News

Emails Reveal New Cases of Wrongful Arrest

New documents released yesterday by the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office reveal additional cases of wrongful arrest, as well as cases that were at risk of mishandling but were caught in time by an employee. The documents also show that at least one supervisor had no sympathy for those wrongfully arrested, Knoxnews reports. As charges of mismanagement continue to mount against the office, Clerk Joy McCroskey met with the county’s five general sessions judges yesterday to discuss the situation.

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Judge Durham Announces Retirement

Criminal Court Judge David Earl Durham will retire at the end of his term next August, The Tennessean reports. Durham, who serves the 15th Judicial District, has been criminal court judge since 2009. Prior to taking the bench, he was deputy district attorney general. The judicial district includes Wilson, Jackson, Macon, Smith and Trousdale counties.

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Police Director Says MPD has 12,000 Unprocessed Rape Kits

Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said yesterday that the total number of unprocessed rape kits in police possession will be about 12,000 — a number far higher than previously reported — even after an initial round of 2,226 kits are tested. Last month, Mayor AC Wharton issued an executive order directing city police to test all backlogged, unprocessed rape kits. Some of the untested kits date from the 1980s, a situation that has outraged advocates for rape victims. Armstrong told City Council members that clearing the entire backlog will cost more than $4.6 million, the Commercial Appeal reports.

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Copyright Infringement Awards, Increases for Appointed Counsel Covered in This Issue

Nashville lawyer Tim Warnock writes about the best ways to set an appropriate award of statutory damages in a copyright infringement case in the latest issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal. In his regular column, Knoxville lawyer Wade Davies discusses policy changes on mandatory minimum sentences in federal court, rate increases for appointed counsel and more. The Tennessee Supreme Court has raised the caps on payment for counsel representing indigent defendnats in non-capital first-degree murder and Class A and B felonies, Davies writes.  "If anyone thinks people are getting wealthy from representing poor people at state expense, take a look at the rule. The rates have not changed since 1994. The state pays $40 per hour for out-of-court work and $50 for in-court, which does not include the time spent in court waiting."

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Sumner County Judge Recuses Himself from Murder Trial

Sumner County Criminal Court Judge Dee David Gay recused himself yesterday from a decade-old murder case, the Hendersonville Star reports. Gay acknowledged he did some minor work on the case while he was as assistant district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, which encompasses Sumner. Gay said he would refer the case to Sumner County Chancellor Tom Gray, who he expects will assign the case to another judge. The Tennessean has more.

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New Judicial Building Proposal Unveiled

Leaders in Rutherford County are considering a new justice center given the area’s explosive population growth, the Murfreesboro Post reports. The panel reviewing the plan will vote in November whether to move forward with the design phase. Officials predict the total cost of the new facility could run as much as $72 million. Under the proposal, the center would consist of a 200,000-square-foot courthouse, with 16 courtrooms and a secure underground parking garage. An additional free standing parking garage with 366 spaces would be constructed nearby. The new building would be located on Maple Street across from the Rutherford County Clerk’s Office.

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Senate Panel Considers Bebb’s TBI File in Closed Session

State Senate Judiciary Committee members voted to go into executive session yesterday as they began to review the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s file on 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb. The panel is considering whether there is sufficient evidence to go forward with a process to remove Bebb from office. Chair Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, directed committee members to keep the information confidential. In August, a special House investigative committee said there was sufficient evidence to move ahead with a recommendation to the full House in January. Lawmakers are looking at evidence presented in a series published by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and a subsequent investigation by the TBI and state Comptroller’s Office. Allegations against Bebb’s office include financial misconduct and civil rights violations in the handling of arrests and prosecutions.

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McCroskey Addresses Complaints in Written Response

Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey made a brief appearance before county commissioners yesterday to take responsibility for one wrongful arrest and present a written response to allegations that her office conducted multiple wrongful arrests, filed court documents late and committed mistakes that led to suspended drivers’ licenses. Commission Chairman Brad Anders said the county needs to look into the operation of the office, which covers criminal, general sessions and circuit courts, Knoxnews reports. In related news, the Knox County Audit Committee was to meet today after some members said they would call for an audit of McCroskey’s office.

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State Schedules First Executions in Over a Year

Tennessee plans to execute two inmates in 2014 — Billy Ray Irick and Nickolus Johnson are scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Jan. 15 and April 22, respectively. The two execution dates come after Tennessee corrections officials decided on a new drug to use in lethal injections after the state’s supply of sodium thiopental — a key drug previously used for lethal injections — was seized in 2011 by federal authorities investigating whether the drugs were illegally imported. The Tennessean has the story.

