new model policy for officers responding to reports of sexual assault, Bartlett Express reports. The policy requires all state law enforcement agencies to use a specific protocol when conducting preliminary and continued investigations of rape or other sexually oriented crime. “(The policy) will also encourage more survivors to come forward and report the crime in the renewed hope that the perpetrator will be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said. Agencies have until July 1, 2016, to adopt the model as written or create their own policy to meet the minimum standards outlined in the model.

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Court Adopts Proposed Rule Amendments; Packages Await Legislative OK

The Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted proposed amendments to the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, Rules of Civil Procedure, Rules of Criminal Procedure and Rules of Juvenile Practice. The amendments are set to become effective July 1, 2016, but must first win approval by resolutions of the General Assembly.

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ABA Releases 10 Most Important Legal Stories of 2015

The American Bar Association Journal has compiled the 10 most important legal stories of 2015. Dropping bar exam passage rates, the decline of capital punishment and the landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges are included in the list.

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$6M Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed in Anderson County

Marcella “Marcy” Bunch, mother of a 23-year old man who was shot and killed while he was confined to his wheelchair, has filed a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit. The suit names Joseph McClane, who accidentally shot Bunch’s son in 2014, and the man who gave McClane the gun as defendants. Bunch also filed the suit against Robert and Melissa Kemp, whose Anderson County home is where the shooting occurred. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the lawsuit says the incidents "were negligently contrary to those honorable people who responsibly adhere to their Second Amendment right to bear arms for their own protection in a responsible manner."

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Ford Remembered by Many as Hard Working

Judge Richard Ray Ford was remembered at his memorial service last week as "one of the hardest working Knox County Criminal Court judges in recent history." Ford died Dec. 20 at 93. Among the dignitaries speaking at his memorial were retired state Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joe D. Duncan, who practiced law with Ford in the 1950s, and Duncan's brother, John J. Duncan Sr., the longtime Knoxville mayor and congressman. Knoxnews columnist Georgiana Vines has the details.

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Former Crossville Attorney Pleas No Contest in Arson Case

Former Crossville attorney Anthony Wayne Turner pleaded no contest to setting fire to personal property in an arson case. He is accused of being responsible for a fire that destroyed his sister's Cumberland County home, the Crossville Chronicle reports. Turner, whose law license was suspended in 2009 by the Tennessee Supreme Court, received a one-year suspended sentence to be served on supervised probation. 

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Protesters Attend Yocca's Hearing in Rutherford County

Security was increased at Circuit Court Judge Royce Taylor’s courtroom this morning after more than a dozen protesters from three states showed up for Anna Yocca’s remote arraignment hearing, The Daily News Journal reports. Yocca is charged with attempted first-degree murder after a failed attempt to end her pregnancy. No discussion hearing or plea date were set.

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Pennsylvania High Court Says Governor Can Delay Executions

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the governor's constitutional authority to postpone executions in the state, The Associated Press reports. Gov. Tom Wolf issued the moratorium after taking office last January, saying the death penalty system was "riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenged Wolf’s decision. "We extend our condolences to the victims of these horrendous crimes, who will not soon see the justice that was imposed by the jury and upheld by the courts," Williams said.

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Judge Frees Man Convicted of Threatening Attorney

Leon Houston was freed Monday by U.S. District Judge Pamela Reeves after Houston spent 35 months in jail on a federal charge of being high on marijuana and possessing guns when he threatened to kill attorney Jim Logan. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports Reeves sentenced Houston to time served on the conviction and placed Houston on supervised release for two years. Logan represented Houston in the 2006 shooting deaths of Roane County Sheriff's Office Deputy Bill Jones and Mike Brown.

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Former 3 Doors Down Bassist Sentenced to Prison

Nashville Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn sentenced former 3 Doors Down bassist Robert "Todd” Harrell to two years in prison following a fatal crash, The Tennessean reports. Police found alprazolam and oxycodone in his system on the night of the 2013 accident. The conditions of Harrell’s probation include speaking at six schools while he is on probation about drug addiction and he is required to work with the Governor’s Highway Safety Office on its new anti-DUI campaign.

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Some PCC Inmates to be Released in Rutherford County

Federal Judge Kevin Sharp ordered on Thursday the release of at least 14 inmates who are being held solely on the basis of a Pathways Community Corrections violation of probation warrant, the Daily News Journal reports. The probation company, formerly Providence Community Corrections, is named in a federal lawsuit filed that claims the company and Rutherford county profited by keeping people on probation for extra time and charging excessive fees. Sharp also ordered PCC to immediately stop violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees. “The ruling mandates significant immediate changes to how all misdemeanor probationers are treated by PCC, Inc. and Rutherford County,” Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs in a class-action case brought against PCC, said in an update from the DNJ.

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Legitimacy of Facebook Posts Delay Rape Trial

Facebook posts from a 16-year-old rape victim paused day two of the trial of Jesus Martinez Wednesday in Murfreesboro, The Daily News Journal reports. The prosecution and defense both had concerns over the legitimacy of the posts, which would help in determining a timeline of events that took place in 2013. The trial continued today. 

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Attorney Seeks Video of Darrius Stewart Shooting

Attorney Carlos Moore announced a $2,500 reward for anyone who has video footage capturing the shooting of Darrius Stewart by Memphis police office Connor Schilling, the Memphis Flyer reports. Moore will hand the video footage to the Department of Justice and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "As attorneys for this family, we want to leave no stone unturned," Moore said. The Department of Justice announced earlier this week it is reviewing the July shooting.

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Madison County Closer to Jail Expansion Project

The Madison County Correction Partnership Committee unanimously approved the beginning stages of collecting bids for a future expansion of the county jail, The Jackson Sun reports. The request for qualifications will allow architecture firms to submit plans for expanding the Jackson-Madison County Criminal Justice Complex.

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Decreased Executions Reflect Lack of Support for Death Penalty

Executions in the United States have dropped to the lowest level since 1991, the Associated Press reports. The Death Penalty Information Center said 28 inmates were executed as of Dec. 15, far below the peak of 98 in 1999. “What we’re seeing is the cumulative effect of falling public support for the death penalty,” Robert Dunham, the group’s executive director, said.

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Judge Binkley Defends Rep. Durham on Facebook

Circuit Court Judge Michael W. Binkley is defending a request by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, in which he asked for leniency for a former pastor convicted of child porn possession, The Tennessean reports. Binkley said in a Facebook post that the decision showed “moral courage” and “guts.” The post has since been deleted.

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