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Tornado damages Wetumpka

Brandon Moseley

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Saturday night, downtown Wetumpka was struck by an EF-2 tornado. Assessments of the damage are ongoing; but several buildings are confirmed down. Most notably the historic First Presbyterian Church of Wetumpka is a total loss.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said on Twitter, “I’ve talked with Wetumpka Mayor Willis & have assured him of available assistance. I’ve also been receiving updates from @B_Hastings_EMA. Now is the time for first responders to do assessments, recovery & damage control. Praying for all affected.”

“My thoughts are with all those impacted by the tornado in Elmore County yesterday, and my office stands ready to assist in whatever ways we are able,” U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, said. “As we await further details about the full scale of damages, I will be praying for those who have been injured.”

“Join me in saying a prayer for our fellow Alabamians in Elmore County impacted by these tornadoes,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said. “Let’s also say a prayer for local officials and first responders as they work to assess the damage.”

Sen. Richard Shelby said on social media: “Thinking about the people in and around #Wetumpka affected by the devastating tornado. Thank you to local law enforcement and first responders on the scene.”

“Pray for Wetumpka, Alabama,” State Auditor Jim Zeigler said. The 1856 First Presbyterian Church here this morning, and gone this afternoon in the tornado. 163 years serving the people.

Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis told reporters with WVTM TV Channel 13 that there is significant damage to the city’s downtown.

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“We’ve been hit very hard,” Willis said. “I’ve been here 53 years. These things have been here a whole lot longer than me. It’s just devastating to see this — how it snaps off power poles and trees, the buildings that we have. Our police station, about half of it is damaged, affecting our police department.”

More than two dozen homes and buildings were destroyed including the senior center. Other structures were damaged in the storm.

On Monday, Ivey will join Willis and other city and county officials to conduct a tour of the damaged areas in Wetumpka impacted.

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Following her tour, Ivey will meet with officials and then address the Alabama press regarding the damage she has seen.

Volunteers looking to help with the clean-up efforts in downtown Wetumpka or in the county should contact the Elmore County EMA office at (334) 567-6451. The Elmore County Commission and City of Wetumpka are appreciative of volunteers wanting to assist but want to ensure coordination to maximize recovery efforts and resources.

Severe weather is an ever-present threat to people in Alabama. While fortunately, it appears, as of press time, that no one died in this tornado, more people in Alabama have been killed by tornadoes since World War II (and we started keeping an accurate count) than in any other state.

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Courts

Doug Jones praises end of state Democratic Party lawsuit

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday applauded the end of a lawsuit over control of the state Democratic party. 

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Alabama Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Worley, which means that state Rep. Chris England, who was picked to lead the state Democratic party by a reform group championed by Jones, is the party’s chair. 

“This is a great day for Alabama and her Democratic Party. Throughout much of last year, countless Democrats in our state worked to create a more open and diverse state party, while recognizing and being true to the crucial and historic role held by African-American voters,” Jones said in a statement Thursday.

“The by-laws of the Alabama Democratic Party now reflect the growing diversity in our state — including representation for Hispanic voters, Native American voters, Asian voters, voters with disabilities and voters from the LGBTQ community. And most importantly, the Alabama Democratic Party has dramatically increased leadership opportunities for young voters. Around 70 new caucus members were added to the state party Executive Committee last year—many of them young people from diverse backgrounds throughout the state. I’m proud to continue to work alongside a more unified, diverse and inclusive state party. 

“With the dismissal of this lawsuit, it is time that all who have been involved in this challenge, resolution, and expansion of the Democratic Party come together for a common good. Our state benefits from the ideas and engagement of a competitive two-party system. We have now demonstrated that we have the ability to be inclusive within our own party while working to expand the number and experiences of people who play a role in moving it forward.  

“Chairman Chris England and First Vice Chair Patricia Todd have my complete support and I call on Democrats throughout the state to unite behind them as we move forward in modernizing, re-invigorating, and expanding the Alabama Democratic Party.,” Jones said.

