News

Bills Would Open Court Meetings, Workers' Comp Data

A number of bills filed in the legislature this year propose to open more meetings and information to the public, Knoxnews reports. Among those affecting the judicial system are HB1306 by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, which would require the Tennessee Supreme Court to meet in public when selecting the state’s attorney general and SB174 by Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, which would make public some information on businesses’ workers compensation insurance coverage. A bill from Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, which would have required the state to disclose the death of any inmate in its custody within 10 days, was withdrawn after no House companion was filed. One bill, HB1033 by Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, moves in the other direction, allowing notaries who do not charge for their services to avoid having to keep a record of signings they certify.

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Shelby PD Recognized with Innovation Award

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is one of eight organizations to receive an Innovations in Justice Award from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Center for Court Innovation. The award recognizes programs that approach criminal justice challenges in new and effective ways, according to the Memphis Business Journal. The public defender’s office was selected for its Jericho Project, which helps those with mental illness and substance disorders that are “cycling through the criminal justice system.”

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Sentencing in Vandy Rape Case Delayed

The sentencing date has been moved back for two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of multiple counts, including aggravated rape, News Channel 5 reports. The hearing – originally scheduled for March 6 – will now be held at 9 a.m. on April 24. The date was changed due to scheduling conflicts with the defense attorneys. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey were each convicted of aggravated rape, attempted aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery. Vandenburg also was convicted of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography.

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Suspect in Bobo Case Commits Suicide

A man who authorities had threatened to indict in the Holly Bobo case reportedly took his own life, the Jackson Sun reports. Shayne Austin, who had agreed to cooperate in the case in exchange for immunity, committed suicide according to his lawyer Luke Evans. Prosecutors revoked Austin’s immunity agreement three weeks after it was signed, saying he was not truthful with investigators. A challenge to that action was working its way through the court system. WBIR has the story.

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Study: Psych Evaluations May Not Be Best Recidivism Test

States are trying to reduce prison populations with secretive, new psychological assessments to predict which inmates might be safe to release, the Associated Press reports. The programs are part of a national, data-driven movement to cut prison populations, reduce recidivism and save billions. An AP investigation, however, found that the tests are not checked for accuracy, are used inconsistently across the country (and even within the same jurisdiction) and are shrouded in secrecy. The Citizen Tribune has the AP story.

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Coffee County Public Defender to be Sworn-In Friday

John E. Nicoll has been named public defender for Coffee County by Gov. Bill Haslam, the Manchester Times reports. Nicoll fills the vacancy left by the death of Campbell Smoot Jr., who died  Nov. 8. Judge L. Craig Johnson will administer the oath of office tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Coffee County Justice Center.

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AG Calls for Halt to U.S. Executions

Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for a national moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue later this year. Late last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from death row inmates in Oklahoma who are challenging the state’s procedures for lethal injections. Holder went on to say he disagrees with Justice Antonin Scalia, who has said the U.S. has never executed an innocent person. “There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed,” Holder stated. “And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” The Hill has more.

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Latest Numbers in Rape Kit Backlog

The latest update on the city’s rape kit backlog was disclosed during a Memphis City Council committee meeting Tuesday, the Commercial Appeal reports. A total of 5,386 kits, or 43.5 percent of all kits found, have been tested or are at the lab awaiting testing. Another 1,965 kits cannot be processed for DNA, which means they essentially are finished and the victims they represent will be left without a case to pursue. That leaves 6,988 kits still to be tested. The work done so far has been productive says Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, noting that police have initiated 352 investigations, secured 58 indictments and made 20 arrests.

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1st Amendment Groups Want to Join Rape Records Lawsuit

Two national First Amendment groups – the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and the University of Virginia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic – want to file briefs in support of a lawsuit seeking access to records in the rape case against four former Vanderbilt University football players. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the suit in May after the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled against the media coalition that filed the suit, the Tennessean reports.

