Attorneys in Little-F.O.P. action argue the need for moving trial
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Oct 03, 2012 | 3806 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Nearly a year after the Fraternal Order of Police filed a lawsuit against Anniston City Councilman Ben Little alleging harassment and abuse of his authority, attorneys today argued whether the case should be heard in Calhoun County.

When the police organization filed the suit in November 2011, the plaintiffs did not request a jury trial, and Little hasn’t requested one either. Raymond Johnson, an attorney representing Little, said that his client had paid the fee for a jury trial and that is what they had been expecting.

Little paid the $100 fee required for a jury trial on March 26, but the request to have a jury has to be made in writing and at this time it has not been filed, said Judge Brian Howell, to whom the case has been assigned.

Still, at a hearing Wednesday morning, Lawrence Cooper, another attorney representing Little, argued that pretrial publicity had made it impossible for Little to get a fair trial locally.

“We feel like the administration of justice is in jeopardy if we remain here,” Cooper said. “There has been substantial publicity regarding the FOP’s allegations against Mr. Little.”

To support his point, he read comments posted by readers to online versions of news stories and editorials about the suit at The Anniston Star’s website.

“‘Little owes us an apology.’ ‘Little should give and not gripe,’” Cooper read. “We believe that the possible jurors that could sit in this case have already been tainted to the point that they could not be fair and reasonable.”

But attorney Joel Laird, who represents the police organization in the case, argued that Little was the source of the inflammatory statements and actions.

“Little is the one that held all the press conferences, made all the statements, went on the radio, went on television,” Laird said.

The court cannot protect Little from a situation he created, Laird said.

In addition, since the court has not determined whether the case will even be heard by a jury at this point, the request is premature, he added.

Cooper also noted any inflammatory statements made by Little are not the ones that prompted the request to move the trial. The potential jurors’ familiarity with the allegations is the problem, he reiterated.

“An elected official is entitled to certain immunity for things that they speak about because a lot of that information comes from constituents’ concerns,” Cooper said after the meeting. “They brought this action here … Let them prove it fairly.”

Howell told the attorneys that if he did approve a change of location for the trial, it would require that Little post a bond for the projected costs of the move — the further away the move, the bigger the bond.

Laird also said another location would have to be similar in size and demographics to Calhoun County to ensure a fair trial.

After the hearing, Cooper said he understood the judge’s points.

“We need to provide him with a little more statistical data as to whether or not the places that we would suggest have similar demographics,” Cooper said.

Election contest hearing postponed

A second court hearing involving Little scheduled for Wednesday — his contesting of the Aug. 28 municipal election — was postponed in case the first hearing had taken longer than expected and prevented Little from attending.

Little, who lost his seat in the election to Seyram Selase by a vote of 517 to 308, contends the election was not handled properly.

The city of Anniston has asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that Little has not paid a $5,000 bond required for the contest to move forward. Judge John Thomason has not yet set a new date for the hearing.

Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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