News

Shelby PD Now Handling Juvenile Defense

Veteran Memphis defense attorney Donna Armstard is heading up a team of attorneys at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office that has begun representing juveniles charged with crimes, the Commercial Appeal reports. “We’re basically starting a whole new law firm,” Armstard says of the effort. For decades, minors have been represented by private attorneys appointed to individual cases and paid with public money. But federal findings that black youths are treated more harshly than their white counterparts in the county justice system, have led the public defender’s office to make a number of changes, including gradually taking over the defense of all juveniles. Stephen Bush, the county’s chief public defender in the adult system, eventually will be in charge of representing indigent minors charged with serious crimes. But for now, he is relying on Armstard and her team, who are busy getting up to speed on juvenile law and court procedures.

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Groups to Honor Retiring Sen. Burks

The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, in partnership with the Women’s Political Collaborative, will host an advocacy day at the legislature on Feb. 26. The day also will include a breakfast at Waller Law and a luncheon at the Tennessee State Library & Archives honoring state Sen. Charlotte Burks, who is retiring this year. Registration is required. Lunch is $25. Other events are free. See the full schedule and register.

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Opinion: Bill Shielding Rape Information Goes Too Far

In her Sunday piece for The Tennessean, columnist Gail Kerr says a bill intended to shield rape victims’ identity and personal information would turn rape into an "invisible crime" and would hurt public safety. Kerr notes that the bill was filed only days after The Tennessean and other media outlets filed suit seeking information about a Vanderbilt rape case, which the Metro Police Department and the university have refused to turn over. In an earlier article, TBA Executive Director Allan Ramsaur expressed concern about the proposal saying it could “compromise the right of the accused to confront the accuser and participate in their own defense.” Follow news regarding legislation through TBAImpact.

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U.S. Attorney Killian to Speak at Community Think Tank

William “Bill” Killian, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, will be the guest speaker at the next Community Think Tank hosted by the Hamilton County Coalition and the U.S. Department of JusticeThursday at 5 p.m. on Thursday at the Coalition office in Chattanooga. Topics will include arrest, prosecution and sentencing at the federal level; prescription drug abuse and designer drugs; victims’ rights; and being proactive citizens in the community. Killian will identify community problems that lead to criminal and drug activity, and provide strategies to reduce drug activity and availability. Seating is limited, RSVP by calling (423) 305-1449 or emailing Hugh Reece. The Hamilton County Herald has more.

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Bill Calls for Electric Chair if Lethal Injection Unavailable

A bill filed last week by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, would require Tennessee to use an electric chair for executions if the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections are unavailable, or if a court strikes down the lethal injection option, Knoxnews reports. Currently, the state is scheduled to execute 10 death row inmates between April 2014 and November 2015.

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If You Did It, Flaunt It With a TBJ Announcement

The Tennessee Bar Journal has a new opportunity for lawyers and firms to promote outstanding achievements, new associates, new partners, mergers, awards and any changes within the firm. Now, Professional Announcements are available at special, lower-rate pricing. You can tell more than 12,000 of your peers about your accomplishments by placing an announcement in the Journal. For information or to place an announcement, contact Debbie Taylor at 503-445-2231 or Debbie@llm.com. To have an announcement placed in the April issue, please contact her before Feb. 18.

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Holder Calls for Restoration of Felons’ Voting Rights

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today called on a group of 11 states, including Tennessee, to restore voting rights to ex-felons as part of a larger push to reduce what he sees as the criminal justice system’s disparate impact on racial minorities. Speaking at a symposium on criminal justice, Holder said an estimated 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. He called on the states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming to restore rights to felons who have completed their sentences. WRCB-TV has this AP story.

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Judge Departs from Sentencing Guidelines in Meth Case

Calling the War on Drugs a "dismal failure," U.S. District Court Judge Sandy Mattice reduced the sentence of Larry Gertsman, who had been facing a minimum of 121 months in federal prison for his role in obtaining pseudoephedrine for a meth cook. Mattice rejected that sentence noting it was one month longer than what he gave to the cook. "When a conspiracy is charged like this, addicts are being prosecuted the same way as the manufacturer" leading to outrageous and seemingly arbitrary results. Mattice, a federal judge in Chattanooga, gave Gertsman 90 months in prison.