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Bill Would Make Exploding Targets Legal

Less than a week after a state attorney general’s opinion declared that commercially available exploding targets used for shooting practice are illegal under current Tennessee law, legislators have introduced a bill to specifically allow their recreational use. The bill filed Thursday by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, and state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, would create a new exception to the general ban allowing possession and use of an exploding target in “lawful sporting activity.” Knoxnews has more on the measure.

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Pennsylvania Governor Halts Executions

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf halted all executions in his state Friday, citing the state’s “error prone” justice system and “inherent biases” among his reasons for the moratorium, CNN reports. Wolf also said the moratorium would remain in place until a task force examining capital punishment in the state issues its final report. At lease one district attorney expressed opposition to the move, saying “the governor has usurped the authority of the legislature and courts in setting the lawful punishment for convicted killers.” WCYB has the story.

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Shelby DA Won’t Handle Murder Re-trial

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has recused her office from involvement in a new trial for Noura Jackson, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009 for allegedly stabbing her mother more than 50 times. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Jackson a new trial after it determined that Weirich, who was the lead prosecutor in the conviction, failed to turn over a key witness’s statement to the defense. Weirich has asked the Tennessee District Attorney Generals Conference to appoint a pro tem attorney to handle re-trial of the case, WREG reports.

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Former, Current UT Football Players Indicted in Rape Case

Former University of Tennessee football linebacker A.J. Johnson – who graduated in December – and suspended cornerback Michael Williams have been indicted on charges of aggravated rape, Knoxnews reports. The charges are based on allegations from a 19-year-old female student. Williams also was accused of sexual assault by another woman in the same incident, though she declined to pursue charges. A Knox County grand jury returned the indictment Thursday, charging each player with two counts of aggravated rape, “aided and abetted by” the other.

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Council to Fill 2 Upcoming Judicial Vacancies

The Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments is accepting applications for two upcoming judicial vacancies. Apply by Feb. 26 to be considered for the 22nd Judicial District Circuit Court, which covers Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties. This vacancy is being created by the retirement of Judge Jim T. Hamilton of Columbia. Or apply by Feb. 27 to be considered for the 11th Judicial District Criminal Court, which serves Hamilton County. This vacancy is being created by the retirement of Judge Rebecca J. Stern. Both judges have informed Gov. Bill Haslam that they will retire effective June 1. Applicants must submit their paperwork to the AOC by noon on the due date.

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Supreme Court to Decide on Death Row Inmates’ Lawsuit

The Tennessee Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether a death row inmate can properly challenge the constitutionality of the possibility of electrocution as a method of execution. The lawsuit by 34 death row inmates challenges several aspects of Tennessee’s death penalty protocol. In an order filed today, the Court agreed to hear the State’s request to dismiss the plaintiffs’ challenge to electrocution as a method of execution, asserting that none of the plaintiffs is subject to execution by electrocution at this time. The case will be heard in oral arguments May 6 in Knoxville.

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Concubines and Dead Partners? TBJ Has Them This Month

The Standard of Clear and Convincing Evidence has never been so interesting, as when Judge Tom Wright and Ben Welch write about it, using concubines and dead partners as examples, in the February Tennessee Bar Journal. Also in this issue, Monica J. Franklin explains the ABLE Account, an alternative to special needs trusts, and Edward G. Phillips and Brandon L. Morrow delve into wage and hour issues in the high court. Bill Haltom has in mind a perfect Valentine's gift for the lawyer on your list.

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MacArthur Foundation Pledges $75M to Fix U.S. Jails

To reduce the number of people in jail, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation plans to give $75 million to jail officials working on ways to remove nonviolent offenders, people too poor to afford bail and the mentally ill from behind bars. The foundation plans to award $150,000 to up to 20 local jurisdictions — states, cities, tribes and judicial districts — that operate a jail with 50 beds or more and are proposing ways to change how their jails are run. Next year as many as 10 of them will receive $2 million per year to support those plans, officials said. WRCB has more from the Associated Press.

