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Lawsuit against Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office dismissed by federal judge in Rondini matter

Bill Britt

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Last week, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy held a press conference during which he announced a federal judge’s dismissal of a wrongful death suit brought by the family of former University of Alabama student, Megan Rondini, against his office. The family alleged that the Sheriff’s Office had failed to adequately investigate and prosecute an alleged rape that they claim led to their daughter taking her life.

In July 2015, Megan Rondini, a college student, claimed she was raped after a night of partying by a local man in his 30s. Her family later said her suicide —nearly a year later—was a result of Tuscaloosa authorities failing to prosecute her case, despite a grand jury finding no evidence for an indictment.

The Rondini family’s lawsuit claims the defendants involved “negligently, recklessly, wantonly, and/or wrongfully acted or failed to act in response to Megan’s reported sexual assault.”

Parents of UA student who committed suicide file wrongful death suit

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The state’s attorney general’s office and a federal judge found no such evidence.

“After several months of unjust accusations against my office and other Tuscaloosa law enforcement agencies, the truth has indeed finally prevailed,” said Abernathy in his prepared statements. “A lawsuit filed against two investigators and me regarding the Megan Rondini suicide has been dismissed. It was dismissed because it was unfounded from the beginning.”

Abernathy also strongly condemned social media posts by internet trolls and some in the media who he says falsely reported events surrounding the Sheriff’s investigation into Rondini’s allegation of rape and subsequent lawsuits brought by her family.

“We hope this incident will serve as a lesson to all that social media cannot, and should not, be the venue in which any case is tried, and that social media sites should not be trusted as a reliable source of substantiated information regarding important matters,” Abernathy said. “False allegations made by internet bloggers and certain out of state journalists, and perpetuated by local political hacks have done damage to our community in that some victims have been reluctant to come forward to report cases, fearing that their information will be made known on social media.”

A media frenzy following the events of July 2015, cast a long shadow over the City of Tuscaloosa, law enforcement, the University, local medical practitioners and Tuscaloosa-native T.J. Bunn, who Rondini alleged had forced her to engage in sexual relations against her will.

The 30 something-year Bunn is the last defendant in the wrongful death suit brought by Rondini’s parents.

Bunn continues to maintain his innocence saying that he and Rondini engaged in consensual sexual relations at his Cottondale home in July 2015.

A timeline of events from that night constructed using text and snapchat messages from Rondini’s cellphone contradict rumors and innuendo spread by internet trolls and some press outlets. Also, many of the case files along with videos released under the Open Records Act shows Sheriff’s investigators rigorously pursuing Rondini’s allegation contrary to some reports.

Allegations of rape, details of a tragic night

During his press appearance last Wednesday, Abernathy condemned those who spread false accusations saying, “[T]hose who have facilitated these injustices on Facebook and other sites, civil litigation should be expected, if for no other reason than to prevent this from occurring in the future.”

Abernathy ended his press event by saying, “Those who perpetuate the false allegations for their own political gain should be held accountable. Their lack of integrity and self-serving disregard for the truth resulted in an unjustified attack on our community and many of its most respected institutions.” He then issued a final warning, “Our message must be strong and clear, that libelous behavior will not be tolerated.”

The press conference can be viewed at Tuscaloosa News.

 

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Elections

King pauses campaign after opponent’s wife’s death

Bill Britt

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After learning about the death of Attorney General Steve Marshall’s wife, his opponent, former Attorney General Troy King, announces a pause in his campaign out of respect for the Marshall family’s loss.

“Paige and I just learned of the tragic death of Brigette Marshall,” said, King. “Today is a sad and difficult day. Today we are not in different political campaigns or camps. We are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. We cannot imagine the deep sense of loss and grief the Marshall family must face.”

King further offered condolences saying, “We offer our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers for Attorney General Steve Marshall and his family and pray that God’s grace and peace and hope will enfold and sustain them.”

