Tag Archives: district attorneys

Prosecutor seeks to pierce TN shield law for ‘Dateline NBC’ interview

With a high-profile double killing as the backdrop, a Knox County judge is being asked to do something no appellate court in Tennessee’s history has ever approved — pierce the shield that protects journalists from disclosing information not yet published or aired.

Further from the News-Sentinel:

Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword heard arguments Thursday in a bid by prosecutors to force the television news magazine “Dateline NBC” to turn over video of an interview with double-killing suspect Norman Eugene Clark that has yet to be broadcast.

Clark, accompanied by defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs, gave the interview soon after a jury last year deadlocked with a vote of 11-1 to acquit him of charges he killed his pregnant girlfriend, Brittany Eldridge, 25, and their unborn son, Ezekiel, in December 2011. The state now seeks to retry him.

There is no indication Clark admitted to the killings, which he denies, and Deputy Assistant District Attorney General Kyle Hixson concedes prosecutors do not know whether Clark said anything in the interview that might be helpful to the prosecution in what is an entirely circumstantial case against him.

Hixon also agrees Tennessee’s press shield law has been tough enough to withstand all appellate reviews. The law protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources and information gathered as part of their duties and is designed to ensure the media can fulfill its watchdog function without fear of government interference.

But, Hixon argued Thursday, prior bids to pierce the shield involved “bad arguments” in which those seeking protected information failed to show a need so “compelling” as to overcome First Amendment guarantees. Not so in the Clark case, he argued.

“I don’t know what the bright line is, but I think when we’re talking about a double homicide case, purely circumstantial case, no other avenue to get this information, no other information … every piece of evidence is important,” Hixson said.

Special prosecutor sought in sheriff’s dealings with woman inmate

A district attorney wants a special prosecutor to review complaints against Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson filed by a county commissioner, reports the Times-Free Press. One allegation is that the former state legislator pulled strings to get an inmate with whom he allegedly had a personal relationship released from jail.

County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who has tussled with Watson’s office for months over what he claims is improper and deceptive practices, said he handed over allegations and evidence to 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump’s office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In a statement Thursday, Watson said he is cooperating with the investigation…. “I have done nothing wrong. I have not betrayed my oath or the public trust in any way… ,” he said. “My only agenda will be keeping the citizens of Bradley County safe.”

Among other questions, Rawls asked the investigators to look at whether Watson’s wife, Tenille Watson, is getting favorable treatment as a bail bondsman. Court records for March and April show Tenille Watson, who received her license in February, wrote more bail bonds by herself than the next-largest bonding agency did with three agents.

…The allegation regarding favoritism toward a female jail inmate has been detailed by multiple sources who spoke to the Times Free Press on condition of anonymity. The woman could not be reached for comment.

The newspaper obtained dozens of images of Facebook messages purportedly exchanged by Watson and the woman in the months before she was jailed in July 2015. His identity on the Facebook messages is listed as “Sheriff at Bradley County Sheriff’s Office,” and in one message, he gives her a cellphone number that matches his official sheriff’s office cellphone.

In a December 2014 exchange, the woman posts a picture of herself in a scanty red brassiere, and Watson asks whether she needs to be warmed up. In January 2015, he tells her they should “hang out” and she says she’ll take off work to go on a trip with him.

The images obtained by the Times Free Press continue, including a message at 5:48 p.m. July 6, the date of her arrest on a felony robbery charge, urgently asking him to call her.

County records show the woman was booked into the Bradley County Jail at 7:41 p.m. that day and released at 9:54 p.m., her bond posted by Cumberland Bail Bonds (the company that employs Watson’s wife).

A note on the file states: “Received call from Sheriff Watson stating [the woman’s] bond lowered to 1000 by Judge Randalph [sic] and there is a note on affidavit stating bond is 1000.”

General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph remembered the case. He said the warrant originally called for no bond, but someone — he didn’t remember a name — called that evening and asked him for a lesser amount. He said the caller described the woman as a confidential informant.

“Ordinarily I’d probably set her bond at $30,000 the next morning,” Randolph said. “Why he would get so involved is unusual.”

Rawls said his contacts at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office told him the woman “is not an informant, never was, never will be.”

A few months later, records show, the woman was set free just four days into a separate 120-day sentence for violating probation.

The violation of probation charge, for a 2013 DUI, was triggered by the robbery arrest.