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ABA House Acts on Range of Issues

The ABA House of Delegates met Monday in Houston, adopting a number of resolutions, including: (1) calling for counsel to be appointed to unaccompanied minor immigrants and special training be provided to courts that hear their cases, (2) opposing stand-your-ground laws, (3) condemning foreclosure rescue fraud, (4) urging states to grant protective orders even though a victim and perpetrator have no established domestic relationship, (5) requiring a unanimous jury verdict before imposing the death penalty, (6) calling for open and transparent disclosure of execution protocols, (7) urging governments to adopt a presumption against the shackling of juveniles in court, and (8) urging law schools and bar associations to counsel young attorneys on student loan debt. The body considered but sponsors ultimately withdrew resolutions calling for federal regulation of paid tax preparers and stronger laws to protect the privacy of consumer data.

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Funk Faces Questions Over Pension Favor

Two months prior to taking office as Nashville’s district attorney, Glenn Funk was hired by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference as special prosecutor, reportedly so he could get on the state payroll and take advantage of a pension program that was being phased out, News Channel 5 reports. In a lengthy piece yesterday, the news station raises questions about how much work Funk performed for the state and whether he continued to defend clients in criminal proceedings during the time in question. Funk said he was just using the rules to his own advantage. “Nothing I did that was anything other than completely upfront and above board,” he said.

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‘Better Call Saul’ Debuts with 6.9M Viewers

Sunday’s premiere of the much-anticipated legal drama “Better Call Saul” was seen by 6.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. AMC is calling it the biggest series premiere in cable history, Fox News reports. The show, which is a “prequel of sorts” to the AMC hit “Breaking Bad,” features shifty lawyer Saul Goodman as he navigates the “murky underworld of drug dealers and villainous scum.” The second episode airs Monday at 9 p.m. CST.

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Court Throws Out Conviction Due to Ineffective Counsel

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals last week gave approval for a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea and get a new trial due to ineffective counsel, Knoxnews reports. Joshua Tyrell Cross pleaded guilty to attempted rape but later approached the court about withdrawing his plea. In looking into the case, the court found that 8th Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Dale Potter advised Cross to accept a plea deal without interviewing any witnesses or the victim and without asking for an arraignment, a preliminary hearing, a bond hearing or a grand jury review. The court also determined that Potter failed to explain to his client the consequences of being listed on the sex offender registry and lied to the court about what efforts he had undertaken on his client’s behalf. The court remanded the case for a preliminary hearing on the original charges.

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Bill Increases Penalties for Attending Animal Fights

The Humane Society hopes its proposal to increase penalties for attending animal fights will be referred to the state's Criminal Justice Committee where it has a better chance of advancing, WSMV reports. Similar bills in recent sessions have died in the Agriculture Committee, but Speaker Beth Harwell said after an especially ugly fight between animal rights activists and the Agriculture Committee, that said she would consider separating pet issues from livestock issues. The legislation would increase the fine from $50 to $2,500.

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Public Defender Funding Could Take Hit Under Proposal

A law that ensures budget increases for prosecutors include a corresponding increase for public defenders would go away under legislation introduced last week by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville. House Bill 241 would delete TCA 16-5-518 in its entirety. The law, which has been on the books since the early 1990s, governs increases in local funding, not state budgets. Go to TBAImpact to weigh in.

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Chattanooga Judge Confirms Plans to Retire

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern made her retirement plans official today, the Times Free Press reports. Stern, 57, submitted her retirement paperwork to the state indicating she would step down June 1. Stern had hinted in November that she might retire to Puerto Rico, where she and her husband have owned a vacation home for years.

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Commentary: Court Upholds Conviction, Ignores Racist Comment

As reported on Friday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week in a case involving the carjacking, kidnapping, rape and torture of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In addition to sealing an investigative file on former judge Richard Baumgartner, the appeals court upheld the conviction of George Thomas on two counts of first-degree murder under the legal theory of criminal responsibility. Unlike others involved in the case, there was no DNA evidence linking Thomas to the crimes, the News Sentinel reports. In addition, the new Lady Justice Unmasked blog from the newspaper notes that the appellate court gave little attention to concerns raised about a racist comment attributed to Thomas, which the prosecutor used to bolster his case. The defense had objected to use of the evidence on a number of grounds.

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