Update: Phenix City Councilman Arthur Sumbry arrested on jury tampering charges

The proceedings against Arthur L. Sumbry Sr. took an unexpected turn Friday, as the longtime Phenix City councilman was arrested on new charges, including allegations he sought to influence potential jurors in his upcoming perjury and forgery trial.

Sumbry turned himself in about 4:30 p.m. on counts of jury tampering, intimidation of a juror and first-degree perjury, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said.

Sumbry’s trial on the original forgery and perjury charges, which had been scheduled to begin Monday, was postponed earlier in the day at the behest of Russell County District Attorney Ken Davis, who told the court he received “credible evidence” on Friday that Sumbry tainted his jury pool.

Prosecutors apparently presented the evidence to a grand jury the same day, and Sumbry was in and out of jail by the close of business.

The new indictments — and details of the charges — were not available because of the hour of Sumbry’s arrest. But Davis’ court motion accused Sumbry of approaching a potential member of the jury, showing him evidence to be presented at next week’s trial and soliciting perjury from him.

“The State has a serious concern that other veniremen may have been contacted by the Defendant,” Davis wrote, “and that the venire is tainted to the extent that a fair and impartial jury cannot be empaneled.”

Sumbry denied Davis’ allegations in a telephone interview several hours before his arrest, but declined to discuss the new indictments after he was released on $50,000 bond.

“I hadn’t done no mess like that. You know I know better than that,” Sumbry said. “I’ve been a federal agent. I know too much about that.”

Over defense objections, Judge Jacob A. Walker III of Lee County Circuit Court delayed the trial indefinitely after a conference call with attorneys. Walker took on the case after local judges recused themselves.

Sumbry’s defense team said they were “disappointed” at the delay.

“He was prepared to go to trial on May 14th and would have been found not guilty,” they said in a statement. “Mr. Sumbry denies all allegations of wrongdoing, and specifically denies the allegation Mr. Kenneth Davis alleged on May 11, 2012.”

The continuance was the most recent delay in a case that’s been pending since January 2011. While Sumbry’s co-defendant, Ella Mae Sanders, has been tried and convicted of perjury, Sumbry’s case has been repeatedly postponed. Earlier delays were attributed to the renovation of the county courthouse, even as other trials — including Sanders’ — were held in the makeshift setting of the former library.

Sumbry, 71, is accused of notarizing a forged warranty deed in October 2008 and lying about it under oath during a civil trial the next year. He’s pleaded not guilty to the charges and declined a plea bargain.

The prosecution’s case hinges upon Sumbry’s insistence, under oath, that he witnessed Ambros Adams Sr., an ailing nonagenarian, sign a document transferring his Phenix City home to Sanders’ son, Elliott S. McCray, who had been Adams’ caretaker.

“He said this is what he wanted to do and he was going to do it on his own and, believe it or not, he was like that,” Sumbry testified in 2009. “Whatever he needed, he brought it to me ... He had confidence in me.”

A handwriting expert found 10 inconsistencies with the signature on the deed compared with Adams’ previous known signatures, persuading a judge to declare the document null and void.

The charges against Sumbry are not the first. He was convicted in 1980 of unlawful voter registration and sentenced to two years probation amid a fuss over absentee ballots and charges he illegally helped residents register to vote in a council election, the first time he ran for a city government seat.

A few months later, Sumbry was convicted of first-degree perjury, and he also pleaded guilty to another felony unlawful registration charge. Sumbry received a pardon for those convictions in 1982, though he was later forced out of office for a time as his eligibility to hold public office was challenged.

Sumbry’s proceedings have been watched closely because of his high profile and the potential political ramifications of the case. The councilman is seeking re-election, but would be removed from office if convicted.

Council would appoint his replacement, as only a few months remain before the Aug. 28 municipal elections, but Councilman Jimmy Wetzel said there’s been no discussion of that yet.

“I think the assumption would be someone is innocent until proven guilty, and I think that’s the approach the council has taken on this,” Wetzel said. “Unless and until Mr. Sumbry is convicted, he’s innocent.”

Sumbry said Friday he would “probably” testify on his own behalf at trial.

“People have been praying for me and coming by and all,” he said. “I’m expecting prayer, and prayer changes things.”