News

Davidson DA Will Not Seek Re-election

Victor “Torry” Johnson III, Davidson County’s longtime top prosecutor, today announced to staff and Metro leaders he will not seek re-election as district attorney general when his term ends in August. Johnson has been Davidson County’s district attorney general since 1987, with the majority of his career before that as a prosecutor, the Tennessean reports.

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Deputy DA Seeks 10th District Criminal Court Judgeship

Deputy District Attorney General Sandra Donaghy will seek the 10th District Criminal Court judge seat as a Republican in the May primary, Chattanoogan.com reports. She joins Madisonville lawyer Van Irion who announced for the seat last week. According to Donaghy’s campaign, her professional work spans 30 years as criminal lawyer, prosecutor, defense attorney and appointed judge who has personally conducted 197 jury trials and resolved more than 10,000 cases.

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Grainger County Jail Workers Indicted

Five former Grainger County jail employees have been indicted on charges ranging from misconduct to facilitating escape, the Jackson Sun reports. Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said the five were indicted by a local grand jury last week. According to Knoxnews, one was charged with official oppression and official misconduct; one was charged with two counts of sexual contact with an inmate, three counts of official misconduct and official oppression; a third was charged with introduction of contraband and official misconduct; another was charged with official misconduct and theft under $500; and the fifth was charged with three counts of bribery, three counts of permitting or facilitating escape, six counts of official misconduct and one count of accessory after the fact. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it began investigating after three inmates escaped Nov. 10.

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Legislature Opens Short Session with Long Agenda

The Tennessee state legislature convenes Tuesday with an agenda affecting everything from where residents attend school to where they can buy wine and cold medicine. But with elections in the fall, observers predict that lawmakers will try “to keep infighting to a minimum and wrap up the legislative session as quickly as possible,” the Associated Press reports in the Kinsgport Times News. In addition, according to The Commercial Appeal, the chambers likely will focus on agenda items left unfinished last year, including school vouchers, education standards, expansion of Medicaid, sale of wine in grocery stores, workplace protections for those who lock guns in trunks and prescriptions for pseudoephedrine products.

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Madisonville Lawyer Seeks Criminal Court Post

Madisonville lawyer Van Irion recently announced he will seek the 10th Judicial District Criminal Court judgeship, Chattanoogan.com reports. Irion, who ran for the state’s 3rd Congressional District in 2010, is in private practice, handling patent, general civil and criminal law matters. He previously served as transactions attorney for the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, where he managed the university’s patent portfolio. He also taught as an adjunct professor at the College of Law.

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Police-Officer-Turned-Lawyer Jumps into DA Race

Rutherford County attorney Chuck Ward announced Tuesday he has decided to seek the Republican nomination for attorney general in the 16th Judicial District, the Murfreesboro Post reports. The office is currently held by Bill Whitesell, who has served as district attorney since 1995 and has announced he will not seek re-election. Ward spent eight years working for the Murfreesboro Police Department while attending the Nashville School of Law. He has practiced law in Rutherford County for more than 21 years. “I will use my experience as a police officer, in addition to over two decades in the courtroom in both criminal and civil litigation, to bring a fresh perspective to the district attorney’s office,” Ward said.

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Jail Evacuated After Smoke Fills Building

Charges may be filed against an inmate if authorites can determine who was responsible for the fire that caused the Coffee County Jail and Justice Center to be evacuated Wednesday afternoon, the Manchester Times reports. Inmates were placed in a fenced area behind the jail while firefighters searched the building. According to Coffee County Sheriff Steve Graves, toilet paper sent through the ductwork “probably caused” the building to fill with smoke. The origination of the smoke was traced to one cell holding 26 people, Graves says, so the investigation continues.

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Panel: Elder Abuse Crimes Expected to Grow

At a community hearing yesterday in Memphis, a panel of experts warned that as the country’s population ages, incidents involving adult abuse, neglect or exploitation will continue to increase. Each of the panelists -- Memphis Police Col. Mike Ryall, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, University of Memphis law professor Andrew McClurg and assistant commissioner of the state Department of Human Services Pat Wade -- had personal or professional horror stories to relate. Weirich reported that rapes of elderly people in nursing homes were on the rise, while Ryall talked about financial scams and private caretakers that target the elderly. McClurg argued for more education and enforcement saying, “We’ve just done a terrible job protecting our elders. The predators are experts. They’re con artists. These people are professionals. Never underestimate them.” Read more in the Commercial Appeal.

