Judge likely to merge Arthur Sumbry's criminal cases

A visiting judge said this morning he is "leaning" toward combining the pending criminal cases against former Phenix City Councilman Arthur L. Sumbry Sr., but he did not set a trial date after a hearing in Russell County Circuit Court.

Sumbry, 71, has been under indictment since January 2011 on charges he notarized a forged warranty deed and lied about it under oath during a related civil trial. He'd been set to go on trial in May, but his proceedings were delayed after he allegedly sought to influence a potential juror and was arrested on new charges.

Prosecutors argued the separate indictments should move forward as one case, saying they would seek to introduce evidence of the alleged jury tampering during Sumbry's forgery and perjury trial either way. "Clearly, the only reason for the defendant in this matter to tamper or attempt to tamper with a juror is to hinder the prosecution of this case," District Attorney Ken Davis said.

Sumbry's defense attorneys contend their client would be unfairly prejudiced by consolidation. They noted the alleged crimes occurred more than two years apart. "They’re clearly not based on the same conduct," argued defense attorney Michael S. Speakman of Auburn, Ala.

Speakman cited a 2011 Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals decision out of Shelby County that reversed the murder conviction of Timothy Dane Tillman, a former pastor, because his case was "improperly" consolidated with a separate forgery case. The court found the merger caused "actual prejudice" to Tillman, who was convicted a second time this year and sentenced to life without parole.

Judge Jacob A. Walker III said he would consider the arguments and issue a ruling at a later date on the prosecution's motion to consolidate. He next took up the issue of setting Sumbry's case for trial.

Attorneys for both sides cited conflicts in January. Davis, for his part, said he expects to be out of the office for an extended period of time next month. His wife has a health issue that requires treatment out of state. “I’m keenly aware that this case is more than three years old now," Davis said, "and I’m keenly aware that we need to resolve the case."

Walker set a Feb. 15 status conference to re-address scheduling. Sumbry remains free on bond on charges of forgery, perjury, jury tampering, intimidation of a juror and solicitation of perjury. The longtime councilman withdrew his re-election bid shortly before voters went to the polls in August.

Sumbry's original charges stemmed from a warranty deed he notarized that transferred the home of an ailing 94-year-old man. Sumbry claims he witnessed the man, Ambros Adams, sign the document. But Adams' daughter claimed her father wasn't competent to execute legal documents, and a judge declared the document void after a hand-writing expert testified it was fake.

Sumbry's co-defendant, Ella Mae Sanders, was convicted of perjury last year. She was sentenced this morning to four years probation and a six-month jail sentence to be suspended upon the payment of fines and restitution.