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Russell County courts: Sumbry trial could be postponed

The trial of Phenix City Councilman Arthur L. Sumbry Sr. could be delayed after a judge ruled his co-defendant will be tried first and separately from Sumbry.

Judge Jacob A. Walker III denied prosecutors’ motion to consolidate the forgery and perjury cases of Sumbry and Ella Mae Sanders. Sanders will be tried Aug. 29, and Walker will hold a status conference the next day to determine a date for Sumbry’s trial, according to court records.

Sumbry’s attorneys on Thursday filed a motion asking the court to use separate jury venires in the cases of Sanders and Sumbry, saying the move would help ensure Sumbry is tried by an impartial jury.

Separately, Walker has ruled that prosecutors may not introduce in their case in chief evidence of Sumbry’s prior convictions. He left open the possibility, however, that Sumbry’s convictions for false voter registration and perjury may still be used “if the door is opened” at trial.

Sumbry is accused of notarizing a deed for Sanders that contained a forged signature, and then lying about it under oath in Russell County Circuit Court. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty to the felony charges and are free on $2,500 bond.

At a hearing in June, Walker said he was unlikely to allow prosecutors to delve into Sumbry’s previous convictions, in part because they are more than 30 years old.

Sumbry was convicted in 1980 of unlawful voter registration and received two years of probation after he was accused of illegally helping residents register to vote in a City Council election. In February 1981, he was convicted of first-degree perjury.

Sumbry later received a pardon for his convictions, court records show.

Prosecutors had argued that Sumbry’s prior convictions are relevant to his current charges because they show that Sumbry appreciates the gravity of testifying under oath. Walker, however, cited an article in the Alabama Rules of Evidence that allows evidence to be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

“I think right now going back 30 years is somewhat unfair,” Walker said at the June hearing.

Walker also has denied a defense motion for deputies to serve personally all potential jurors who do not respond to the mailed jury summons. Sumbry’s defense attorneys said they filed the motion to ensure the jury pool is made up of a “fair cross section of the community,” noting minorities and poor people are historically less likely to respond to a jury summons by mail.

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