Ab Powell: There’s an art to choosing jury

Published 11:55pm Friday, January 17, 2014

Ab Powell, the third generation in a four-generation family of attorneys, said

Covington County is an old, well-known and respected judicial circuit in Alabama.

“The Albritton firm has been here for 127 years now. My firm was started in 1907.”

But mainly, it was the geographic location that made Andalusia a legal center.

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“You had those old established law firms in Dothan, Montgomery, and in Mobile. We are in the center of that triangle, and other legal work came here.”

The profession changed locally, he said, when in the 40s when attorney Frank Tipler arrived.

“In the 50s, we got television here, and they were showing people buying insurance. That started an explosion of litigation, and any time there was an accident, Frank would go find out if they had insurance and if they did, a lawsuit was sure to follow.”

Powell said he started hanging around the courthouse watching cases when he was about 10 years old. He started practicing law here in 1967.

“We had a copy machine that would make one copy,” he said. “I think that now you could run a law office without paper. Everything is electronic, or digital.”

He recalled one of the first cases when electronics made a different.

“I was practicing law with Griffin Sykes,” he said. “We went to Pensacola to take a neurosurgeon’s deposition.”

The case involved a wreck victim, who pulled out in front of an 18-wheeler on Hwy. 331 north of Opp, near the hospital.

“Frank Tipler’s client was sent to the neurosurgeon,” he said. “Frank had gotten the guy to say, that his client had been knocked unconscious; and that, yes, he had a concussion, and he might have mental problems for the rest of his life.

“He got to talking about brain scan or CT scan, which was very new at that time,” Powell said. “He explained that it wasn’t what you see with an X-ray. ‘With this scan, we can look inside his head.’

“When it was our turn, Griffin said, ‘I’ve got one question. You did a scan on Mr. Jones’ head. You said you could literally look inside his head, is that right.’

“The doctor said, ‘Yes.’

“Then Griffin said, ‘Well, when you looked inside his head, did you see anything that might make him pull right out in front of a 18 wheeler?’ ”

Powell said attorneys are taught not to ask too many questions.

“There was one case when my dad had one question too many.

“Daddy had a 10-year-old called as a witness. We were defending the accident, and the boy had been involved. You have to qualify a 10-year-old, and the judge has to be satisfied with his competency to testify as witness.

“Daddy asked him how old he was and if he made good grades in school.

“Then Daddy said, ‘You know I’m asking you to testify as what you saw, and you’ll be sworn in to tell truth. Do you know what the truth is?’

“The boy said, ‘Yes sir. That’s what actually happened.’

“Then Daddy said, ‘Well, little Johnny, do you know what happens to little boys after they die who swear to tell truth and then don’t?’ ”

“The little boy looked at him a minute and then he said, ‘No sir. And neither do you.’

“Daddy looked up at Judge Smith and said, “Judge, I believe he’s competent.”

Powell said that his firm was known for keeping copious files on potential jurors in the days when juries were limited, basically, to white men and landowners. The same men served on juries often, he said.

“They all knew each other, and we could pretty much tell how they would vote on a case,” Powell said.

“We were trying a case over there one time and the man we were defending – this is Griffin Sykes and I again – was charged with possession of a still.

“So, we were talking about different jurors with our client.”

There were two potential jurors that the client liked, but the attorneys didn’t think would help their case.

“Our client said, ‘Leave this man on. Don’t strike him off.’

“We said our information was he was a landowner, and he wouldn’t be sympathetic to the case and we should strike him.

“But he insisted. ‘Leave this man on. I’ve known the old man all my life, and worked for him since I was 12. He’s not going to let anything bad happen to me.’

“Another (potential juror) was the owner of the Red Oak store at that time. He wasn’t one we would have left on criminal jury, either.

“But our client said, ‘No. You’ve got to leave him. I buy 100 pounds of sugar from him every week, He couldn’t stay in business if I were gone away.’

Griffin called our client by his name and said, ‘We are advising you to strike.’ But he said, ‘I just can’t.’

“The case went well, and I thought we would win anyway. But the jury came back after seven or eight minutes and found him guilty.

“We knew somebody on that jury, and we asked him. ‘How did you find that man guilty in seven minutes?’

“He said, ‘Well, the big landowner said the man had worked for him since he was 12, and he was probably making whiskey then. Then the store owner said, “I know he’s making whiskey. I sell him 100 pounds of sugar every week.” ’

“The morale of that story is that things can go wrong. Even with the best of intentions.

“There have been a lot of changes through the years,” he said. “But I think mostly for the better. There were 10 or 12 attorneys around here when I started practicing law. At one time, somebody said we have about 70 now. In spite of what you hear about lawyers, most of them are trying to help you.”

 

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