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Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams killed in the line of duty

Brandon Moseley

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via Lowndes County Sheriffs Office

Saturday night began as a routine evening for law enforcement in a small town. Lowndes County Sheriff “Big John” Williams was responding to a call at the Q V. Gas Station in Hayneville. The veteran law enforcement officer asked a young man to turn down the music on his radio. Instead of complying, the young man allegedly shot the Sheriff in the head and fled the scene. Sheriff Williams died from his injuries.

The 18-year old suspect, William Chase Johnson, is in custody.

Williams’ 40 years career in law enforcement ended tragically in the community that he served and loved.

Several Alabama leaders have expressed their sorrow at the fifth death of a law enforcement officer, killed in the line of duty this year in Alabama.

“I’m saddened to hear about Sheriff Big John Williams, who was tragically killed this evening in the line of duty,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) said. “Through his service to our country in the United States Marine Corps and his many years working in law enforcement, he dedicated his life to keeping other people safe.”

“He will be remembered as a consummate professional and pillar of his community,” Gov. Ivey continued. “I offer my prayers and deepest sympathies to his family and to the men and women of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department.”

“Tonight, Alabama mourns the loss of another law enforcement officer in the line of duty,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall (R). “Lowndes County Sheriff ‘Big John’ Williams died from gun fire while responding to an incident in Hayneville. Sheriff Williams devoted his life to law enforcement. He gave more than 40 years to public safety in his home county, serving the last 9 years as Lowndes County Sheriff. His dedication and experience are irreplaceable.

“Sheriff Williams is the fifth line-of-duty death of an Alabama law enforcement officer to gun fire this year and the sixth to lose his life overall in our state over the last 11 months,” Marshall added. “Serving the public in the role of a peace officer is a difficult calling, fraught with peril, yet thankfully many Alabama men and women choose to answer the call, often time putting their lives in danger to protect us. It simply cannot be said enough that we owe these heroes our gratitude and our support. I know all Alabamians join me in passing along our condolences and prayers to Sheriff Williams’ family and to the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office.”

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“Horrible news tonight out of Lowndes County,” Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said. “Join me in saying a prayer for the Sheriff’s family, friends, and colleagues. May God watch over all of our law enforcement as they put their lives in danger to keep us safe.”

Public Service Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh (R) said, “My heart is broken for the family of Lowndes Co Sheriff “Big John” Williams. This is another member of the law enforcement family that gave his life protecting us. Please join me in praying for his family, the community and our state.”

“We all mourn the tragic loss of Sheriff John Williams,” State Representative and Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Christopher John England, D-Tuscaloosa, said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his friends, and his department. He will be truly missed by not only the people of Lowdnes County but all over the state of Alabama. We lost a great man.”

Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R – Rainsville, also released a statement Sunday in reaction to the death of Sheriff Williams.

“The members of the House Republican Caucus join the millions of citizens across Alabama who are mourning the passing of Sheriff John Williams and sending prayers of consolation to his family, his department, and the residents he served in Lowndes County,” Ledbetter said. The men and women of law enforcement put their lives on the line every moment they are on the job, and the fact that Sheriff Williams was killed while responding to a seemingly routine disturbance call offers a tragic reminder of that fact.”

“The tremendous reaction that Sheriff Williams’ loss has prompted from the highest elected officials in the state to the friends and neighbors who loved him is a testament to a life well lived and the devotion of duty he showed to his very end,” Leader Ledbetter continued. “While nothing can adequately account for his loss, we must all demand harsh punishment for his assailant and swift justice for the crime that was committed.”

U.S. Attorney Jay Town said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and colleagues of Lowndes Co. Sheriff “Big John” Williams, who was killed in the line of duty while protecting and serving his community. All Sheriff Williams did was serve his country, state, and fellow man his entire adult life. His loss is a tragedy and the violence against our law enforcement is senseless and reprehensible.”

“Sheriff Williams’ end of watch comes too soon,” Town concluded.

