On Friday, Circuit Judge Malcolm Street declared a mistrial after a week-long court case. The jury, which deliberated for about nine hours over a two-day period, was unable to unanimously decide whether Mayor Garry Bearden lives in a house he owns in Weaver or in a second home he owns in Anniston.
The case is now poised for retrial, but Street told reporters that if a second trial does not begin before the next municipal election the case will be moot. That election is set for August, and candidates must qualify in July. Street said that rescheduling the case before then will be difficult, because the case log is already busy for the coming months.
Jurors told reporters that the 12-member group was split 10-2. Ten jurors believed Bearden had not violated a law that states elected municipal leaders must live in the cities they are selected to serve. According to some of those jurors, two members believed the mayor had violated the law.
The judge told the jury before deliberations began on Thursday that each member should focus on the question of legal residence, or domicile. That is the place a person “intends to return after any temporary absence,” Street said.
“The issue is not about whether you abandon a residence or not,” Street said. “It’s about whether you abandon your domicile or not.”
It was on that issue that most jurors sided with Bearden. The majority of jurors said they did not believe evidence supported the plaintiff’s notion that Bearden abandoned his domicile, or primary place of residence.
A family or couple can have many residences, Street said, but only one domicile. Someone must intend to leave their domicile and physically move away from it to legally abandon it, the judge said.
Weaver City Councilman Michael Warren filed the suit against the mayor. His attorney, Shaun Quinlan, had the burden of proving that Bearden abandoned his ranch-style Weaver home of 30 years. He additionally had to prove that Bearden moved into his Anniston farm home, built between 2005 and 2006.
Quinlan provided several documents, including pistol permits, drivers licenses and campaign documents showing that Bearden and his wife, Janet Bearden, began listing the Anniston home as their address in 2007. He also submitted several documents showing the Beardens changed the address on those documents after the suit was filed.
Quinlan also submitted evidence concerning Bearden’s polling place, which changed several times in the past five years. In one instance, the Calhoun County Board of Registrars moved Bearden’s polling place from Weaver to Anniston after an investigation into accusations he was voting at the wrong place.
Quinlan also submitted property tax records showing Bearden’s homestead exemption changed in 2007 to his Anniston property, when the couple moved into the home there. Bearden changed his homestead exemption back to the Weaver home after the residency suit was filed in 2011, according to other documents submitted as evidence in the case.
But none of that evidence was enough to convince all jurors that the Beardens had abandoned their Weaver home on Ridge Drive. Some jurors said the mayor followed the law closely enough to avoid technically violating it.
“He knew what he was doing, whether right or wrong, but he took that minimum effort to stay within the law,” said juror Jason Sutton.
The Beardens said in court that they moved back to the Weaver home full-time about a year ago. They also said that they live in both residences.
Bearden’s attorney, Gene Rutledge, said repeatedly in court that the suit was politically motivated. Rutledge said that it stemmed from what he called a successful attempt to foil Bearden’s shot at a bid for an Alabama House of Representative seat in 2010.
At least one juror said she agreed with Rutledge’s assessment of the case.
“This was a waste of taxpayer money,” juror Tammy Salem said, indicating she believed the complaints were connected to the House race.
Salem’s comments echoed those of Rutledge in his closing argument.
“Think about how much this cost,” he told the jury in court. “Think of the hours we have wasted up here without any evidence whatsoever that Garry Bearden has abandoned the residence.”
Street declared the mistrial at noon. Earlier in the morning, the judge implored the jury to come to a decision.
“It is your duty to reach a verdict if you can do so,” Street told the jury. “I urge you to cultivate a spirit of harmony and tolerance.”
But after hours more of deliberating, jury foreman James Nolan told the judge he did not believe the jury would be able to reach a unanimous conclusion, even if it continued discussing the details of the case.
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.