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House

ACLU of Alabama condemns bill banning transgender treatment for minors

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama has condemned a recently approved bill to prevent doctors from providing hormone replacement therapy or puberty suppressing drugs to people younger than 19 who identify as transgender.

House Bill 303, the Alabama Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, would make it a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for doctors to prescribe puberty-blocking medications or opposite gender hormones to minors. The legislation would also ban hysterectomy, mastectomy or castration surgeries from being performed on minors.

The Alabama House Health Committee and the Senate Health Committee approved the bill on Wednesday in separate hearings, both drawing overflow crowds. The committee approval moves the bill in line for consideration by the full House. 

The ACLU of Alabama said in a statement that the bill targets transgender youth and puts their academic success and health in danger. 

“Transgender girls are girls, and transgender boys are boys,” said Dillon Nettles, policy analyst at the ACLU of Alabama. “Alabama lawmakers are considering legislation that runs counter to medical science, prevailing standards for the treatment of transgender youth and basic human dignity.

“The government shouldn’t threaten medical providers with jail for treating transgender kids and schools shouldn’t discriminate against them when it comes to participation in school sports. HB303 and HB35 are dangerous, discriminatory and put kids at risk.”

Multiple women’s sports advocacy organizations, including The National Women’s Law Center, the Women’s Sports Foundation and Women Leaders in College Sports, support trans-inclusive policies and oppose efforts to exclude transgender students from participating in sports.

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A June 2019 report from the Trevor Project on mental health issues among LGBTQ youth across the United States found that 78 percent of transgender and non-binary youth reported being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity in the past year. The report also found that 39 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year, with more than half of transgender and non-binary youth having seriously considered. 

The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that focuses on suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth. 

This is the second bill in the State House this year dealing with transgender youth. 

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Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, is sponsoring House Bill 35, titled the Gender Is Real Legislative Act, or GIRL Act. It would require student athletes in K-12 schools to participate as the gender listed on their birth certificate, preventing transgender athletes from competing as the gender they identify as. 

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Elections

11th-hour smear campaign against Byrne linked to opponent Tuberville, sources say

Bill Britt

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A story published February 24, on Gateway Pundit alleges, “Bradley Byrne kicked his brother’s widow off her land,” but the land was never owned by Byrne’s sister-in-law.

Whether the reporter at Gateway Pundit didn’t read all the court records or there were other motives, the erroneous accusations on the popular right-wing blog are now being used to smear Byrne in the final hours of a heated U.S. Senate race.

See complete records. 

Political consultants not tied to Byrne’s campaign say that operatives working for his rival, Tommy Tuberville, are promoting the story to damage Byrne. Random text messages are being sent to distribute the story as well as numerous calls to Alabama media outlets to report on the false claims. State political reporters have rejected the story due to its inaccuracies.

Several calls and voice messages to Tuberville’s campaign have gone unanswered.

The land in question was part of the estate of Byrne family matriarch, Elizabeth Patricia Langsdale Byrne.

In her original will signed July 23, 1996, Mrs. Byrne left her property in Baldwin County to her three children, Dale, Bradley and Patricia.

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However, on Feb. 25, 1999, she amended her will, removing her eldest son leaving the property to only Bradley and Patricia.

On Dec. 6, 2000, Mrs. Byrne again amended her will, leaving one-third to Bradley, one-third to Patricia and one-third as a “life estate” to Dale. According to the will, the life estate left to Dale would go back to Bradley and Patrica upon Dale’s death because a life estate means ownership of land is only for the duration of a person’s life.

Mrs. Byrne died in 2008; she was followed in death by her son Dale in 2014,  at which time the life estate bequeathed to him expired.

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Bradley, who his mother selected as executor of her estate, then filed the necessary paperwork with the Baldwin County probate office to address Dale’s death as stipulated in Mrs. Byrne’s will.

The Gateway Pundit story leaves out crucial details and in its interview with Dale’s fourth wife, Gloria, repeats claims she made that are not grounded in facts.

There is also a false claim that Byrne refused to leave the campaign trial when his brother died, but he did in fact cancel a scheduled event in the family’s time of morning.

