When Jorge Ruiz was sentenced in an Autauga County courtroom in early August to 99 years in prison for the accidental death of a Deatsville nurse, it marked the end of one of the more shameful stretches of injustices in Alabama legal history.
Ruiz, a Mexican national who was in the country on a proper and legal work visa, was steamrolled by a county district attorney’s office looking to appease an angry public, was jailed against normal procedures without bond, was falsely labeled as both a drunk driver and an “illegal immigrant” by local newspapers (which still haven’t corrected the erroneous stories) and had his family bilked out of thousands of dollars by attorneys and a bail bondsman.
That’s the price, it seems, for making a mistake while being Hispanic in Alabama.
But maybe one that’s too steep for the trial judge, Circuit Court Judge Bill Lewis, who appears to have second thoughts about his 99-year sentence and seems to be maneuvering for one of the weirdest do-overs in legal history.
But first things first.
There is no question that Ruiz made a mistake — a bad one. The 19-year-old was coming through Alabama on his way back to his native Mexico. Ruiz was traveling home to be with family after the unexpected death of his mother, and he stopped in Alabama to visit family members who lived near Prattville.
During the brief stay, he went to a party with family and friends near Birmingham. After working a full day, Ruiz drove to Birmingham, stayed up most of the night at the party and was returning to Prattville early the next morning, driving on no sleep. He had consumed alcohol at the party, but several hours earlier. His family members, who spoke to APR, said that Ruiz consumed a “small amount” of alcohol but that he purposely waited a period of time to avoid driving while intoxicated.
He did drive while sleepy. And on Highway 31, just after exiting the interstate, Ruiz apparently nodded off. His truck drifted across the centerline and collided — without ever slowing down — with the car driven by Marlena Hayes, a 29-year-old nurse who was leaving her shift at the hospital. The impact killed Hayes.
It was an accidental death caused by the misjudgment of a teenager. One that deserved punishment by the legal system.
The Over Charge
In most cases, such an accident — particularly one in which the victim wasn’t wearing a seatbelt — is deemed manslaughter (it is often termed “vehicular manslaughter” in other states, but Alabama lacks that designation), and the driver receives somewhere between probation and a few years of jail time. For example, the 16-year-old who killed Auburn radio announcer Rob Bramblett and his wife after falling asleep was charged with manslaughter, and sources close to that case indicate the Lee County DA is seeking a sentence in the neighborhood of 10 years, suspended, with up to one year in some form of a detention facility.
Earlier this year, a truck driver in Arizona who fell asleep at the wheel and killed 13 people on a tour bus received a four-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
But Autauga County DA Randall Houston, facing a wave of outrage from locals who were upset by Hayes’ death at the hands of a “illegal immigrant” who was “driving drunk” — claims sparked by erroneous news reports in the Clanton Advertiser and Montgomery Advertiser and on TV websites — charged Ruiz with reckless murder. The DA’s office would later recommend a sentence of 50 years.
“There is no grounds for reckless murder in this case,” said an attorney who is now involved in the case and spoke about it on condition of anonymity to avoid possible punitive action against Ruiz. “With the facts in evidence, Ruiz would have had to turn the wheel and drive purposely on the wrong side of the highway into oncoming traffic to meet that standard.”
Even if Ruiz had been driving while intoxicated, he would have received a lesser charge and a lighter sentence. He wasn’t intoxicated, though, which a toxicology report proved. But that didn’t stop authorities from using it against him, while also using that the fact that he wasn’t driving while intoxicated to up his sentence.
According to Ruiz’s first attorney, Stephen NeSmith, in Ruiz’s initial appearance before a District Court judge in Autauga County, the DA’s office told the judge that Ruiz should be denied bond because Ruiz’s blood alcohol level at the time of the crash exceeded .020, the legal limit for a minor.
But that wasn’t true.
Ruiz wasn’t arrested at the scene of the accident. Instead, he was transported to the hospital and wasn’t accompanied by a state trooper. A trooper later arrived at the hospital and asked permission to take a sample of Ruiz’s blood, which Ruiz granted. Ruiz was not arrested at the hospital and was allowed to leave. A trooper went to his residence several hours later and arrested him.
The toxicology report from that blood sample showed that Ruiz’s BAC was just .016 — well under the legal limit for adults (.08) and below the limit for minors. It was also below the threshold at which doctors believe alcohol consumption begins to impair motor function.
Still, Ruiz was denied bond because of the representation made to the court by the DA’s office, according to NeSmith.
“I can’t recall if it was the assistant DA who stated it or if that information came from a witness, the trooper in the case, but that was the only excuse for not granting bond initially,” NeSmith said. “Later, I believe, Ruiz’s attorney was able to get a copy of the toxicology report, but I did not have one at that point.”