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Knox County Court Clerk Readies Defense Against Critics

Knox County Criminal Court clerk Joy McCroskey said yesterday she is preparing to fire back at critics and spend the week getting to the bottom of the myriad problems raised by Knox judges, Knoxnews reports. “If we made mistakes, we’re going to admit that,” McCroskey said in a News Sentinel interview. “If someone else made the mistakes, I’m going to show that too. I’ll have an answer for (critics) and will prepare a statement.” McCroskey has declined to discuss specifics of the internal goings on in her office in the wake of the controversy surrounding her staff’s work.

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Mayor Issues Order to Resolve Rape Kit Backlog

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has issued an executive order directing city police to test all unprocessed rape kits as soon as possible and to work to improve the treatment of rape victims, the Commercial Appeal reports. Wharton said Monday that he hoped the action would help the city find the money to process the 6,889 untested items in police custody. The order also urges the police department to convene a community conversation on how it responds to victims of violence, rape and sexual assault, and to work with local advocacy groups to develop policies for handling sexual assault cases in the future.

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Knox Criminal Court Clerk Under Fire

Knox County judges are trying to resolve a range of problems stemming from errors tied to the criminal court clerk’s office, Knoxnews reports. The paper based its reporting on interviews conducted last week. Among its findings, it uncovered allegations of improper arrests, dismissal of cases due to missing paperwork, and the hiring of a collection agency that has reported payments late and was selected without an open-bidding process. Clerk Joy McCroskey defends her office and workers saying, "I think some of it is disgruntled former employees." Given the issues, Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond recently said he is considering a race against McCroskey in the Republican primary next summer. The paper has published several articles on the situation, including one this afternoon quoting Judge Andrew Jackson VI about the situation. WATE TV weighs in today as well, with news that the county sheriff has denied any responsibility for the improper arrests.

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Nichols Seeks Circuit Court Judgeship

Nathan Nichols, an assistant district attorney general in Rutherford County, has announced he is seeking the Republican nomination for circuit court judge in the 16th Judicial District. The party will select its candidate during a May 6 primary, the Murfreesboro Post reports. The circuit judge hears all criminal cases filed in Rutherford and Cannon county circuit courts. Nichols currently prosecutes a wide range of criminal cases. He previously worked as a criminal investigator with the office and as a deputy clerk for the Cannon County Circuit Court.

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Judges Choose Andre as Middle District Leader

Williamson County General Sessions Court Judge Denise Andre was selected by her peers to serve as middle district vice president of the Tennessee General Sessions Judges Conference. She was named to the post at the conference’s fall meeting in Gatlinburg, The Tennessean reports. Andre was elected to the bench in 2006. In addition to her criminal and civil dockets, she is founder and presiding judge of the General Sessions DUI Court, an intensive program for repeat DUI offenders.

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21st Drug Court Has New Head, Fundraiser on Monday

Williamson County attorney Vince Wilcox has been named the new coordinator for the 21st Judicial District Drug Court, which provides alternative sentencing programs for non-violent offenders in Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties. The court’s board said it was impressed with Wilcox’s education, credentials, job experience and enthusiasm for the job. Wilcox had been working for the district’s public defender. Prior to earning his law degree at the Nashville School of Law, Wilcox worked in the music business. He also earned a master degree in counseling. Read more in the court's press release. In addition to announcing the new hire, the drug court announced it would hold its annual Community Breakfast Fundraiser at 7:30 a.m. Monday at Puckett’s of Franklin. For more information contact the court at (615) 595-7868 or info@21dc.org.

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Metro Considers Settlement in Shackled Mom Case

Five years after Juana Villegas went into labor while shackled to a hospital bed by the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, Metro Nashville is looking to pay her $100,000 in damages and $390,000 to her attorneys to end an ongoing lawsuit, The Tennessean reports. Following the incident, which garnered national attention, a federal judge ruled in Villegas’ favor and ordered Metro to pay her $200,000. A jury later awarded her attorneys $1.2 million in fees. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned both awards and ordered a retrial. The Metro Council was set to vote today to approve the settlement and end the case.

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Former U.S. Senate Candidate Charged in Murder Plot

Former U.S Senate candidate Thomas Kenneth “T.K.” Owens of Jonesborough has been charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder, the Johnson City Press reports. Washington County Criminal Court Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has appointed David Robbin to represent Owens, who allegedly plotted to have his uncle killed. Owens ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Corker in 2012.