King’s campaign also said, “Out of respect for the Marshall family, I have paused my campaign during this time of mourning. I have directed that all of our advertising be stopped. May God hold them in the palm of His hand.”

King and Marshall will face each other in the July 17 Republican runoff for state’s Attorney General.

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Alabama Attorney General’s wife dead

Bill Britt

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News of Attorney General Steve Marshall’s wife, Bridgette Gentry Marshall’s, death began to be reported on Twitter early Sunday morning. Elected officials and ranking Republicans are confirming the news. A close friend of the Marshalls who asked not to be identified confirmed her death was either accidental death or suicide. According to the friend, personal issues had been weighing on Mrs. Marshall in recent months. He said the issues were personal and not related to the campaign.

Marshall County Sheriff’s Office and Albertville Police Department would not confirm or deny her death.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available. 

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Elections

Alabama Supreme Court Candidate Donna Wesson Smalley talks Justice with APR

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, the Alabama Political Reporter went to Jasper for an extended interview with Democratic candidate for Associate Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Place 4.

Donna Wesson Smalley grew up on a cattle farm in Etowah County near Attalla. She is an attorney with four decades of experience with the law. She earned her law degree from the University of Alabama Law School. Smalley is 62 years old.

APR asked: Why are you running for Alabama Supreme Court?

“The real truth is that I feel a real calling for it,” Smalley said. “I have dedicated my whole life to the law, and this is a natural next step.”

APR asked: What are your qualifications to serve on the state Supreme Court?

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“I offer a lot with the breath of my experience. I have 40 years as a practicing attorney. I am a former adjust instructor at the University of Alabama School of Law. I am a former adjunct professor in writing in the English Department. I relocated to Walker County in 2005 after being in Tuscaloosa for 23 years. I have done a lot of different things in the practice of law, which I think is important.”

“That I am a woman brings another experience to the court and Alabama needs more women in leadership positions,” Smalley said.

APR asked if the Judicial Inquiry Commission  and the Court of the Judiciary should be tasked with disciplining judges, or should judges be treated like every other constitutional office and the legislature be the body tasked with impeaching judges (like in the federal system)?

“I think the JIC is much better equipped to handle disciplining judges with an eye of protecting the sanctity of judges and the courts than the legislators. They are not as well equipped by education and experience. There is a balance between popular opinion and a more studied reasoning. That is one of the aspects of our code that has been used as a model used around the world.”

Smalley credited Howell Heflin with modernizing that section and felt that it, “Should be kept.”

APR asked: Does the state of Alabama have an ethics problem?

“Yes, obviously we have an ethics problem when three of our top elected officials have had to be replaced,” Smalley replied. “One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

“We have pretty good ethics laws, but we need better enforcement of them,” Smalley said. “For the few public officials that do break the public trust – they need to be punished.”

APR asked: The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) has been very active in endorsing and contributing towards judicial races. Is there a conflict of interest there in judicial candidates accepting contributions and donations from business interests that routinely have business before the court system?

“It is hard to avoid the appearance of impropriety when any one group contributes large amounts of money to the judges that settle disputes that often involves companies that are members of that group,” Smalley said. “This is a big problem and we need to figure out how to solve it.”

“We really need for the legislature to come up with a plan to deal with campaign finance laws in a fair and effective matter,” Smalley added.

APR asked: Should judicial races in Alabama be partisan political races?

“Not in my opinion,” Smalley said. “Politics really shouldn’t have any place in the review of elected races at all. I have practiced with judges who have been both Democrats and Republicans in different points in their careers; but they ruled the same way.”

Smalley said that running judicial races without the party affiliations would be very difficult; but there needs to be some campaign finance reform by the legislature. Our current system has no limits on dark money and allows unlimited donations from businesses and individuals. The appearance of impropriety should be avoided in judicial races.”

APR asked: There is a wide range in caseloads from circuit to circuit across the state. Should the legislature reallocate the judges from areas that have experienced population declines to areas that have experienced growth?