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Former Judge Brown Considers DA Race

Former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown has a qualifying petition out to run in the Democratic primary for district attorney general, the Memphis Daily News reports. His entry into the race would be the only opposition Republican incumbent Amy Weirich has drawn from either party so far. Brown, who has until Feb. 20 to make his decision, said, “I haven’t quite made up my mind if I’m going to do this because I’ve got some business matters that I’ve got to wrap up and get secure. But I would love to do it.” Brown’s syndicated court show, “Judge Joe Brown,” was cancelled by CBS last March ending a 15-year run as the second highest-rated court show on television.

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Paine Column on Thornton Trial, Judge Cotton's Book Reviewed

This issue includes another one of the late Don Paine's final "Paine on Procedure" columns. This month is "Law Student Kills Medical Student: The Trial of James Clark Thornton." Also in February, Chancellor Andrew Tillman reviews Judge James L. Cotton's new book, The Greatest Speech Ever: The Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Gettysburg Address. The book includes a foreword by former Sen. Howard Baker Jr.

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Sentencing Reforms Progress in U.S. Senate

The Obama Administration made some headway last week in its effort to reduce what it sees as overly harsh sentences for drug crimes, Associations Now reports. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) is looking to commute the sentences of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders still serving prison time due to sentences imposed during the crack cocaine epidemic. The ABA Journal cites a New York Times report that President Barack Obama is looking to grant clemency to offenders as part of the administration's effort to "undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men."

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted to advance the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes by half. But not everyone at DOJ agrees with the administration's position. The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys announced its opposition to the proposal last week. And outside groups that have long advocated for mandatory minimum reform expressed concern that an amendment added during committee consideration creates a new new mandatory minimum in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

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Tennessean Sues Metro Over Vandy Rape Case

The Tennessean and a coalition of other media organizations sued the city of Nashville yesterday over its refusal to release records from a rape investigation that led to charges against four former Vanderbilt University football players. According to the newspaper, an agreement signed by prosecutors and defense attorneys keeps video and photo evidence secret. Metro officials repeatedly have denied the Tennessean’s requests for records, including materials prepared by the university. The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, says records created by nongovernmental entities and obtained by the Metro Police Department do not fall under any exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act. The media groups ask the court to order release of the records and pay their legal fees.

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State Sets Execution Dates for 10

The state of Tennessee is scheduled to execute 10 death row inmates between April 2014 and November 2015 after it changes the drug protocol to be used in lethal injections, the Administrative Office of the Courts confirmed to the Tennessean. In October, state officials asked the Tennessee Supreme Court for execution dates for the inmates but opponents asked a Davidson County judge to halt the executions over questions about the drug the state now plans to use.

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Nichols Named New Deputy District Attorney

Jennifer Nichols is the new deputy district attorney general in the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office, the Memphis Daily News reports. District Attorney General Amy Weirich appointed Nichols to the post yesterday following the retirement of Carter Myers, who worked in the office for 30 years. Nichols has been chief prosecutor for the office’s Special Victims Unit. She joined the Shelby County prosecutor’s office in 1991 after earning her law degree from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham and practicing law in Florida.

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Hawkins County Court Clerk Arrested

Hawkins County Clerk of Courts Sarah Davis was arrested Monday for contempt of court, the Kingsport Times-News reports. The charge was preceded by a verbal altercation that allegedly occurred between Davis and General Sessions Judge J. Todd Ross over the issue of why the collections clerk was not in the courtroom for proceedings. Davis reportedly told the judge that he was working in the office and not in court because “all those people aren’t going to plea.” The judge countered that the court was being delayed by the absence of the clerk and instructed Davis at least three times to have the clerk report to the courtroom, which she refused. She ultimately complied. Davis will face a hearing on the matter March 27.

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Lawmakers Cautious About Free Prison Overhaul

It may be free, but state senators remain cautious about an offer to analyze and overhaul Tennessee’s criminal justice system, the Tennessean reports. The offer, made by the Vera Institute of Justice, would study all aspects of the state criminal justice system including sentencing, incarceration and post-release programs. The goal, according to supporters, is to reduce recidivism, reduce the prison population and improve public safety. Funding would come mostly from federal grants. The Senate State & Local Government Correction Subcommittee heard more about the proposal at a recent hearing but members asked for additional information.

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Haslam Budget Focuses on Education, Workforce Readiness

In his “State of the State” speech last night, Gov. Bill Haslam laid out his priorities for state spending in the coming year. Programs targeted for increases include TennCare; teacher salaries; services for the disabled; new DCS field workers and child abuse investigators; and a variety of education programs aimed at helping high school students succeed in college, Knoxnews reports. New programs announced include a statewide residential drug court in Middle Tennessee modeled on a program in Morgan County; “Tennessee Promise,” which would allow all high school graduates to attend two years of community college or a technology school for free; and a new Director of Workforce Alignment who would work with state departments and local officials to close the “skills gap” across the state. Revenue would come from proposed cuts in payments to TennCare providers, increases in TennCare co-pays, elimination of 664 state jobs and a $302 million dip into state lottery reserves. Read the text of the speech in the Tennessean.

