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ARE NEW SURROUNDINGS MORE DANGEROUS THAN BEFORE?
by Sharon Rondeau
(Mar. 11, 2016) — By means of a letter received on Friday, The Post & Email learned that Tennessee inmate #540003, Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III, was relocated to the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP), colloquially known as “West High,” on March 1.
While we know little of the circumstances which dictated the move, The Post & Email became aware over the winter that Fitzpatrick’s health was declining rapidly and that he was said to have open wounds which were reportedly bleeding.
Fitzpatrick said that he wishes to receive no outside mail during the course of his incarceration, which began following a sentencing trial on August 19, 2014.
Between August 2012 and March 2014, Fitzpatrick had attempted on a number of occasions to bring what he believed was solid evidence of county government corruption to the McMinn County grand jury. On none of those occasions was he allowed to address the grand jury directly by then-grand jury foreman Jeffrey L Cunningham.
In February 2014, on the occasion of Fitzpatrick’s seventh attempt to submit a petition to the McMinn County grand jury, Cunningham threatened Fitzpatrick with arrest were he to return and persist in his quest for a grand jury hearing. Fitzpatrick interpreted Cunningham’s actions and words as a threat and sought an order of protection against Cunningham.
Two different judges denied Fitzpatrick’s request.
On March 18, 2014, Fitzpatrick returned to the McMinn County courthouse with another petition for the grand jury. After submitting it to the court clerk and swearing to its veracity, Fitzpatrick sat on a bench outside the grand jury meeting room reading a book to wait for a disposition on whether or not he would gain a hearing.
Unexpectedly, Fitzpatrick was approached by two sheriff’s deputies and placed under arrest just minutes after Judge Amy Armstrong chose a new grand jury foreman from among the impaneled grand jurors to review alleged evidence that Fitzpatrick had committed a number of crimes.
The grand jury produced four indictments signed by the newly-appointed foreman, Thomas Balkom, and then-District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb accusing Fitzpatrick of aggravated perjury, stalking, harassment, and extortion.
Fitzpatrick was jailed but made bail within a few days.
At a pre-trial hearing on June 16, 2014, Cunningham, considered the key witness in the case against Fitzpatrick, testified that he had never filed a criminal complaint or spoken to a prosecutor about Fitzpatrick’s alleged crimes. Therefore, Fitzpatrick’s accuser was the state of Tennessee, not Cunningham. The prosecutor and accuser were therefore the same party, which violates the Sixth Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
On June 25, 2014, Fitzpatrick was convicted on the charges of aggravated perjury and extortion and acquitted on the charge of harassment. The day before, at the end of testimony, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood had dismissed the charge of stalking.
Approximately two months later, on August 19, Blackwood sentenced Fitzpatrick to three years in state prison. During the hearing, Blackwood gave a lengthy soliloquy ruminating and despairing about individuals “demanding their constitutional rights.” Blackwood was heard to say by eyewitnesses, “Who cares if the grand jury foreman is serving illegally?” in an apparent response to Fitzpatrick’s chief complaint: that a judicially-selected, hand-picked grand jury foreman who serves an unlimited number of terms at the judge’s pleasure is unconstitutional and violates state law.
Tennessee judges’ ability to choose the grand jury foreman has existed for at least a century with the knowledge of a complicit legislature which passed a law in 1919 permitting it. An 1883 Tennessee Supreme Court case unearthed by an inmate at NWCX last fall indicates that at that time the grand jury foreman was expected to be chosen from the “venire,” or jury pool, which was presumably impaneled in an impartial manner.
At the end of the sentencing hearing, Fitzpatrick was handcuffed and taken into custody, initially housed in the McMinn County jail. After several days, he was transferred to the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCX), where intake on new inmates is routinely conducted.
In early December 2014, Fitzpatrick was relocated to the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX), where he remained until March 1 of this year.
The Post & Email had been told by several inmates that WTSP is one of, if not the foremost, dangerous prison of the 13 state-run penitentiaries in Tennessee, although NWCX is reportedly overrun with gang members who are allowed to intimidate, injure, steal from, and threaten non-violent inmates and correction officers alike with impunity. While drugs and weapons are expressly prohibited in Tennessee’s prisons, gang members at NWCX and possibly other facilities are reportedly supplied with the contraband by cooperating staff members.
An FBI operation spanning more than 18 months in Georgia recently netted more than three dozen arrests of inmates, correction officers, and civilians outside the prisons believed to have been involved in supplying contraband to inmates and formulating a kidnapping and murder plot reportedly foiled just in time.
A description of the WTSP facility from the TDOC website reads as follows:
West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) is a time-building prison with a mission to serve the public by managing adult male offenders classified as maximum, medium and minimum custody. WTSP provides a secure environment along with educational and vocational opportunities.
Educational and vocational programs available are GED, Adult Basic Education, college correspondence courses, microcomputer technology class, as well as wood working and masonry. WTSP also has TRICOR operations which consist of a farm, digital tag plant, and a textile plant.
According to Blackwood’s sentencing order, Fitzpatrick has 17 months left to serve on his three-year term. In December 2014, just four months after he was incarcerated, he was offered parole but declined it.