Hinting that Ruiz was driving drunk wasn’t exactly above the attorneys in the DA’s office who worked the case. The day of the sentencing of Ruiz, assistant DA C.J. Robinson wrote on his Facebook page thanking Lewis for his sentence. Robinson also linked to a newspaper story about the sentencing and wrote, “to everyone who thinks about drinking alcohol and driving please read this article … and hand someone else the keys next time.”
This was the same DA’s office that allowed a trooper to testify that Ruiz looked and acted intoxicated after the crash, despite knowing that the trooper didn’t perform a field sobriety test and that the toxicology report in evidence showed Ruiz’s BAC was .016.
APR submitted detailed questions to the Autauga County DA’s office about every claim made by Ruiz’s family, attorneys and information from a variety of sources about the case. The DA’s office failed to respond in more than four days. An assistant to Houston confirmed receipt of the questions but no response was received.
The Bilking of the Ruiz Family
The DA’s office would not be the only attorneys to behave questionably, in the opinion of the Ruiz family. Ruiz’s father paid NeSmith $2,500 — a fact the attorney confirmed — and the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta paid another attorney $5,000. NeSmith worked only through the initial appearance and the second attorney worked a total of 11 days.
“Neither one did much,” said a member of Ruiz’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that the family could suffer retaliation. “We put our trust and money in them — we don’t have much money — and they left us with nothing.”
For his part, NeSmith contends that he worked for the $2,500 he received. When asked what he did for the money, in addition to making the initial appearance with Ruiz, he cited several phone calls to the assistant DA and meeting twice with Ruiz at the jail.
Ruiz’s second attorney, Brent Helms — who also recently represented a dead fetus in a controversial abortion case in Huntsville — worked to try and get Ruiz out on bond after obtaining a copy of the toxicology report that showed Ruiz wasn’t intoxicated.
Helms was initially successful and Judge Lewis granted a $50,000 bond. Ruiz’s father immediately contracted with a bail bonds company, Affordable Bail Bonds, to get Ruiz out of jail, putting down the standard 10 percent ($5,000).
Affordable Bail Bonds owner Lakisha Kelley said she went to Autauga County Jail and provided a check to cover the bond. But before releasing Ruiz, Autauga County Jail officers contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and reported that Ruiz didn’t have a social security number or a valid work visa.
A request for comment on the Ruiz situation did not receive a response from Autauga Jail officials.
ICE issued an “immigration detainer” request to Autauga County to hold Ruiz in custody. ICE agents took custody of Ruiz a day later, according to records and information provided by the Ruiz family, and the Autauga County DA’s office would later tell Judge Lewis that the agency had transported Ruiz to Louisiana for deportation because his visa had expired.
In light of that situation, the DA’s office asked Lewis to revoke Ruiz’s bond, forcing him back to Autauga County and to hold him without bond because his immigration status made him a flight risk. As Helms would later note in a motion filed in the case, the DA’s sole reason for revoking his bond was the ICE detainment.
However, those were mostly lies, according to the Ruiz family and two sources with specific knowledge of Ruiz’s immigration status and his time in ICE custody. Ruiz’s family members said Ruiz told them that he was never transported to Louisiana, but instead was sent to Montgomery to another jail facility, where he spent a few hours.
Two sources confirmed to APR that Ruiz never went to Louisiana or left the state of Alabama. They could not be certain that he was held in Montgomery, but they said he was returned to Autauga County within 24 hours of leaving that facility.
Again, Autauga County DA Randall Houston did not answer specific questions about this incident.
But the apparent ruse worked. Lewis withdrew Ruiz’s bond and ordered him held in the Autauga County Jail until trial. ICE officials — not exactly known for their cooperation with local law enforcement — had Ruiz back in Prattville within hours, where he remained for six months.
To add insult to the entire ordeal, Kelley, the bail bondsman, refused to return the money paid by Ruiz’s father, despite the fact that Ruiz never left law enforcement custody and his bond had been revoked.
When APR asked Kelley why she refused to return the money, she said that she met her requirement under the law and that it “happens all the time.”
“When I issue the check, that’s my requirement,” Kelley said. “Happens to people all the time. We pay the bond, the jail calls around and checks for warrants in other places and they turn whoever over to the other department. They don’t get their money back neither. That’s how it works.”
An Unjust Sentence
For the Ruiz family, it was just one more injustice in a growing string, and the worst was yet to come.