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Crime

Deadline extended for Alabama prison bids due to coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that because of the COVID-19, she’s giving a two-week deadline extension for submission of proposals to build then lease three new prisons to the state.

Those proposals had been due by April 30 but the two developer teams – Alabama Prison Transformation Partners and CoreCivic – will have until May 14 to file their proposals, according to a press release from Ivey’s office Tuesday.

The decision to extend the proposal submission deadline came after discussions with two groups about the impacts each are experiencing because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, according to Ivey’s office.

“I am steadfastly committed to the strategic effort to build three new men’s correctional facilities – this ‘Alabama solution’ is a direct result of our dedication to implement actionable solutions that address long-standing challenges facing our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “Given the unforeseen circumstances associated with COVID-19, it is in the best interest of the state of Alabama to grant this extension so that the developer teams have adequate time to perform required due diligence and to prepare thorough and thoughtful proposals.”

Ivey’s plan to build three new prisons is part of her solution for fixing the state’s overcrowded, deadly prisons, which remain under threat of a federal lawsuit if state officials don’t address what the U.S. Department of Justice has said are violations of inmates’ Constitutional rights to protection from violence and sexual assault.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement that the spread of COVID-19 “has only further demonstrated the critical need for new correctional facilities in Alabama.”

“As we have stated before, overcrowded conditions within the Department’s dilapidated facilities create increasingly challenging circumstances to ensure inmate and staff health and safety,” Dunn said. “The developer teams expressed the need for an extension – due to work and travel restrictions implemented in the wake of this national health crisis – and we fully supported the extension.  Improved prison infrastructure, increased staffing, and stronger rehabilitation programs will allow for transformational results.”

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Public defender working to free some inmates in Birmingham jail amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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At least five people in the Jefferson County Jail had their paroles revoked after serving time in state prisons for non-violent crimes, and as the threat of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons increases, some are working to get them out before it’s too late.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles told APR on Tuesday, however, that the bureau doesn’t have the authority to release those inmates.

Adam Danneman, lead attorney at the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office, is concerned with the bureau’s assertion.

“They’re only in because of the violations filed by the Parole Board,” Danneman said of those state inmates in the Birmingham jail. “And they’ve already revoked these people.”

ADOC on March 20 announced a 30-day moratorium on taking prison transfers from county jails in an attempt to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak in state facilities.

Danneman told APR on Tuesday that his office is working to get released those who have already served time for non-violent offenses, were out on parole and who were picked back up on mostly technical violations.

“We’re lucky in Jefferson County that our judges and our DA and our sheriff’s department have all collaborated and used some common sense, proactive measures in this crisis to keep as many of our at-risk, non-violent citizens out of harm’s way as much as possible,” Danneman said.

Now he’s hoping the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board does the same, by releasing those who can safely be released before the deadly virus spreads behind the fences.

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It’s a matter of when, not if, Danneman said of the likelihood of COVID-19 cases in the Jefferson County Jail.

“I hope I’m wrong. I hope it never comes into the jail, but if it does it’s going to be bad,” Danneman said.

There’s been no positive COVID-19 case among state inmates as of Monday, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), but an administrative employee at one prison has tested positive for the virus.

As of Monday, 30 state inmates had been tested for the virus, but there were still seven test results pending, according to ADOC.

Criminal justice reform advocates and legal experts have been sounding the alarm for weeks over the threat of an outbreak of the virus in jails and prisons.

Older inmates and those with medical conditions are at much greater risk from serious complications and death from the novel coronavirus, health experts warn.

“The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles does not have the authority to release these offenders,” wrote Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Terry Abbott, in a response to APR on Tuesday.

Abbott said that the Parole Board has revoked parole on six of seven inmates APR inquired about, who are awaiting transport back to the Alabama Department of Corrections to serve their sentences. The seventh inmate’s case is to come before the parole board this week, Abbott said.

