National Roundup

Prosecutors seek death penalty in killing of prison administrator

RIPLEY, Tenn. (AP) — State prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty in the trial of a Tennessee convict charged with killing a corrections administrator and escaping prison on a tractor.

Lauderdale County district attorney Mark Davidson said Tuesday that he has filed a notice of intent to seek death if Curtis Ray Watson is convicted of first-degree murder in the death of longtime Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson.

Watson has been indicted on 15 counts including premeditated murder, rape and escape. He has not entered a plea in the case. Judge Joe Walker set an Oct. 26 trial date during a brief hearing in Ripley on Tuesday.

Watson, 44, was on regular lawn care duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning when he sexually assaulted and killed corrections administrator Debra Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds that morning, authorities said.

Watson escaped on a tractor, which was left in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. Watson was found four days later after an intense manhunt.

The 18,000-acre prison is located about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Memphis.

Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse.

Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person, authorities said.

Davidson told reporters about the filing outside the courtroom after the hearing. During the proceedings, Watson only said “no sir” to a question from the judge about whether Watson would seek private counsel. He is represented by a public defender who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Davidson said his office consulted Johnson’s family about seeking capital punishment. Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons.

Factors that played a part in the decision to seek death include Watson’s prior felony convictions and that the killing against a law enforcement officer came during an escape, Davidson said.

“It’s the ultimate punishment,” Davidson said. “We reserve it for the worst of the worst.”

Watson also is charged with felony murder, aggravated burglary, escape, theft and kidnapping. During his four days on the run in rural West Tennessee, Watson stole items from two homes, including camouflage clothing, binoculars, a compass, two knives, a saw and food, the indictment said.

Watson has been found mentally competent to stand trial.

Former cop used badge to get sex; now he wants to become a lawyer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon State Bar has rejected the application of an ex-Springfield police officer to become a lawyer after its investigators found that he had used his position to exploit vulnerable women for sex and lied about it.

The Board of Bar Examiners determined that Neil Halttunen had not shown that he “is currently of good character” and denied him admission to the bar, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. A hearings panel later upheld the board’s decision.

Halttunen, 51, of Salem has appealed the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court, which in May will hear arguments on the case.

Halttunen’s appeal offers a look into the bar’s confidential admission process, which is overseen by the Board of Bar Examiners. But ultimately, the Oregon Supreme Court has complete discretion over whether an applicant is admitted to the bar.

Details of the bar’s review of Halttunen’s application were disclosed in court filings, which offer an synopsis of the former officer’s on-duty conduct.

It depicts Halttunen as an officer who acted with impunity and used his badge to target and gain access to at least nine women for sex — though Halttunen acknowledged that the actual number of women he had “some sexual contact with” was greater.

The court filing include accounts from women Halttunen met through routine police calls who said Halttunen pursued them for sex.

“The full extent” of Halttunen’s “predatory conduct is unclear, in part because” he “has consistently claimed difficulty remembering all of his instances of misconduct,” the bar wrote in court records last year.

During a hearing on Halttunen’s application for the bar, the Lane County District Attorney testified that the former officer’s actions constituted official misconduct, a misdemeanor.

“The hearing evidence revealed in excess of 30 violations or attempted violations of this statute,” the bar wrote in its filing.

Halttunen worked in Springfield from 1996 until 2012, when he resigned while under investigation.

Court: State can’t bar felons from vote over fines and fees

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida cannot bar felons who served their time from registering to vote simply because they have failed to pay all fines and fees stemming from their cases, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Tallahassee federal judge’s preliminary injunction that the implementation of Amendment 4 — approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 to allow most felons who served their time to regain the right to vote — amounted to an unfair poll tax that would disenfranchise many of them..

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will immediately ask the entire 11th Circuit to reconsider the ruling. In addition, a full trial on the issue is set to begin this spring.

The GOP-led Legislature and DeSantis last year approved an implementation law for the constitutional amendment stating that only felons who have completed all conditions of their sentences should be allowed to vote. He and GOP lawmakers say that to regain the right to vote, felons must not only serve their prison time but also pay all fines and other legal financial obligations.

That was challenged in federal court by voting rights groups representing 17 plaintiffs seeking to overturn the law

As many as 1.6 million Florida felons who have completed their prison sentences could regain voting privileges under Amendment 4.