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Louisiana Postpones Execution to Clear New Drug Protocol

Louisiana is postponing an execution originally planned for Wednesday for a man convicted of murdering his 6-year-old stepson two decades ago. The state corrections department said Monday that it agreed to a 90-day delay after abruptly changing its lethal injection method plans last week. Like other death penalty states, Louisiana has had trouble purchasing the drugs historically used for lethal injections. Last week, the state announced it was switching to a two-drug combination used recently in Ohio. A federal judge will weigh the constitutionality of the new execution protocol at a hearing on April 7. KSLA News 12 Shreveport has the AP story on the issue.

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Bill Reduces Jail Time for DUI Offenders Completing Treatment

People convicted of second and third DUI offenses could reduce their jail time in exchange for completing treatment for alcohol abuse under legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is seeking the change. According to sponsors, the goal of SB 1633 and HB 1429 is to reduce repeat offenses and use state money designated for addiction treatment more effectively. Second offenders would have to serve at least 15 days in jail, and third offenders at least 60 days, before participating in a treatment program under this proposed new law.

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Federalist Society Looks at Criminalization of Federal Law

The Memphis Lawyers’ and University of Memphis Law Student Chapter of the Federalist Society will host a discussion Feb. 6 on the topic “Over Criminalization of Federal Law.” Participants include Edward L. Stanton III, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee; associate professor Steven J. Mulroy, University of Memphis School of Law; and Paul J. Larkin Jr., senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation. University of Memphis School of Law Dean Peter V. Letsou will moderate the panel. The event runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is free and open to the public. To register, contact Greg Grisham, (901) 462-2616. Download the invitation.

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Opinion: More Transparency Needed on Lethal Injection Drugs

The sharpest battles over capital punishment today are being fought over the identity of the drugs used, how they are manufactured and obtained, and the obligations state officials have to share that information, Andrew Cohen writes in The Atlantic. Cohen cites cases in Georgia, Missouri and Texas where limited information was available about lethal injection drugs, and Ohio, where the accused "struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked for about 10 minutes before succumbing to a new, two-drug execution method" earlier this month. He also reviews recent court decisions related to the issue, and is critical of some judge's  "complete abdication of the judiciary's role to ensure that capital punishment is neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

The Nashville Scene looks at the same issue, while the Associated Press reviews a growing interest among some to return to "old fashioned" executions.

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Commission Approves Audit of Criminal Justice Process

The Knox County Commission this week approved an audit of its criminal justice process, which will include a review of the criminal court clerk’s office. The move was recommended by the Audit Committee, following several recent allegations of wrongful arrests caused by errors in the clerk's office. The committee says it plans to look at the process from beginning to end in an attempt to identify gaps and risks. WATE has more on the story.

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Judge Eisenstein to Retire in September

Davidson County General Sessions Judge Daniel B. Eisenstein has announced he will retire Sept. 1 after serving on the bench for a decade. Eisenstein has been a trailblazer in the area of mental health treatment in the criminal justice system, presiding over the county’s Mental Health Court since taking office. Prior to being elected judge, Eisenstein was a principal in the Law Office of Eisenstein, Moses & Mossman, where he maintained a general practice. In his announcement, Eisenstein said he plans to remain involved in civic activities, including those involving mental health issues.

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PD Announces Bid for Re-election

Gerald L. Melton, public defender for the 16th Judicial District, has officially announced his candidacy for re-election, the Cannon Courier reports. The 16th Judicial District is comprised of Rutherford and Cannon Counties. Melton said that his motto as Public Defender is, "Protecting the public by defending the Constitution," adding that "this task is more important today than ever before."

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DA Recuses Her Office in Murder Trial

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has recused her office from a new trial of a murder case saying the office's involvement in the case has become a "distraction," the Memphis Flyer reports. Last month Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Henderson was reprimanded by the Tennessee Supreme Court after he pleaded guilty to the charges of misconduct and violating state rules governing prosecutors in the murder trials. Weirich said Henderson’s actions were not responsible for the turnovers in the case, but that the attention generated by his censure has become a distraction.

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