It was unclear Tuesday how many state inmates were serving in county jails after having their paroles revoked for technical violations. Abbott said that number would change daily and would also involve people who have already had parole revoked and are awaiting transfer to a state prison.

Nancy Aichele, 53, is among those state prisoners serving in the Birmingham jail, where she’s been since January 24. Aichele had already served more than 18 years of a life sentence for an escape charge when she was picked up on a parole violation.

Aichele was charged with escape for walking out of an ADOC facility, without injuring anyone, after being convicted and sentenced to 3 years in 1990 for forging an $80 check, according to court records. The escape charge resulted in a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

After she was released on parole, Aichele was charged with obstruction, which triggered her parole violation and returned her to serve the remainder of her life sentence.

The obstruction charge was later dropped, according to court records, but the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board revoked her parole regardless.

Willie Toyer, 55, is also in the Jefferson County Jail and was sentenced to life on a 1996 marijuana trafficking charge.

Toyer was paroled after serving 22 years and six months, but his parole was revoked for two subsequent drug charges in March; a possession charge and a misdemeanor charge of possessing prescription pills.

Toyer’s case is to go before the Pardons and Paroles Board this week, according to the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Leo Cain, 64,  was sentenced to life in 1994 on a first-degree robbery charge from 1992. He served almost 22 years before being paroled, which was revoked after he was charged with misdemeanor obstruction for giving false information to law enforcement.

Danneman said a parole officer had told Cain that his parole wouldn’t be revoked if he pleaded to the misdemeanor obstruction charge, but after he agreed to do so he was arrested and returned to serve the rest of his time regardless.

Danneman said he’s concerned about Cain because of his age, which puts him at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

“He’s not somebody who needs to be incarcerated right now, if at all,” Danneman said.

Shannon Blackman, 54, received a life sentence for a 1996 burglary and had served 23 years before being paroled. She’s had no new criminal charges, but her parole was revoked on a technical violation for not reporting to a parole officer.

Had she been charged with burglary today under the state’s new sentencing guidelines she would likely serve no more than 18 months, Danneman said.

“She’s done 23 years on it, hasn’t committed a new offense and is still getting revoked,” Danneman said.

On Sunday a man serving in jail in New York died from COVID-19, becoming the first jail inmate in that state to die from the virus.

Michael Tyson, 53, was serving for a technical parole violation when he died from COVID-19. He had failed to report to his parole officer, according to The City.

There were more than 500 COVID-19 cases in New York city jails as of Sunday, according to the news agency. 

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Crime

Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

A Birmingham man serving at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was killed by another inmate, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Dennis Benson, 40, who was serving a 36-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property, died March 30 after being attacked by another inmate, ADOC said in a statement. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Benson by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” the department said in a statement.

Benson’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death, according to the department. 

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Crime

Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Friday announced a partnership with Facebook to address price-gouging on the social media site by people looking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is no question that unscrupulous operators are trying to take advantage of Alabamians looking to buy basic necessities to protect and sustain themselves and their families during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic,” Marshall said in a statement. “What’s more, much of that illegal activity is centered online because many consumers find it easier to purchase supplies on the internet due to lack of local availability or self-quarantining. As my office seeks ways to protect our consumers, I am pleased to announce that Facebook is one of several major e-commerce platforms to respond to my call to participate in a coordinated effort to identify and shutdown online price gouging.”

Facebook has agreed to review and remove price-gouging listings and advertisements from the website, according to a press release form Marshall’s office.

The press release from Marshall’s office notes that Facebook has already banned advertising or sale of medical masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 testing kits, and the site also as prohibited products “cures” or products that claim to prevent someone from contracting the virus. 

Recent research by Digital Citizens Alliance showed, however, that many of those banned products and advertisements continue to appear on Facebook, despite the company’s March 6 announcement prohibiting them.

Alabama’s price-gouging law went into effect on March 13 upon Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25% or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing,” according to the release.

To file an illegal price gouging report visit the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division at  https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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