News

Judge Denies Raw Data Request in Vandenburg Retrial

Judge Monte Watkins today denied a request by Brandon Vandeburg’s defense team that asked the state to give them all of the digital media collected during the 2013 rape. Attorneys for Vandenburg, a former Vanderbilt football player, said they wanted their forensic expert to argue against what detectives found. Watkins has yet to rule on the defense team’s additional request to call an expert witness in case Vandenburg's sobriety comes into question, WSMV reports. Jury selection in Vandenburg's retrial is scheduled to begin this week in Memphis.

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Report: Tennessee's Expungement Fee Costly

Tennessee has one of the highest criminal record expungement fees in the country at $450. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, takes a look at how the cost is impacting residents wishing to clear their name, and details the battle in the state legislature as lawmakers debate lowering the fee.

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FBI Offers New Guidance for Forensic Experts

The Justice Department today issued draft guidance for forensic experts at the FBI and other of its component agencies, WRCB-TV reports. The new guidelines follow reports last year that experts had overstated the strength of evidence involving microscopic hair analysis in cases dating back decades. The guide clarifies what forensic experts can and cannot say while testifying at trial or preparing scientific reports.

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Prosecutor to Drop Charges Against Handcuffed Kids

Rutherford County prosecutor Jennings Jones today said that he intends to dismiss charges against elementary school students who were taken to a juvenile detention center for allegedly taking part in off-campus bullying. The arrest, which involved handcuffing several of the children ages 9-12, sparked outrage in the community. Jones gave no reason for dropping the charges, the Associated Press reports

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New Trial Date Set for Knox County 'Black Widow'

A new trial date has been set for early next year for Raynella Dossett Leath, a Knox County woman accused of killing two husbands. Leath was released from custody yesterday after posting bond. Senior Judge Paul Summers last month overturned Leath's 2010 conviction in the death of her second husband because former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over her trial, was later convicted in a prescription drug abuse probe. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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Judge Issues Stay in UT Rape Case, Keeps Records Sealed

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee today issued a stay of the trials of former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Prosecutors requested the hold due to an appeal still pending in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals over access to social media by the players' accuser and witnesses. McGee also denied a request by the News Sentinel to access sealed records in the case. 

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COA: Facility Dogs Permitted in Courtrooms

Facility dogs are permitted in courtrooms to aid in comforting witnesses, according to a ruling this week by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. The decision came in an appeal brought by a convicted rapist who argued the trial court was wrong in allowing the facility dog to be present to comfort his underage victim. Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said that he will draft a jury instruction for use of comfort dogs in trials to present it at a June judicial conference, The Commercial Appeal reports

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Indicted Detective Will Continue to be a Witness

Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said he will continue to use Detective Rodney Burns, who has been indicted for perjury, as a witness in pending cases in Sevier County. Burns was charged with two counts of aggravated perjury following statements he made during a hearing in the Ooltewah rape case. His arraignment has been set for June 10, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports

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DA Drops Charge Against Ooltewah Assistant Coach

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston today dropped the charge of failing to report child sexual abuse against a volunteer-assistant basketball coach at Ooltewah High School. The Times Free Press reports the charges were dropped against Karl Williams because he "was not provided any training regarding the mandatory reporting law.” The school’s head basketball coach was indicted last week on four counts of failing to report child sexual abuse. 

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Court Rules in Favor of Death-Row Inmate in Racial Bias Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a black death-row inmate's claim of racial bias in jury selection. The 7-1 verdict, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said prosecutors unconstitutionally barred all potential black jurors from the Georgia man’s trial nearly 30 years ago. Defense attorneys later discovered the bias through a series of prosecution notes obtained through an open-records request. USA Today notes that this happened one year after the court’s landmark 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky that declared such actions unconstitutional. 

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Memphis Juror's Death Results in Mistrial

A mistrial was declared today in a first-degree murder case in Memphis following the death of a sequestered juror overnight, The Commercial Appeal reports. "In my 30 years as an attorney and judge, I have never even heard of it, let alone experienced it," Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan said of the juror's death. Only 11 jurors remained due to issues with two other jurors who were previously released. The trial was reset to Feb. 27, 2017.

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Speedy Sentencing Not Guaranteed Under 6th Amendment, Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not protect the right to a speedy sentence, the ABA Journal reports. The unanimous opinion was against a Montana man who argued for a reduction in his sentence after waiting in jail more than 14 months following his guilty plea.

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Report: TDOC Allowed Parolees to Avoid Mandatory Classes

A WSMV investigation revealed the Tennessee Department of Correction allowed for 115 parolees to avoid taking mandated domestic violence classes and hundreds of other criminals are still not enrolled in the classes. A TDOC administrator said there was a backlog of parolees assigned to classes because there were not enough parole officers to teach them. The department later hired a private company to teach the classes, but sentences has already expired for the 115 parolees. 