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Officers Implemented 'No Refusal' During Holidays

During the New Year’s Eve holiday, the Tennessee Highway Patrol stepped up enforcement of the state's “No Refusal" law, which allows law enforcement to seek search warrants for blood samples when drivers suspected of being impaired refuse a breath test. Some arugue that the law violates the Fourth Amendment, but the government says drivers agree to implied consent for a breath or blood test whenever they get behind the wheel, WMCTV reports.

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Statewide, Inpatient Drug Facility Open

In August, a new, statewide component was added to the roughly 50 drug courts in Tennessee, the Tennessean reports. The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Department of Correction, along with Gov. Bill Haslam, encouraged and funded the creation of a state facility to house offenders from various counties who are so addicted that they can not be helped at the local level. The Morgan County Recovery Court in Wartburg, about 45 miles west of Knoxville, is an inpatient treatment program that will eventually house 60 to 100 people. Davidson County Judge Seth Norman is overseeing ithe start of the pilot program, and lawyer Bradley MacLean is the facility’s program director.

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Lawyer Who Survived Rape Spearheads Law Change

As the issue of dealing with the backlog of testing some 12,000 rape kits in Shelby County moves into federal court, observers predict another attempt will be made to change Tennessee law so that the statute of limitations begins running when kits are processed. One of those rape victims, Meaghan Ybos, has been active in the effort, drafting model legislation and speaking out publicly about the situation in Memphis. Ybos is now a lawyer and is using her training to bring attention to the state’s current statute of limitations for rape cases, which runs for about 15 years depending on the offense, the Memphis Daily News reports.

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Memphis Lawyer Censured for Misconduct in Capital Case

On Dec. 23, Memphis lawyer Thomas D. Henderson, who is an assistant district attorney, was publicly censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court. He submitted a conditional guilty plea that he did not make timely disclosures of all exculpatory evidence during discovery while prosecuting a capital murder case, both in 1998 and again in 2004 when the case was on retrial. Download the BPR notice.

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3 Counties Open Drug Courts

Under the leadership of Franklin County Judge Buddy Perry, drug courts will open in Rhea, Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties. Perry already had set up courts in Grundy and Marion counties in the 12th Judicial District. Supporters of drug courts tout lower costs and recidivism rates when compared to traditional incarceration. WDEF News 12 looks at the issue and what local leaders are saying.

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Paper: Quest for Baumgartner’s File Remains ‘Mired’ in Court

More than three years after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) launched a probe of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, the News Sentinel’s quest for his TBI file remains in limbo, the paper reports. After unsuccessfully seeking to obtain the file through the state courts, the paper learned it had been entered into evidence in Baumgartner’s federal trial. U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley, in whose chambers a copy of the file has been kept, ordered Baumgartner’s defense to log the file into the court’s public electronic filing system, but agreed to keep it under seal until redactions are finalized. The paper says that a “slew of proposed redactions” have been filed and since those documents are classified, “it is not yet clear whether the [team is] seeking to simply remove personal identifying information of witnesses ... or entire sections of the investigative file itself.”

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Lawyer in Vanderbilt Rape Case Seeks Hearing for Colleague

Attorney John Herbison filed a 26-page motion charging Davidson County Assistant District Attorney Tom Thurman with making “reckless allegations” about defense attorney Albert Perez Jr., a member of the team defending former Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vanderburg who is accused of rape. Thurman asked a judge to remove Perez, charging that he was involved in destroying evidence, the Tennessean reports.

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Legislator Calls for Tougher Rape Kit Testing Procedures

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson says he plans to introduce legislation making it mandatory to test all rape kits. Coming weeks after Memphis police admitted that 12,000 rape kits -- dating back to the early 1980s -- have not been tested, the bill requires that evidence be submitted within 10 days of collection to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) or to a TBI-authorized lab for testing, Parkinson said. Once those kits are submitted, whoever is testing them would then have six months to make sure they are processed. WREG News Channel 3 has more.

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McNally Seeks Re-election, Outlines Legislative Priorities

Oak Ridge Republican Randy McNally, first elected to the state Senate in 1986, says he has decided to seek re-election to another four-year term, believing “there are a number of things sort of left undone” including “reform of our state judiciary.” Humphrey on the Hill reports today that McNally says the system is “more for the protection of criminals and the enrichment of trial lawyers and not for protection of the public.” With respect to particular issues, McNally previously proposed drug testing of all judges. He now says he will revise his bill to allow either party in a case to request that the judge take a drug test before presiding. He also says he wants to push for new restrictions on state funding of criminal defense lawyers and hold attorneys financially responsible if a court later finds they provided inadequate counsel.

