crime

State offers $10,000 reward in murder of Memphis toddler

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE  Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension, arrest and conviction of any person or persons responsible for the June murder of a toddler in Memphis.

“We want whoever is responsible for this tragic crime to be brought to justice,” Haslam said.  “No tips are too small and we ask anyone who may have witnessed anything near the crime scene or with any knowledge of the case to come forward.”

Two-year old Laylah Washington was traveling in a car with her mother on June 11 when struck by gunfire from an approaching vehicle on Kirby Rd. near Raines Rd. The child subsequently passed away at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital.

District Attorney General Amy Weirich requested the reward from the governor to help generate leads in this unsolved case. The Memphis Police Department is investigating the case.

Anyone with information about the case is encouraged to contact the Memphis Crime Stoppers at 901-528-2274.

Mayor’s daughter and her husband face murder charges in toddler son’s death

The parents of a 2-year-old boy who died after being left in a vehicle overnight at the Gatlinburg home of a Middle Tennessee mayor were arraigned Monday on felony murder charges, reports the News Sentinel.

Jade Elizabeth Phillips, 24, and her husband, Anthony Dyllan Phillips, 26… are accused of causing the death of their son, Kipp, by leaving the toddler inside a car overnight and into the afternoon of July 14 while temperatures soared into the 90s. The child’s official cause of death has not been made public.

Division lines between husband and wife are already being formed in what could become a defense blame game – typical when two people are charged in the same crime.

Jade Phillips, daughter of Westmoreland Mayor Jerry Kirkman, has posted her $250,000 bond and has hired veteran Knoxville defense attorney Tasha Blakney. She appeared in court Monday dressed in a black dress and gray sweater, her father seated beside her in the courtroom before Ogle took the bench.

Her husband was dressed in a black-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, unable to post bond. There was no one there on his behalf. Amber Haas, a veteran with the 4th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, was appointed to represent him. Anthony Phillips cast a glance at his wife as she was leaving the courtroom. She did not look in his direction.

Sheriff, already under indictment, faces new flap over helping bail-bondsman wife in multi-state manhunt

Start of a Times Free Press report on Sunday:

In one epic April weekend, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson threatened a group of inmates for talking trash about his bail-bondsman wife; embroiled more than a dozen law officers in a multistate manhunt for one of her bail skips; and pulled a gun on a motorist in Georgia, where he has no authority — all with his wife and another bondsman riding along in his official sheriff’s vehicle.

The episode lends weight to complaints from the Bradley County bail bonding community of a thumb on the scales in favor of the sheriff’s wife, Tenille Watson. It also echoes allegations of wrongdoing by Sheriff Watson forwarded last year to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

That TBI investigation resulted in Watson being indicted on six felony counts of using forged or altered vehicle titles in connection with his sideline business as a used-car dealer. Watson was booked July 21. No court date had been set in that case as of Friday. TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland said Thursday the investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, local attorneys asked to review documents and videos related to Watson’s Easter weekend activities say he could have opened himself up to liability ranging from civil rights violations to kidnapping and aggravated assault.

The Times Free Press sent Watson a detailed list of questions Thursday morning about his activities that weekend and asked for his comment. He did not respond.

Judge ends offer of reduced jail time for vasectomies, blames state Dept. of Health

White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield has rescinded his controversial offer to reduce the jail sentences of male prisoners who get vasectomies and female prisoners who get contraceptive implants, reports WTVF-TV. He blames the state health officials for the decision.

The contraceptive procedures were offered free by the state Department of Health when the judge in May issued an order authorizing 30-days off jail times for inmates who undergo the procedures. He issued a new order rescinding the offer for new inmates, saying officials have advised him the department “will no longer offer free vasectomies… and will not provide the free Nexplanon implant” to White County inmates who get a sentence reduction.

The judge said in his order that those who had already signed up – at least 32 women and 38 men, according to an earlier report — will still get the 30-day sentence reduction without going through the procedures. The order says these inmates have “demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation.”