Note: See also the Cleveland Daily Banner’s report.

Ken Whitehouse goes to work for Nashville DA

Ken Whitehouse, a former journalist and political operative who most recently worked for public relations firm DVL Seigenthaler, has been named director of research and media relations for Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk, according to the Tennessean.

Whitehouse makes $79,000 annually in the new position and started work Monday.

Whitehouse said he will work with media organizations and do research on how to help reduce recidivism in Nashville. Current spokeswoman Dorinda Carter will become the office’s primary contact for community groups, victim’s rights groups and other organizations. Carter earns about $85,000 annually, according to state salary data.

“I am excited to have someone with Ken’s experience, depth of knowledge and respect in the community join our staff as we continue to make Nashville a healthy and safer place to live,” Funk said Tuesday in a statement. “He and Dorinda will make a great team as they share the efforts and initiatives of this office throughout the city.”

Nashville DA sues TV reporter for $200M

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk is suing a WTVF TV investigative reporter and the station’s parent company for $200 million because of a story that aired Wednesday evening, reports The Tennessean.

Funk’s attorney says in the filing that chief investigative reporter Phil Williams’ story — “Explosive allegations emerge from David Chase case” — was false.

…”While NewsChannel 5 stands behind our story, we cannot comment on pending litigation,” NewsChannel 5 general manager Lyn Plantinga said in the email.

The case was filed in Davidson County Circuit Court on Thursday and names Williams and Scripps Media Inc., WTVF-NewsChannel 5’s parent company, as defendants in the lawsuit.

The story included text messages Chase sent in which Chase said he felt he was being blackmailed by Funk in Chase’s domestic violence case. On the July day that prosecutors dropped the domestic violence charges, Chase dropped a civil lawsuit he had filed against Metro Nashville police.

“Mr. Funk did not blackmail or attempt to blackmail David Chase,” the lawsuit reads.

But the lawsuit acknowledges that Chase dismissing his federal lawsuit was a condition of the district attorney’s office dropping criminal charges against Chase, though at the time the office cited concerns with Chase’s girlfriend’s credibility.

“Further, at no point has Mr. Funk solicited, been offered, or accepted any bribe, including during his tenure as District Attorney,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit seeks a retraction of the story and $200 million in damages. James Kay, Funk’s attorney in the matter, said in an email that the district attorney would donate any damages awarded in the case to nonprofits that help victims of domestic violence.

Shelby DA fights censure petition

By Adrian Sainz, Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said Friday she is fighting an attempt by a state board to censure her in connection with a murder case she handled as a prosecutor.

The Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee filed a petition for discipline on Monday against Weirich. The petition says Weirich should be disciplined for actions during the February 2009 trial of Noura Jackson, who was accused of fatally stabbing her mother more than 50 times in June 2005.

The petition says Weirich improperly commented on Jackson’s right to remain silent and refrain from testifying. During closing arguments, Weirich said: “Just tell us where you were! That’s all we are asking, Noura!”

Weirich was walking across the courtroom toward Jackson and addressing the jury when she made the statements, the petition said. Weirich also “gesticulated by raising both arms to point and gesture” at Jackson, the petition said.

“It is a well-settled principle that a prosecutor may not comment upon a defendant’s exercise of the Fifth Amendment right not to testify,” the petition states.
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DAs seek staff expansion, child porn law changes

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference is trotting out a legislative agenda for the 2016 session, including expanded staffing, pay raises and several revisions of statutes dealing with child abuse.

From the Kingsport Times-News report, which got an outline from Sullivan County DA Barry Staubus:

One change would allow harsher punishment for a child pornography video than for a still photo.

“We can enhance punishment depending on how many images you have,” he said. “Currently, one photo and one video (of child porn) are the same. We want to propose that one video, which is made up of multiple images, be counted as 51 photos.”

Staubus said if that were to happen, those possessing videos depicting child porn would receive harsher punishments than what currently exists.

A gap in the law would be closed with a proposal that would criminalize sexual contact by an authority figure with a child under the age of 13. Today, the charge exists for only those children between the ages of 13 and 18. It is a class A misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000.

Under the proposal, the age restriction of 13 would be removed, allowing the charge to be applied to any child. Punishment would also be increased for those children under 13 abused by an authority figure, making it a Class E Felony offense with a minimum mandatory fine of $1,000.

