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Nashville Criminal Defense Law Blog

When does having separate trials violate double jeopardy?

Sometimes, a single defendant is subjected to two separate trials. This is often done in an effort to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial when something in the first trial would create undue prejudice among the jury in the second trial, or vice versa. But what if part of the second trial depends on facts being decided in the first trial?

A Virginia man says his acquittal in a first trial should have resulted in the state dropping the charges in the second. He was accused of participating in a break-in where a safe full of guns and money was stolen. Because he had a criminal record, the state also accused him of being a felon in possession of firearms. He was acquitted of the break-in; shouldn't that mean he was not guilty of the unlawful possession charge?

Supreme Court to decide on standards for resolving plain errors

A conviction can be appealed on a number of grounds. One way of looking at it is that convictions (and civil cases) can be appealed based on an error of the law or an error in the facts. In some cases, factual errors are hard to gauge, as a reasonable jury might have decided the facts either way. In others, however, a factual error is a straightforward mistake, such as a mistake in math or a wrong date. This is called "plain error."

In a case involving an apparent mathematical error, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide what should happen when a defendant suffers from a plain error but fails to bring the issue up when it first arises.

State high court: Field sobriety tests inadmissible for pot DUI

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled that field sobriety tests are not an appropriate measure for whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana. Although the ruling doesn't apply directly in Tennessee, it could be influential because it involved a review of the current science on accurately detecting marijuana intoxication.

Specifically, the Massachusetts high court addressed how police officers can legally testify about field sobriety tests they administer to drivers they suspect of being under the influence of marijuana. It is not illegal to administer the tests, but the court determined they have no scientific value. Therefore, officers' testimony must be limited.

Civil rights suit shows police, witness failures in murder case

Halfway into a 20-year sentence for murder, Jennifer Del Prete was released on bond in 2014 after a judge found she had demonstrated her "actual innocence" of the crime she was convicted of. She had been convicted of violently shaking a child in her care at a day care center. That alleged shaking caused so-called "shaken baby syndrome," neurological evidence of abuse. Unfortunately, it appears that the science behind "shaken baby syndrome" is, as the judge put it, "highly suspect."

The case against Del Prete now appears to be so factually weak that she is suing the local police for intentionally framing her. The prosecution's expert witness, a pediatrician, concluded that the child was the victim of "shaken baby syndrome" even though she had never performed a physical examination. The child was already suffering from chronic subdural hematomas, which could easily explain the neurological evidence. The medical examiner who did the autopsy openly questioned the "shaken baby" diagnosis -- but his report was never turned over to the defense as was constitutionally required.

A search warrant can't be based on hunch suspect owns cellphone

In order to be legal, a search warrant must be based on probable cause. In other words, the officers seeking the warrant need to document a good reason to believe that evidence of criminal activity is likely to be found in a particular location.

To search someone's home, for example, it's not enough that the person is suspected of a crime and has a home that could be searched. Probable cause means there must be a specific reason for the police to believe that certain evidence is in that home.

Man caught having sex as teen now banned from living in own home

Just after he turned 17, LaShun G. was charged with second-degree sexual assault having sex with another teenager. He was tried and convicted as an adult, which means he was added to the sex offender registry in the state where he lives. He never committed another offense. He is now married and has three children.

He and his wife own and operate a small moving company. His wife is a nurse. Their 5-year-old son has medical issues that require constant monitoring and medical care, including breathing machines. He has limited mobility and is wheelchair-bound.

Prosecutorial misconduct leads to overturned murder conviction

A man who has been serving time since 1995 for the murder of a drug dealer has been released with his conviction overturned by a judge. That judge found evidence of serious prosecutorial misconduct that made his trial and conviction unfair. The district attorney's office is appealing the decision.

According to the New York Daily News, Tasker Spruill has always maintained his innocence in the 1993 killing of an East New York drug dealer. He was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to 25 years to life behind bars. He was released last week, but since his case is appealable, his release is conditioned on a $200,000 bond and electronic ankle monitoring.

Improper jury instructions overturn conviction of NY assemblyman

Former New York assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted in November 2015 of public corruption charges including extortion, money laundering and honest services fraud. This week, a three-judge federal appeals panel overturned his convictions on those three counts. A 2016 Supreme Court decision has narrowed the definition of public corruption since his conviction, but the instructions the jury was given in the Silver case reflected the old definition.

Federal prosecutors have said they will retry the case, according to the New York Times. They noted that the appellate panel ruled only that a properly-instructed jury could have chosen to acquit Silver; not that they would. The panel did say that the evidence presented in the original trial was legally sufficient to support a conviction, even under the new Supreme Court ruling.

SCOTUS rules in favor of poorly-advised immigrant who pled guilty

A South Korean immigrant will not be deported after pleading guilty to a drug crime after being badly advised by his criminal defense attorney. This is an interesting development, because it involves a guilty plea. If he had tried to get the plea itself reversed, he likely would not have succeeded. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the negative immigration consequences can be averted in such a circumstance.

The case involved a man who had lived in the U.S. legally for nearly 30 years and had built two businesses in Tennessee. His elderly parents are naturalized citizens, and he is the only family member in the country to care for them. He has strong ties to America and no ties to North Korea, which he left as a child.

Proof of unscientific hair analysis gets 40-year inmate released

Ledura Watkins was convicted of the 1975 murder of a 25-year-old woman during a home robbery. The only evidence against Watkins was a single hair found on the scene, which police analysts had tied to him using a technique that has since been discredited by the FBI. With the help of the Innocence Project at the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, Watkins is now free.

According to the FBI, the hair analysis used against Watkins was not scientifically valid. "It is simply a lab analyst's subjective opinion and has no place in our criminal justice system. This is why a state-wide review of hair comparison cases is critical," says the Innocence Project's director.

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Patrick T. McNally, Attorney at Law
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