On August 14, after a trial in front of one black and 11 white jurors, Ruiz was sentenced by Lewis to 99 years in prison for the reckless murder of Hayes. It was, to say the least, a shock to his family and most observers in the courtroom.
Before issuing the sentence, Lewis went on a bit of a tirade, appearing to grandstand for the family members and friends of the victim who were in the courtroom. Lewis told Ruiz that he had exhibited no remorse, despite the fact that just minutes earlier, Ruiz, who speaks little English and required an interpreter to understand what was happening during the trial, had tearfully apologized to Hayes’ family and to the court.
Lewis’ tirade was also partially sparked by Ruiz’s refusal to accept a plea deal from the DA’s office. However, that wasn’t exactly Ruiz’s call. His trial attorney, Richard Lively, who was appointed by the court, told Lewis prior to sentencing that he had advised Ruiz not to take the deals offered by the DA’s office, because Lively felt the reckless murder charge was unfounded and improper.
And now, in a remarkable turn of events, it seems Lewis is using Lively’s remarks to launch an appeal on behalf of Ruiz on the grounds of ineffective counsel.
In an order filed two weeks ago, Lewis removed Lively from the case, appointed a new attorney, and offered a lengthy explanation that noted no appeals had been filed (Lively said he was working on the appeal and still had a few days left). The order also included quotes from the trial transcript in which Lively told Lewis that he advised Ruiz not to take a plea deal.
The order also, oddly, includes a defense to the theory that Ruiz was asleep. Lewis said that while Lively made that argument to the court, it was never presented to a jury. That theory was also presented in an APR opinion piece that was published a couple of days after Lewis’ 99-year sentence.
A few days after Lively was removed, Ruiz’s new attorney, Carlton Taylor, filed several motions, including one asking for a new trial on the grounds of ineffective counsel. The next day, Lewis issued a new order telling the DA’s office to submit a brief addressing the motion for a new trial and set an evidentiary hearing for Oct. 30.
Such things are not normal practice.
And so, things are a mess, because the legal system in Autauga County failed to dispense justice blindly. Instead, the system bent to over-punish someone because the mob demanded it.
Jorge Ruiz deserved to be punished for what he did. But what happened to him at the hands of men and women who are supposed to uphold the law and administer justice was a bigger crime.
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Opinion | Counting on good Neighbors
Even though Neighbors is likely a long shot, he’s at least got a shot. The people of District 4 need to vote in their best interest this year, not to help Aderholt get richer off the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
There’s a lot of reasons we know it’s an election year — political ads on television, presidential debates, Donald Trump super-spreader campaign rallies.
Oh, and Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt is back in his congressional district. Every couple years, Aderholt shows up. So he can “appear” connected to Alabama’s 4th Congressional District.
The 4th Congressional District starts just north of Birmingham and stretches horizontally across the state. The district includes Colbert, Cullman, DeKalb, Etowah, Fayette, Franklin, Lamar, Lawrence, Marion, Marshall, Walker and Winston counties as well as parts of Blount, Cherokee, Jackson and Tuscaloosa counties.
Aderholt pops in for a few campaign events, and then pops out to his real residence in suburban Washington D.C. He’s no more an Alabamian than Florida’s Tommy Tuberville.
Aderholt does have opposition this year in Democratic nominee Rick Neighbors, a Vietnam veteran who truly helps his neighbors. Early in the pandemic, Neighbors was passing out masks door-to-door in the district. He’s continued to help his neighbors throughout the pandemic with anything he can do.
“Being in Congress means being here and working with the people,” Neighbors says on his website. “In 24 years, Rob Aderholt has left us behind to focus on his radical agenda and gotten rich in Congress.”
That’s from a campaign website, but it’s absolutely true. Aderholt is still talking about expanding broadband access in his rural district. It’s one of the few issues he talks about every two years, for 24 years, without ever getting anything done.
Seriously. Name something Aderholt has done for his district or Alabama in the more than two decades he’s been in Congress. I won’t hold my breath.
And if you don’t think Neighbors’s campaign isn’t a little worrisome for Aderholt supporters, why are all the Neighbors signs disappearing from his district?
Adults, acting like sixth-graders, love to pull up political signs. Even in my comfortably Democratic neighborhood, some Doug Jones for Senate signs disappear. And, oddly in my neighborhood, I saw an actual Tommy Tuberville sign that had been pulled down in front of some misplaced person’s yard. It happens on both sides.
But in the 4th Congressional District, and especially in the Cullman County area, it’s hard for Neighbors and his staff to keep signs in place.
“Cullman has come down, and we have had to replace almost all our signs in Winston County,” said Neighbors’s campaign manager Lisa Ward. As for Winston County, Ward said, “we were told those are gone again.”
