“I’m not trying to be Scrooge here,” said an Alabama defense attorney who wants his cases postponed until a courthouse Christmas tree decorated with photos of violent-crime victims is removed.
“I have four Christmas trees in my own house,” Billy Joe Sheffield II, of Dothan, Ala., was quick to point out.
He believes the tree — decorated with photos of victims — jeopardizes his clients’ right to a fair trial.
The tree was put up by the local chapter of Victims of Crime and Leniency, a statewide organization that supports crime victims and seeks to balance victims’ rights against those of defendants, according to its website.
“If I was on a jury, and on my way into the courtroom I saw a Christmas tree and a display with the words ‘against leniency’ alongside pictures of murder victims, I might be influenced,” Sheffield said. (The “a” in VOCAL stands for “and,” not “against,” a mistake that an Internet search showed to be common enough, even appearing in the Dothan Eagle’s Dec. 1 article on Sheffield.)
“No one would want a sign outside a courtroom saying, ‘DNA has exonerated these 2,000-plus people,’ with their photos,” Sheffield said — or a Mothers Against Drunk Driving poster outside a DUI trial, he said.
Sheffield filed motions that “10 to 15″ trials scheduled for next week be deferred until after the holidays, when the display would be gone. Judges have already denied several of the motions, which he has renewed, he said. Other motions have yet to be decided, he said, adding that ”two [trials] are probably going forward.”
“I had to put something on the record” that might bolster an appeal on jury-bias grounds if one of his clients is convicted, he said.
Sheffield has not asked that the tree be removed, saying, ”I’m a longtime supporter of VOCAL and have donated money to them.”
“I just don’t think a pro-D.A. organization – one that’s funded by the D.A. — should turn a Christmas tree into a statement against leniency,” he said. In 2009 the Dothan Eagle ran an article that, quoting state records, said VOCAL received $167,000 from the Houston County District Attorney’s office in 2007-08.
Houston County D.A. Douglas A. Valeska’s online bio says he is chairman of the board of VOCAL.
Pat Jones, the founder and president of the Southeast Alabama chapter of VOCAL, said the display would not bias jurors, the Eagle reported.
“I just think he … wants the month of December off or he ain’t ready for his cases,” the article quoted her as saying.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m extremely prepared,” Sheffield said. “Pat knows me well. I know her well. I’d assume she knows that’s not accurate.”
Sheffield said he “wasn’t sure” what precedents other such cases had set, and that this was the first time he’d faced the issue. In the past, VOCAL had erected Christmas trees in front of the courthouse but never in the lobby, he said.
“Case law and the Constitution are pretty clear: An individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty. That’s why jurors aren’t allowed to read press reports,” Sheffield said.
Sheffield said he was strictly a paid attorney, not a court-appointed defender.
“We’re not cheap,” he said. “You’d expect your attorneys to preserve your rights. I’m just trying to do my job.”