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Legislators seek AG opinion on judge reducing jail time for vasectomies or birth control implants

News release from Senate Majority Leader Lee Harris

 MEMPHIS – Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. G.A. Hardaway have asked state Attorney General Slatery to give his opinion on whether Tennessee judges have the power to impose, reduce, or vary a defendant’s criminal sentence based on whether the defendant undergoes a medical procedure that would permanently or temporarily limit the defendant’s ability to have children.  They released the following statements in response to Judge Sam Benningfield’s efforts to reduce sentencing for inmates who choose to receive a vasectomy or implant in the White County jail.

Sen. Lee Harris said, “We depend on our judges to administer justice fairly, not to use their position of power to coerce vulnerable populations to give up their God-given rights to have children or not have children. Reproductive health care options should be available to all, in prison and out. However, those options should always be offered on a voluntary basis. These options should not come with strings attached or through coercion.”

 Rep. G.A. Hardaway said, “Offering incentives in exchange for someone’s reproductive freedom is not only unethical, I’m pretty sure it’s unconstitutional. It appears the inmates in White County are being targeted and they are not in a position to reject this coerced offer. Senator Harris and I have asked state Attorney General Slatery to opine on this matter and we look forward to his prompt response.”

Also signing the letter are Rep. Harold Love, Rep. Larry Miller, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Rep. Johnny Shaw, and Rep. Joe Towns.

Note: Previous post on the subject HERE.  All those signing the request are Democrats. Shaw is from Bolivar, Love from Nashville with the others from Memphis.

Four enter guilty pleas in Pilot Flying J scam

The man dubbed by the FBI as the architect of the diesel fuel rebate scam by executives of the nation’s largest truck stop chain has struck a deal to confess, reports the News Sentinel.

The former Pilot Flying J vice president of sales, John “Stick” Freeman, and three other Pilot Flying J ex-employees have agreed to plead guilty in the multi-million-dollar fraud and, according to language in the documents filed Monday, cooperate with federal authorities in the ongoing probe.

Freeman has been repeatedly described in an FBI affidavit and an indictment filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Lewen and Trey Hamilton as the architect of the scam in which less sophisticated trucking companies across the country were promised certain rebates but paid much less.

Freeman is providing information to the FBI about Pilot Flying J and the diesel fuel rebate scam the corporation’s own board of directors has conceded ripped trucking firms off to the tune of millions in five years, pleadings filed Monday in U.S. District Court show.

Also striking deals to confess are: John Spiewak, a regional sales manager for Pilot Flying J; Vicki Borden, director of direct sales; and Katy Bibee, an account representative who worked directly with Freeman.

… Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lewen and Hamilton make clear in the plea agreements Freeman is a key player in their effort to show the rebate scam was pervasive as was the culture of greed that spurred it – and that former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood was looking to expand it.

…Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam has not been charged, though the FBI, indicated in testimony and court records he was a suspect. Haslam denies any knowledge of the scheme.

Widow of former legislator fights parole of drunken driver who caused his death

The widow of a former state legislator and restaurant owner is leading a petition drive asking the state Board of Paroles to reject the release of the drunken driver convicted of vehicular homicide in her husband’s death, reports the Kingsport Times-News.

Debbie Locke is the widow of Mike Locke, former state representative and founder of the popular local eatery the Hot Dog Hut. Locke was killed on June 23, 2014, when an intoxicated driver struck him on Fort Henry Drive, sending him into a ravine 20 feet below.

The driver, James Hamm, has been incarcerated since his arrest. He was convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication, felony reckless endangerment, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of a collision involving a fatality and failure to exercise due care. He was later sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Now, less than 15 months after being sentenced, Hamm will be up for parole on Aug. 10.

“If he gets out, he will do it again, and this will put somebody else at risk,” Locke said. “Honestly, I’m appalled. I’m appalled that we the citizens of Kingsport or the state of Tennessee have to do this.”