Can anybody be more junior high?
“We’ve seen places where our sign was, and it’s been replaced by Aderholt signs,” Ward said. “When we put signs out, we leave his and put ours next to his. We joke and say everyone needs friendly neighbors around.”
The Neighbors campaign does have the right spirit. They just work to replace the signs that disappear. But it is aggravating, to say the least.
“Someone told us that Aderholt is really worried if people find out he has an opponent or doesn’t live here he could struggle,” said Ward. “That’s why he’s not mentioning (Neighbors’s) campaign. And why we think they’re taking his signs down. So people don’t know. It’s really about people not getting a chance to know they have a choice. And there is no time to hear who he is.”
Well, here’s who he is: Neighbors served three tours in Vietnam during that war, enlisting when he was 17 years old. After the service, he got a college degree, then spent 35 years in the apparel business in North Alabama.
Neighbors and his wife, Judy, have three children, and Neighbors recently earned an MBA from the University of North Alabama.
Neighbors would be a breath of fresh air for Alabama in Washington. He won’t live there. He’ll be grounded in the 4th Congressional District.
If Aderholt wins, we won’t see him again until 2022. Twenty-four years in Congress is plenty of time to get something done. But with Aderholt, there’s not much to show for all that time.
And even though Neighbors is likely a long shot, he’s at least got a shot. The people of the 4th District need to vote in their best interest this year, not to help Aderholt get richer off the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Opinion | Election less than two weeks away
If the Republicans lose these three and one more, then Sen. Shelby loses the chairmanship of appropriations and Alabama loses all of its power in Washington.
Our 2020 presidential election is less than two weeks away. We Americans will either elect Republican Donald Trump for another four-year term or Democrat Joe Biden.
In Alabama, we will either elect Republican Tommy Tuberville or Democratic incumbent Doug Jones for six years to serve with our iconic Senior Sen. Richard Shelby. The winner will be elected to a six-year term in this august body.
Several of you took issue with my statement last week that a vote for the liberal Democrat Doug Jones is a vote against Richard Shelby and the state of Alabama. Allow me to clarify and explain to you as simply as I can why that is true and why I reiterate that declaration.
The United States Senate is steeped in and governed by time honored rules and traditions. The most revered and sacred shrine is the vestige of seniority. The rule of seniority is paramount. The longer you serve in the Senate the more powerful you become. Some become more powerful than others. Richard Shelby has become the most powerful and consequential U.S. Senator to have represented our state in Alabama history.
In my 2015 book, Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories, I have a chapter titled, “Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators.” They are Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Richard Shelby.
Sen. Lister Hill was an austere, aristocratic gentleman who was renowned for health care. He was the author of the famous Hill-Burton Act and the father of the renowned UAB Medical Center. He served 30-years in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. John Sparkman served in the U.S. Senate for 32-years. He was from Huntsville and is credited with being the father of Redstone Arsenal.
If I were writing that chapter today, Sen. Richard Shelby would be alone as Alabama’s most consequential, powerful senator in our state’s history. He is in a league of his own. During his 34-year career in the Senate, Shelby has become renowned as the bearer of good tidings and federal dollars to the Heart of Dixie. If Lister Hill was the father of UAB and John Sparkman the father of Redstone Arsenal, then Richard Shelby can very aptly be referred to as the grandfather as well as great uncle to these two premier Alabama institutions. Richard Shelby is the reason UAB and Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center are Alabama’s most prestigious as well as Alabama’s two largest employers.
Huntsville has become Alabama’s fastest growing and most prosperous city and one of America’s brightest high-tech destination locations. The City of Huntsville is soon to become the second home of the FBI. The state-of-the-art Huntsville FBI cybersecurity headquarters will employ over 2,000 very highly paid individuals. This coup for Alabama is due to one person – our senior Sen. Richard Shelby.
It is not just Huntsville and Birmingham that have benefited from Shelby’s prowess and power, it is the entire state. Every corner of the state can point to a Shelby generated road, building, industry, or military installation.
You might be asking, how has Shelby accomplished so much for our state? It is simple. It is federal dollars. Then you might ask, how does Shelby bring so many federal dollars to Alabama? It is simple. He is Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. He appropriates the United States budget, or in other words, he controls the federal checkbook.
In addition to being Chairman of Appropriations, Sen. Shelby is Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. If you do not think that is invaluable to Alabama, you best think again. There is no state in the nation that benefits more through defense preparedness and dollars in the United States than the good ole Heart of Dixie.