…Tennessee DAs also want to increase punishment for school bus drivers caught using electronic devices to include a minimum of 30 days in jail, no less than a $1,000 fine and the permanent revocation of the school bus endorsement held by the driver. (Currently, it’s a $50 fine.)

…Other agenda items include:

– Asking the legislature for new staffing positions, including 10 new assistant district attorneys and 25 new secretarial positions state wide.

– Giving prosecutors who were denied a step increase in 2004 to receive the credit from that year.

– Allowing the court to have video testimony after specific conditions are met and only in certain limited cases.

– Allowing DAs to petition the court to order a body disinterred and an autopsy performed. Currently, DAs petition the court upon request of a state or county medical examiner.

– Giving trial judges the discretion to determine whether or not the designated case officer must testify first in a trial. A recent ruling says the designated officer must testify first in every case.

– Change current retroactive child support laws by setting a five year limit, except in certain cases, on the awarding of retroactive child support.

No charges against Nashville DA in pension deal

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk will not face criminal prosecution for accepting a controversial part-time job that allowed him to get a good deal on the state’s pension plan and health insurance for him and his family.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery told local media Tuesday that Funk broke the law but won’t be prosecuted since he has agreed to pay back the benefits he received.

Investigators say Funk violated the law by working as a part-time attorney for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference from June to August 2014, before he took office. Slatery says Funk received state benefits for doing “virtually no work.”

Funk says he was acting on the advice of others and didn’t know that taking the job was illegal.

Shelby DA asks judge to step aside in more than 200 cases

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich has called on Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett to recuse herself from more than 200 cases, reports the Commercial Appeal. A defense attorney, Michael Working, has now filed a motion asking for recusal of Weirrich’s office from handling cases in the court – creating a “chaotic” situation in Blackett’s courtroom Thursday.

About 60 people waited in the courtroom just before noon during a recess. (The judge) told lawyers variously that “I can’t sign anything at this time,” and “I can’t do anything.”

(Working) wrote in a motion this week that the “total disqualification from all pending matters of the only African-American woman serving as a Criminal Court Judge in a community that is approximately two-thirds African-American would appear to be an especially egregious deprivation of democracy by dismissing the people’s elected representative on the bench.”

In June, Blackett granted a new trial in the case of Collierville High School teacher Michael Halliburton who was convicted of attempting to kill his wife. The jury in that case commented on the “conduct of counsel” during the trial, she said…. The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her decision to grant a new trial and Halliburton was sentenced to 21 years Monday by Judge Bobby Carter.

…(In the appeals court decision, Judge Alan Glenn wrote that Blackett’s “conduct after hearing comments from the jury in the case could reasonably be viewed “as evidencing a personal bias or prejudice against members of the staff of the Shelby County District Attorney General,” but that a recusal from all cases prosecuted by Weirich’s office “would be an impossibility.”

Weirich asked Blackett to recuse herself from the cases on her docket saying her impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.”

Estes succeeds Kirby as XD of DA conference

Jerry Estes, a McMinn County lawyer and former district attorney general, has been named executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, succeeding Wally Kirby.

Kirby retired in February amid controversy over his role in arranging a part-time job for Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk that allowed Funk to get a bigger retirement check.
Estes, 64, served as district attorney for the 10th Judicial District from 1982 until 2006. Since then he has practiced law in Athens.

As executive director of the conference, Estes will be in charge of lobbying the Legislature on behalf of district attorneys general around the state. His office also handles all administrative and fiscal matter for the conference, ranging from coordination of prosecution efforts between different jurisdictions to providing training programs for DA staff.

Note: A biography of Estes is available HERE (website of his Athens law office).

Most prosecutors think pregnancy drug abuse law is working

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — More than half of Tennessee prosecutors say a new law allowing assault charges against mothers who give birth to drug-dependent babies is having a positive effect.

That’s according to a statewide survey done by the Tennessee Department of Safety. The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/1E2Lpuu) reports the agency released results last week showing that 17 prosecutors thought the threat of jail is deterring more drug-dependent births, while seven thought it wasn’t helping and six didn’t respond.

In a letter that accompanied the survey, Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said criminal charges were “used sparingly and selectively” in the six months the law was in effect last year.

American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg opposes the law. She says it doesn’t entice women to get treatment; it drives them underground.