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Judge Rules Social Media Threats Were 'Obstruction of Justice'

Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan today ruled that the Facebook messages and memes an East Tennessee man used to threaten a witness were an obstruction of social justice. The judge sentenced Daniel Ray Sands to 37 months in federal prison after Sands used social media to threaten a witness against his drug-trafficking father. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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Editorial: Mentally Ill Should be Excluded from Death Penalty

“Excluding individuals with severe mental illness from the death penalty on a case-by-case basis is just smart policy,” Hannah Cox writes in an opinion editorial for The Tennessean. Cox, coordinator of Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion, argues that the current lack of treatment for mental illness has resulted in law enforcement becoming responsible for these individuals. She adds excluding the mentally ill from death row will allow resources to be redirected to mental health care and victims' compensation. 

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Sentencing Delayed for Former Vanderbilt Football Player

Sentencing of convicted rapist Cory Batey has been postponed two months, the Nashville Post reports. The former Vanderbilt football player was to be sentenced on May 20, but scheduling conflicts led to a delay until July 15. Batey was convicted this spring in the June 2013 assault of a former Vanderbilt co-ed in an on-campus dormitory. The woman was unconscious at the time of the attack. Batey is one of four former Vanderbilt football players charged in the case.

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Court to Consider if Dementia Should Stop Execution

The execution of an Alabama inmate who had suffered strokes and dementia was delayed today, after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it wanted to review lawyers' claims that it would be unconstitutional to execute the man because he is no longer competent, WRCB-TV reports. The appellate court said it will hear oral arguments in the case this June, however, the Alabama attorney general's office responded with an emergency motion to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to let the execution proceed before the death warrant expires at midnight.

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Widow Convicted in Baumgartner's Court Wins New Trial

The Knoxville woman dubbed “The Black Widow” has been granted a new trial in the death of her second husband, WATE.com reports. Raynella Dossett-Leath had sought a new trial after Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over her conviction, pleaded guilty to official misconduct for trading sex for drugs with a woman in his court.

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Gibbons Stepping Down as Homeland Security Commissioner

State Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons is vacating his position at the end of August. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Gibbons, former Shelby County district attorney general, to his current Cabinet position in January 2011. The Commercial Appeal reports Gibbons is expected to lead a new partnership between the Memphis Crime Commission and the University of Memphis.

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Ooltewah Official Sentenced for Failing to Report Abuse

 A judge today approved sentencing Allard “Jesse” Nayadley, the assistant principal and athletic director at Ooltewah High School, for failing to report child abuse of four students. The incident happened in December while basketball team members were in Gatlinburg for a basketball tournament. Nayadley was sentenced to community service and a class on mandatory reporting. Two former Ooltewah basketball coaches were also charged for failing to report child sexual abuse, WBIR reports

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Report: Prisons Do Not Notify Victims if Attackers Have Hepatitis C

The Tennessean explores “privacy versus saving lives” as it reports the state prison system does not notify a victim who was raped by an inmate with hepatitis C.  At least 3,487 Tennessee inmates — about one in eight — have tested positive for hepatitis C. Health and legal experts suggest treating people with the condition in the prison system could potentially eliminate the disease in society altogether. 

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Washington County Public Defenders Relocate

The Washington County Public Defender’s Office has moved to 1102 Sunset Drive in North Johnson City. Johnson City Press reports the office’s landlines are not completely installed, but Public Defender Jeff Kelly said those who need the office may call 423-434-6845 and they will be given the cell phone number of an attorney. 

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Phone Records Raise More Questions in UT Rape Case

Cell phone records previously revealed University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones made calls to police and players shortly after an alleged rape involving team members, but the records also show Jones called Knoxville attorney Wilson S. Ritchie. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that within months of the alleged rape, accused former player A.J. Johnson would retain attorneys from Ritchie’s late brother’s firm. Johnson, who along with Michael Williams was indicted for rape in 2015, is also currently employed by Ritchie’s family business. UT athletics department spokesman Ryan Robinson said Friday that Jones and Ritchie did not discuss representation for or employment for Johnson. 

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Jimmy Haslam Agrees to Deposition Under Specific Circumstances

The Tennessean reports Jimmy Haslam, CEO of Pilot Flying J, agreed to be deposed as part of lawsuits claiming the company was involved in a fraud rebate scheme. Haslam’s attorney said that he will only sit for a deposition under specific circumstances, including a provision delaying any deposition until after an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. Haslam has denied knowing about the scheme and has not been charged. 

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4 Tennesseans Get Sentences Commuted

The Obama administration today commuted the prison sentences of 58 federal convicts, four of whom are from Tennessee. Three of the four Tennesseans were sentenced for crimes involving cocaine. The other was sentenced for a crime involving methamphetamine. The prisoners are scheduled to be released Sept. 2, The Knoxville News Sentinel reports

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