To try to prevent Hamm’s parole release, Locke has started a petition that she plans to send to the parole board in Nashville… So far, Locke estimates that she has gotten between 850 and 900 signatures. Her goal is to get as many as possible by the middle of next week, at which point she will gather all the petitions and send them to Nashville.

…On the evening Mike Locke was killed, he was putting out campaign signs for Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, who was running for state representative at the time. Hulsey later won the election and holds the office Locke himself previously held.

Hulsey said he has signed the petition and plans to join Locke and her family at Hamm’s parole hearing.

Four school bus drivers face 30 days in jail for using electronic devices under new TN law

Four now-former Knox County school bus drivers who allegedly used electronic devices while behind the wheel face mandatory 30-day jail terms if convicted under a tough new law, reports the News Sentinel.

They are charged via recently unsealed grand jury presentments under a state law passed following the death of two Sunnyview Primary School students and a teacher’s aide in Knox County in December 2014 caused by a driver who was texting while driving.

The quartet of drivers are accused in separate incidents of using electronic devices — the exact nature of which hasn’t been revealed yet — during Knox County Schools’ spring semester.

The cases are Knox County’s first legal test of that law, and the second in the state. A Hamilton County grand jury in March leveled the charge — along with vehicular homicide — in a fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga in December 2016 that killed six children.

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Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson facing criminal charges

Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, a former state legislator, has been charged with forgery and booked at the county jail he oversees. He was freed on $30,000 bail after being booked at the Bradley County Jail, according to media reports.

From the Times Free Press:

The charges — six counts of knowingly holding or using forged or falsified car titles — arise from a Times Free Press investigation published in December into Watson’s unlicensed used car sales.

The charges are Class E felonies, each punishable by one to six years in prison and fines of up to $3,000.

None of the charges brought Wednesday by the Bradley County grand jury relate to any other allegations of misconduct by Watson that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been looking into for 13 months. The special prosecutor in the case, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, did not reply Friday when asked whether the investigation is over or if more charges are possible.

Watson, a four-term state legislator and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, did not appear publicly after being booked.

In a statement released through his attorney, James F. Logan Jr., the sheriff said he has cooperated fully with the TBI and other agencies in the probe of what he called “accusations from some who desire to have more control over county government and the operations of the Sheriff’s Office.”

Watson said Bradley County residents and his employees can be assured the sheriff’s office will “continue to provide the best services possible to insure [sic] the safety and property of all citizens and visitors.”

…”It’s an incredibly sad event” for the sheriff to be booked into his own jail, Logan said, adding that Watson “wants justice.”

 

Note: Watson is the fourth Tennessee sheriff to face criminal charges in the past year or so. The others, now former sheriffs who were accused of misconduct while in office, were Gibson County Sheriff Chuck Arnold, Fentress County Sheriff Chucky Cravens and Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold. They have all pleaded guilty to some charges.

Also, this post updates, expands and replaces original post.

Report bashes Shelby County DA Amy Weirich for ‘misconduct;’ She bashes ‘grossly inaccurate’ report

A Harvard Law School project has ranked Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich highest in Tennessee for prosecutorial misconduct, reports the Commercial Appeal.

Researchers with the Fair Punishment Project reviewed court opinions involving allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in California, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee from Jan. 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2015.

“In the time period we reviewed, the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office had the highest number of misconduct findings—with more than a dozen—and the most reversals in Tennessee,”  according to the report. (Note: The document is HERE.)

…Weirich disputed the report’s finding.

“This is a grossly inaccurate and incomplete account of these cases as seen through the eyes of a defense advocacy group,” Weirich said in a statement released by her office Thursday. “I became a prosecutor to hold the guilty accountable and to protect the innocent in every case, and that is what I have tried to do throughout my career. I will never apologize for trying to seek justice for victims of crime.”

… The Fair Punishment Project is a project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and Criminal Justice Institute, The Bronx Defenders and the Accountable Justice Collaborative at The Advocacy Fund.