The same reporter at Gateway Pundit wrote several stories praising Tuberville and trashing his other primary opponent, Jeff Sessions, calling him a skunk and a snake.

Court records clearly show Byrne acted in accordance with his mother’s wishes as they were detailed in her last will and testament.

 

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Crime

Ivey announces support for criminal justice legislation

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced her support for six bills that address the state’s criminal justice system, legislation that’s a product of Ivey’s study group on criminal justice policy. 

“I tasked the Criminal Justice Study Group with the mission of finding data-driven solutions to our longstanding challenges in our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m not only proud of their efforts, but I’m pleased there were solid recommendations, which came as a result of their hard work. Through these legislative items, we can build upon steps my administration has already begun taking to improve our criminal justice system.” 

Those bills are: 

  • SB 226, by Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), will establish a Deputy Commissioner of Rehabilitation within the Department of Corrections (DOC), as well as within the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. This bill will refocus these agencies toward reducing recidivism among those in the state’s custody while promoting public safety.
  • SB 244, by Sen. Cam Ward (R- Alabaster), will ensure that all inmates coming to the end of their sentences undergo mandatory, pre-release supervision. A 2015 law accomplished this result for offenders sentenced after its enactment; this bill will make that statute retroactive. While reducing burdens on DOC, this bill will also improve public safety by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.
  • HB 323, by Rep. Chris England (D- Tuscaloosa), will require the Department of Corrections to report more information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee. This bill will provide lawmakers with information to make knowledgeable decisions during the appropriation process. It will also update the Oath of Office that is taken by Correctional Officers to reflect the Department’s renewed focus on the rehabilitation of inmates.
  • HB 329, by Rep. Jim Hill (R- Moody), will make retroactive the state’s existing “presumptive sentencing guidelines.” Prior to October 1, 2013, offenders were sentenced to lengthy sentences, even life imprisonment, for nonviolent crimes. This bill will allow nonviolent offenders who are currently incarcerated under the previous guidelines to be eligible for resentencing under current, presumptive sentencing guidelines if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in prison.
  • HB 342, by Rep. Connie Rowe (R- Jasper), will provide former inmates the ability to receive a non-driver photo identification card. One of the greatest barriers of joining the workforce for those coming out of incarceration is a viable form of government identification. This bill will require the DOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to work together to assist an inmate in obtaining a Social Security Card, Birth Certificate and Non-Driving Photo ID prior to release from a state facility.
  • SJR 25, by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D – Greensboro), will establish a study group to address uniformity and increasing access to pre-trial and diversionary programs while also looking at best practices. The study group will be made up of legislators, members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, counties, district attorneys, judges and legal researchers.

Ivey did not express support for other policy recommendations made by her study group, however, which study group members and advocates for criminal justice reform say would free incarcerated people who, if convicted of the same crime today, would not have been sentenced so harshly.

Study group chair Champ Lyons wrote in the group’s proposals that lawmakers should consider reinstating a 2001 law that would allow some people serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual offender Act to ask the courts for relief. Prior to the law’s repeal, so-called “Kirby motions” would let some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to appeal their sentences. That  recommendation was not among Ivey’s.

Ivey is also working with the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to increase access to probation officers for parolees, according to her office’s statement Thursday, and has recommended several budget increases. 

 Ivey suggests an increase of $4.2 million to expand prison education programs, $1.8 million to expand the Stepping Up program, a nationwide initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail, and an increase to hire correctional officers to meet a court order to do so. She also recommends hiring 104 additional mental health professionals for state prisons. 

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The U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report that found that conditions in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed men’s prisons is likely violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. State officials remain under pressure to fix Alabama’s ailing prison system or face a federal takeover.

At least the twenty-eight people serving in state prisons died in 2019 as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide. The 14 prison homicides in 2019 was more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009. 

Ivey’s announcement Thursday supporting criminal justice legislation comes as ADOC staff continue to push her plan to construct three new prisons at an estimated cost of $900 million, a plan Ivey and ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn say would increase safety for the incarcerated and prison staff and replace numerous dilapidated facilities.

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