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Court Upholds Sentencing Review Standards for Capital Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, has upheld a death sentence for a Memphis-area man who was convicted of first-degree felony murder. While the entire court agreed that Corinio Pruitt was guilty, the dissenting justices would have modified the sentence to life without parole. The majority concluded that the sentence of death was not imposed arbitrarily, that the evidence supported the jury’s finding of guilt, and that the sentence was not excessive or disproportionate. In their separate opinion, Justice William C. Koch Jr. and Justice Sharon G. Lee wrote that comparing all first-degree murder cases would be more consistent with the Tennessee law that requires proportionality review and with the rule that capital punishment is not appropriate for all murders but is reserved for only the most heinous murders and the most dangerous murderers. The two dissenting justices also pointed to a 2007 American Bar Association study of Tennessee’s death penalty, which said that the limited pool of cases the court adopted in 1997 undercut the purpose of proportionality review.

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Court Accepts 8 Cases; Likely Will Work During Shutdown

The U.S. Supreme Court today granted review of eight new cases, including one from Tennessee seeking to clarify when an individual commits a crime for having a gun after being convicted of domestic violence. Other cases involve questions about the award of attorneys' fees in patent cases; whether it is unconstitutional for a state to require home-care providers to pay a union to represent them before state agencies; whether the federal government has a right to reclaim lands abandoned by a railroad; whether shuttered businesses must pay Social Security and Medicare tax on severance checks; and whether police, after receiving an anonymous tip, must observe drunken or reckless driving before stopping a vehicle. The final case seeks to resolve a long-running copyright dispute in Hollywood over the screenplay for the 1980 movie Raging Bull. Although much of the government is closed because of the budget impasse, the Supreme Court is going ahead with its work, SCOTUSblog reports.

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Tennessee Revises Execution Protocol

The Tennessee Department of Correction announced Friday that it is switching from a three-drug method to a single-drug method to execute death row inmates, the Associated Press reports. The new protocol now calls for using the sedative pentobarbital only to put an inmate to death. Tennessee's supply of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs previously used in lethal injections, was turned over to the federal government in 2011 over questions about how it was imported. The short supply of sodium thiopental in the United States has led many death penalty states to seek out other drugs. Read more in the Memphis Daily News.

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Memphis Leaders Attend DOJ Youth Violence Summit

"A lot of times the international things get all the attention," Memphis Mayor AC Wharton said, "but we've got wars going on right here in our streets." Wharton was part of a delegation to Washington D.C yesterday for the Department of Justice's third annual summit on preventing youth violence, WMC-TV reports. The DOJ selected Memphis as one of 10 cities to take part in the two-day event. Other invited Memphians included police director Toney Armstrong, Tennessee Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and Rev. Keith Norman.

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TDOC, Nonprofit 5K Walk Set For Saturday

The Tennessee Department of Correction and the nonprofit victim advocacy organization You Have the Power will host the “Walk Off Crime for No More Victims,”a 5K walk this Saturday to celebrate 20 years of serving the community. Founded in 1993 by former Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte, the organization's mission is to advocate, educate and empower victims and communities impacted by violent crime. The event will begin at 10 a.m. at the Metro Courthouse steps in downtown Nashville. For more information, contact Melissa Cross at (615) 292-7027.

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23 Apply For 2 Magistrate Posts in Hamilton County

The Chattanoogan.com reports that 23 individuals have applied for two vacancies as Hamilton County magistrates or judicial commissioners. The applicants include incumbents Larry Ables and Jeffrey Davis. The County Commission will select two candidates, who will set bonds and sign warrants at the county jail. See the list of candidates on the paper’s website.

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Hamilton D.A. to Retire

Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox announced yesterday he will not seek re-election in next year's voting, Chattanoogan.com reports. "I love this job," he said, but cited his age as the primary factor in the decision. Cox has nearly 40 years experience in the criminal justice system. In 1972, he joined the Chattanooga Police Department and obtained his undergraduate and law degrees while working there. He then joined the district attorney’s office after graduating from the Nashville School of Law. Cox cited his office's success in reducing crime as a great achievement, but also advocated for two reforms: requiring equal discovery rules for both the prosecution and defense, and allowing prosecutors to show a photo of the victim to the jury, which he said some courts have ruled against.

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Stanton: New DOJ Strategy is ‘Smarter’ on Crime

In an opinion piece published Saturday in the Jackson Sun, Western District U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton applauds the Justice Department’s new “Smart on Crime” initiative and lays out his plans for implementing its core objectives. Under the plan, announced last month by Attorney General Eric Holder, federal prosecutors are to focus on the most serious criminal cases, pursue alternatives to incarceration, improve reentry efforts and focus on protecting the most vulnerable in society. Stanton touts the work his office already has done in these areas and explains how the initiative will further refine and extend those efforts.

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