News

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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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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