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Judge won’t halt execution over intellectual disability
Press Releases | 2022/03/29 23:26
A judge on Tuesday dismissed a motion to declare a Tennessee death row inmate intellectually disabled, a move that would have prohibited his upcoming execution.

Senior Judge Walter Kurtz wrote that federal courts had previously determined Byron Black was not intellectually disabled and therefore was ineligible to have the decision considered once again. The 45-page decision comes despite agreement between Nashville’s district attorney and Black’s lawyers that he is intellectually disabled and should not be put to death.

Black is scheduled to be executed on Aug. 18 for his murder convictions in the April 1988 killings of his girlfriend and her two young daughters.

Black’s attorneys had argued the 65-year-old should be spared under a 2021 law that made Tennessee’s prohibition against executing people with intellectual disability retroactive, pointing out there is a different standard in place now than in 2004 — when the court found that Black didn’t meet the now-obsolete definition of “mental retardation.” Previously, Tennessee had no mechanism for an inmate to reopen a case to press an intellectual disability claim.

However, Kurtz ultimately concluded that the new state law does not apply to death row inmates who had previously received a ruling from a prior court.

“This Court fails to see how the federal courts’ resolution of petitioner’s intellectual disability claim can be seen as anything other than an adjudication on the merits under the legal and medical principles which are embodied in the most recent version of (Tennessee law),”Kurtz wrote. “Given the above, the Court finds that Mr. Black had a full and fair previous adjudication on the merits of his intellectual disability claim.”

Black was convicted by a Nashville court in the deaths of girlfriend Angela Clay, 29, and her daughters Latoya, 9, and Lakesha, 6. Prosecutors said he was in a jealous rage when he shot the three at their home. At the time, Black was on work release while serving time for shooting and wounding Clay’s estranged husband.

Earlier this month, District Attorney Glenn Funk — Nashville’s lead prosecutor — announced that he agreed with Black’s legal team that the inmate was intellectually disabled and should instead face a sentence of life in prison.



Split Supreme Court appears ready to allow Trump to end DACA
Press Releases | 2019/11/16 11:49
Sharply at odds with liberal justices, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed ready Tuesday to allow the Trump administration to abolish protections that permit 660,000 immigrants to work in the U.S., free from the threat of deportation.

That outcome would “destroy lives,” declared Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one the court’s liberals who repeatedly suggested the administration has not adequately justified its decision to end the seven-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Nor has it taken sufficient account of the personal, economic and social disruption that might result, they said.

But there did not appear to be any support among the five conservatives for blocking the administration. The nine-member court’s decision is expected by June, at the height of the 2020 presidential campaign.

President Donald Trump said on Twitter that DACA recipients shouldn’t despair if the justices side with him, pledging that “a deal will be made with the Dems for them to stay!” But Trump’s past promises to work with Democrats on a legislative solution for these immigrants have led nowhere.

The president also said in his tweet that many program participants, brought to the U.S. as children and now here illegally, are “far from ‘angels,’” and he claimed that “some are very tough, hardened criminals.” The program bars anyone with a felony conviction from participating, and serious misdemeanors may also bar eligibility.


Court Weighing Whether Judge Can Unseal Lynching Records
Press Releases | 2019/10/28 01:11
A historian’s effort to unseal grand jury records from the brazen 1946 lynching of two black couples on a Georgia riverbank prompted tough questions in a federal appeals court, but the judges also suggested there might be another way to win release of the records.

The young black sharecroppers were traveling a rural road in the summer of 1946 when a white mob stopped the car beside the Apalachee River, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Atlanta. The mob dragged them out, led them to the river’s edge and shot them to death in a case that horrified the nation that year.

The FBI investigated for months and more than 100 people reportedly testified before a grand jury, but no one was ever indicted in the deaths of Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County.

Historian Anthony Pitch wrote about the unsolved killings ? “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town” ? and continued his research after the book’s 2016 publication. He learned transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, once thought to have been destroyed, were stored by the National Archives.

Pitch, died in June at age 80, before his case could be resolved, but his widow is continuing the fight, along with Laura Wexler, who wrote another book about the lynching and joined the case at the family’s request.



GOP candidate asks North Carolina court to declare he won
Press Releases | 2019/01/03 09:01

The Republican in the nation's last undecided congressional race asked a North Carolina court Thursday to require that he be declared the winner because the now-defunct state elections board didn't act.

A lawsuit by GOP candidate Mark Harris claims the disbanded elections board had been declared unconstitutional, so its investigation into alleged ballot fraud by an operative hired by the Republican's campaign was invalid.

The elections board was dissolved Dec. 28 by state judges who in October declared its makeup unconstitutional but had allowed investigations to continue. A revamped board doesn't officially come into existence until Jan. 31.

"Time is of the essence," Harris' lawsuit states. Because the new elections board won't be created for weeks, "the uniform finality of a federal election is endangered by the State Board's actions and the citizens of the 9th District have no representation in Congress."