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Harmon Announces Re-election Bid

Jeff Harmon has announced that he will seek re-election as the 12th Judicial District public defender in the August 2014 election. Harmon served as an assistant public defender for over 18 years before being appointed to the top job. The Herald News has the story.

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Suit Alleges Police, City Knew About Untested Rape Kits

A lawsuit filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by an anonymous sexual assault victim takes aim at various issues associated with the city's failure to process rape kits. The suit alleges that the Memphis Police Department knew that the victim’s rape kit – and maybe as many as 15,000 others – were not being tested and that the practice was “ratified by multiple policymakers” within the department. It also claims the city “knew about…the conduct and facilitated it, approved it, condoned it and/or turned a blind eye to it.” The suit argues that the lack of processing rape kits violates the equal protection clause and seeks class-action status for other victims. The Memphis Daily News has more on the story.

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Court Clarifies Responsibility for Immigration Notifications

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the conviction of a man who said he was not aware that his guilty plea would result in his deportation or that it would adversely affect his future eligibility to return legally to the United States. The court made the ruling after finding that the defendant’s lawyer had provided the appropriate notification even though the trial court did not discuss the consequences or inquire whether the attorney had done so. However, the court declined to decide in general whether the federal or state constitution requires courts to advise a person pleading guilty of the immigration consequences of the plea. In this particular case, the court said the lack of a court notice was “harmless” because the attorney had already provided the information.

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Taylor Honored by State Drug Court Association

The Tennessee Association of Drug Court Professionals honored 23rd Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Richard Taylor Jr. with the Christy Vernon Spirit Award at its annual conference in Murfreesboro. Circuit Judge Robert Burch, who also oversees the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court, presented the award. Taylor has served with the court since its creation and has implemented a number of innovative programs during his tenure. He also is active in the association, having served as president, vice president, secretary and board member. In addition, Taylor actively lobbies on behalf of federal funding for drug courts and serves as a resource for elected officials who want to learn more about drug court protocols. Read more in this release from the court.

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Court Adopts New Standard for Concurrent Sentences

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday adopted a new standard to guide appellate court review of decisions that impose consecutive sentences for multiple convictions. The decision came in the case of James Allen Pollard, who was found guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences of life in prison for the murder and 18 years for the robbery. The appellate court affirmed the conviction but instructed the trial court to identify the factors that supported imposition of consecutive sentences. The Supreme Court upheld that approach, directing trial courts to identify a specific evidentiary basis for “stacking” sentences. It also ruled that if a lower court finds an appropriate basis for consecutive sentences, appellate courts must find an abuse of discretion to justify overturning the decision.

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Ramsey Calls on State to Restart Executions

In an opinion piece published in The Tennessean Tuesday, Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ronald Ramsey says it “is time to have the moral courage to give taxpayers and victims the justice they demand and deserve” by getting “serious about the death penalty.” Ramsey argues the time is right to restart executions because the state has a workable and “as humane as possible” method for administering lethal injections, and that with advances in DNA technology we can be “more positive than ever that those convicted of capital crimes are guilty.” He notes that 79 people await execution on Tennessee’s death row and that on average, they spend 20 years waiting for their final punishment.

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2014 Rules Package Published

The Tennessee Supreme Court today published its 2014 package of amendments to the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, including changes to the Rules of Civil Procedure, Rules of Criminal Procedure and Rules of Appellate Procedure. The amendments, which would be effective July 1, 2014, if approved by the General Assembly, include new authority for appellate courts to suspend rules; requirements for electronic copies of transcripts; specification of the color of applications, responses and amici in TRAP 9 and 11 matters; and refinement of criminal contempt provisions. The court adopted the single recommendation from the TBA and Public Defenders Conference that trial court discretion to substitute a statement of evidence for a verbatim transcript on appeal not apply to criminal cases.

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Chattanooga Grand Jury Recommends Mental Health Court

The Hamilton County Grand Jury wrapped up two months of work with a recommendation that the government set up a mental health court to reduce recidivism, reduce the length of incarceration for participants and improve mental health outcomes. "It is difficult to provide humane and just treatment to persons with mental health issues in our jails and prisons," the jurors reported. “We believe that combining judicial supervision with community mental health treatment would in turn curtail criminal activity while improving the participants' quality of life." Chattanoogan.com has the full report.

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