Smalley said no, that we should be adding judges to those areas of the state that are growing faster than other areas not taking judges away. “Getting more judges across the state would streamline how fast cases could come to trial. Justice delayed is justice denies.”

APR asked: Do the poor get treated fairly in our court system, or is there two sets of laws? One for people with money to have the best representation and another system for those who can’t afford the same defense.

“No, the poor are not treated fairly in our court system,” Smalley said. “I don’t know of anyone who can seriously argue otherwise. That is a problem we continue to struggle with, and that is not just a criminal court matter but also in the civil courts.”

APR asked: Do poor people get trapped in the court system being assigned penalties and court costs they can not afford and then additional fines and fees for not paying the previous fines?

“Absolutely, yes, people do get trapped in that system and in my opinion it is indefensible,” Smalley said. “Some agencies like the courts are not supposed to be self supporting. They are supposed to be supported by all of us so that everyone regardless of their station in life can seek justice for wrongs created by others. Justice for all is a basic tenant of our society. It is depressing how the poor are treated in our state and our country.”

APR asked: Republicans have dominated Alabama judicial races for well over a decade because there is a perception that Democrats are soft on crime. Are you strong enough to punish criminals and get justice for victims of crime?

“I don’t think that is why Republicans have dominated judicial races,” Smalley said. “That is a false premise. Republicans have dominated judicial races because they have spent more money to influence the voters. Democrats are like Republicans: they don’t want crime in their families or neighborhoods,” Smalley continued. “We need to do some of the things that we know will reduce crime. We need to be spending more money on early childhood education, job training, and mental health. They all dramatically reduce crime. That is where we need to be focusing instead of creating a cottage industry of private prisons. My hope is that everyone including Republicans will join in solving the problems. Republicans have had the House the Senate the executive branch, the courts, and their approach has not worked. People are still concerned about crime.”

APR asked: Alabama recently executed a man in his eighties. Is there something administratively the courts can do to expedite the appeals process so that death penalties can be performed in less than 20 years of sentencing?

“If there were enough judges and a better system for providing competent defense attorneys, that would streamline it some,” Smalley said. “I don’t think we should change the defendants’ protections.”

“Sometimes justice delayed is justice denied,” Smalley said. “We know it is less costly to have life without parole than the death penalty.”

APR asked: Does the state legislature need to find more funding for the Alabama Court System, particularly the circuit clerks offices?

“It is ridiculous,” Smalley said. “They lost manpower consistently. There is a third of the manpower that they had when I started practicing. ”

APR asked: There has been a popular perception, that in the past, some of the Justices on the Alabama Supreme Court have been a little lazy. If you are elected to the state’s highest court, can the public trust you to put in a full week’s work and not get behind on your work?

“Yes, and I pledge to write opinions,” Smalley said. “One of the things that I have heard across the state, particularly from lawyers, is that they don’t receive a reason written response on their filings. They deserve that much from the appellate courts.”

APR asked: There is a perception that whoever wins the GOP nomination for a statewide judicial race will win the office. Is that making it hard for you to fund raise in this race?

“I just don’t believe that paradigm is true anymore,” Smalley said. “The pendulum has begun to swing, and I don’t really need for somebody to give me hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy my vote. I intend to work my campaign at the grass roots level. That will win voters over.”

Smalley said, “I am confident that I am the most qualified candidate in this particular race. I am 62 years old, and I have been practicing law for 40 years. I have a breadth of experience that my opponent lacks. Most of his work has been with lobbying and governmental affairs. Most of my work has been with real people with real problems.”

“I don’t think either party should have every appellate judgeship, and that is what we have now.”

Donna Wesson Smalley (D) is running against James “Jay” Mitchell (R) for state Supreme Court Justice Place 4.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. (D) is running for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court against Associate Justice Tom Parker (R).

Smalley and Vance are the only Democrats running for any of the statewide judicial offices.

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Lawsuit against Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office dismissed by federal judge in Rondini matter

by Bill Britt Read Time: 3 min
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