State elections staffers on Wednesday said a planned Jan. 11 evidentiary hearing to outline what investigators have found since November's election had to be postponed due to the lack of a board authorized to subpoena witnesses and hold hearings.

The investigation is continuing, however, with Harris being interviewed for two hours Thursday as all other U.S. House winners were sworn into office in Washington.

"We certainly want to help in any way we can with any investigation to get to the bottom of it, but we believe that, again, that I should be certified," Harris said. "We don't believe that the number of ballots in question would change the outcome of this election and we believe, again, that that is the standard ultimately that the board of elections looks to."

Harris narrowly led Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial vote counts, but the elections board refused to certify him as the winner amid an unusually large number of unused absentee ballots and a large advantage in absentees favoring the Republican in two of the 9th congressional district's rural counties.



Mixed rulings for Republicans from Kentucky Supreme Court
Press Releases | 2018/11/15 15:02
In a pair of mixed rulings for Kentucky Republicans, the state Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a law requiring a panel of doctors to review medical malpractice cases before they go to court while upholding the state's law banning mandatory union dues for most employees.

Republicans celebrated when Gov. Matt Bevin signed both laws, made possible only after the GOP won control of the state House of Representatives in 2016 for the first time in nearly 100 years. Bevin has credited the union dues law, known as right-to-work, with boosting record levels of business investment in Kentucky. But the medical review panel law has been criticized for clogging the state's court system.

The medical review law gives a panel of doctors nine months to review medical malpractice lawsuits and issue an opinion about whether they are frivolous. A review of court records in August of this year by the Courier Journal found that in the first year the law was in effect, 11 percent of the 531 malpractice lawsuits filed had been assigned to a panel. Of those, findings had been issued in 3 percent.

The state legislature passed the law in 2017. Tonya Claycomb sued on behalf of her child, Ezra, who was born with severe brain damage and cerebral palsy she says was caused by medical malpractice. She argued the bill delayed her access to the courts, citing section 14 of the Kentucky Constitution. It says all courts shall be open and every person will have access "without ... delay."

Lawyers for Gov. Bevin argued the law is helpful because it gets the two sides talking before a lawsuit is filed, which could lead to an agreement to settle the case outside of court. They also pointed out the state has other laws that limit access to the courts, including requiring heirs to wait at least six months before suing the executor of an estate.


Man admits slaying wife, blames her for daughters' deaths
Press Releases | 2018/08/22 07:56
The father of two young girls found submerged in oil tanks after being missing for days told authorities his pregnant wife killed the children after learning he wanted a separation, and that he erupted in rage after witnessing the killings and strangled their mother inside the family's suburban Denver home, according to court documents.

Days after letting police inside his home so they could help find his missing family, Christopher Watts told investigators "he would tell the truth."

Watts first asked to speak with his father then admitted to killing his wife, Shanann. Watts told police in court papers released Monday that he killed her after witnessing her strangling one of the girls on a baby monitor. The other child had already been killed by the woman, he said.

Watts, 33, faces three first-degree murder charges, two counts of murdering a child under 12, one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body. He is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday and is being held without bail.

District Attorney Michael Rourke declined to answer questions about the case Monday but said his office has three prosecutors working on it. Rourke also said it was too early to discuss whether he will seek the death penalty.

Police first visited the family's house on Aug. 13, after a friend asked officers to check on Shanann Watts. She had missed a doctor's appointment and wasn't answering calls or text messages hours after returning home after a business trip, the friend reported.


Yankton lawyer Jason Ravnsborg wins GOP attorney general nod
Press Releases | 2018/06/24 07:01
South Dakota Republicans on Saturday chose Yankton lawyer Jason Ravnsborg to run against Democratic former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler in the race for state attorney general.

GOP delegates voted to nominate Ravnsborg at their state party convention, where the attorney general contest was the main show for attendees. Democrats nominated Seiler as their candidate at a party gathering last week.

Ravnsborg won out over state Sen. Lance Russell in a second round of voting after Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald was dropped from consideration following his third-place showing in the initial ballot.

"We've been working hard," Ravnsborg said after he won. "I've been to every county in our state at least twice."

Ravnsborg has proposed expanding programs that allow lower-level prisoners to work while serving their sentences and establishing a meth-specific prison and mental health facility in the western part of the state. He said he has leadership and management experience and touted his support among county sheriffs to delegates.

Ravnsborg, 42, of Yankton, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He's looking to succeed outgoing Attorney General Marty Jackley as the state's chief lawyer and law enforcement officer.

The high-profile office has served as a frequent springboard for gubernatorial hopefuls and takes on the state's top legal cases, such as South Dakota's recent successful push to get the U.S. Supreme Court to allow states to make online shoppers pay sales tax.

Russell, a former state's attorney and current chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had said he wanted to be attorney general to address rising crime and improve government transparency. Fitzgerald has been the Lawrence County state's attorney since 1995 and campaigned on his experience.




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