Under the Rules of the Senate, the political party that has the majority of members presides and makes the rules. More importantly, for Alabama, the majority party gets all the committee chairmanships. Our Senior Sen. Richard Shelby is a Republican. Currently, Republicans have a slim 53-to-47 majority in the Senate. There are three Republican incumbent senators in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, who are in serious jeopardy of losing. If the Republicans lose these three and one more, then Sen. Shelby loses the chairmanship of appropriations and Alabama loses all of its power in Washington. Suppose your vote for Doug Jones, a liberal, national, California Democrat, is the deciding vote that puts the Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate and puts Richard Shelby and Alabama out to pasture.
See you next week.
Opinion | Electing Tuberville could cost Alabama billions
If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.
Money matters in Alabama. Oh, I know that we’re not supposed to say that out loud. That we’re supposed to promote our image of southern grace and hospitality, of churchiness and care, of rich people never getting into heaven.
But the truth is greed is our biggest character flaw in this state.
Every problem we have can be traced back to our unending thirst for dollars. Our ancestors didn’t keep slaves because they hated black people. They did it because they loved money and the difference in skin color gave them an excuse — a really, really stupid excuse — to mistreat other humans to take advantage of the free labor.
Our rivers and lakes and dirt aren’t filled with poisons from factories because we’re too dumb to understand how this works. They’re that way because our politicians are paid off to turn a blind eye to the dumping of toxic waste.
Our schools aren’t terrible because we have dumb kids or bad teachers. It’s because we’re too cheap to pay for them.
You see what I mean? It’s our lust for the almighty dollar. Every time.
We love money.
Which makes me seriously wonder why so many people in this state are going to vote for a man who will cost us all — and especially our biggest businesses — so much of it.
Tommy Tuberville will be like a money vacuum for Alabama. Billions of dollars will vanish for this welfare state that relies so much on federal contracts, federal programs and federal dollars.
If you doubt this, don’t simply take my word for it. Just Google up the press releases from Sen. Richard Shelby’s office from the last, say, six years — the most recent span in which Republicans have controlled the Senate.
Almost every single release is about Shelby securing millions or billions of dollars in federal funding for this project or that project, getting the state’s share of dollars from a variety of different programs and initiatives implemented by Congress.
Shelby and I obviously have different political viewpoints, but it’s hard to argue that the man has been successful in securing money for Alabama. Lots and lots of money.
Money for airports and roads. Money for defense contractors in Huntsville. Money for the port in Mobile. Money for car manufacturers. Money for farmers.
Money. Money. Money.
Shelby can do that because of three things: He’s on the right committees, he’s a member of the party in power and he’s liked by the right people.
Tuberville will be none of those things.
Most pundits are predicting that Democrats will take over the Senate, tipping the balance of power and giving the party control of both houses and the White House.
That automatically means that a first-time senator in the opposition party will have little to no say in any decisions.
But what’s worse for Tuberville, and for Alabama, is that other Republicans don’t like him either.
Establishment Republicans essentially openly campaigned against Tuberville in the primary, tossing tens of millions of dollars behind his opponent, Jeff Sessions. They even favored third-place finisher Bradley Byrne over Tuberville.
It’s not hard to understand why — he’s clueless.
I know that’s a Doug Jones talking point, but this one happens to be true. Let me give you an example: On Thursday, Tuberville tweeted out what was meant to be a shot at Jones, claiming that Alabama’s current senator wouldn’t meet with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee because Jones knows “he won’t have much time in the Senate to work with her.”
If you’re unaware, the Senate doesn’t “work with” the Supreme Court. They’re separate entities.
Combine that with his other nonsensical answers on COVID relief, school reopenings, the Voting Rights Act, senate committee assignments, education, foreign affairs — really, the list is almost endless — and it shows how little work he’s put in over the last two years to understand this job he’s applying for.
Now, that might be just fine with Alabama voters who care more about the party affiliation and owning the libs, but it’s not OK with grownups who take the job of running the country seriously.
And those people — both Rs and Ds — don’t like Tuberville or his here-for-an-easy-check-like-always approach to one of the most serious jobs in the world.
He will be frozen out of the most sought after committee assignments. His voice will carry zero weight. His presence will be all but forgotten.
And in the process, so will Alabama. Especially in two years, when Shelby retires and his senior status is lost.
In the meantime, Jones is highly respected by senators on both sides of the aisle. He already has a presence on top committees, and is so well liked within the Democratic Party that he’s on the short list to be Joe Biden’s AG, should he not be re-elected.
The choice seems pretty simple. On the one hand is a competent, prepared and serious statesman who knows how to maneuver his colleagues to get the most for the state. On the other hand is an unprepared, uncaring, lazy carpetbagger who doesn’t understand any process.
If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.