Local women first in state on juries

Published 11:34 pm Friday, July 2, 2010

I stumbled onto an interesting bit of local and state history this week, thanks to a random email from Tim Lewis, director of the Alabama Supreme Court and State Law Library.

Tim was inquiring about a 1955 edition of The Star-News based on a tip that came to him in a roundabout way from Jan White.

On the front page of this particular issue is a photograph captioned “Legal history is written as women serve on Covington jury.” Lewis believes it wasn’t just a first for Covington County, but also for Alabama.

The six women served with six clergymen as an advisory opinion for then-Circuit Judge Bowen Simmons. They served by agreement of the attorneys representing both parties, Frank Tipler and James Prestwood, in a child custody case. Judge Simmons wasn’t to be bound by their decision in the two-day case, that drew as many as 200 spectators to the courtroom.

Jurors included Mrs. Abner Powell II, Mrs. Guy Carmichael, Mrs. Lester Thagard Jr., Mrs. L.J. Reeves, Mrs. Dige Bishop, and Mrs. E.E. Anthony Jr. Among the clergymen were three Baptists and three Methodists, the newspaper noted. They were the Rev. Sheppard Bryan, the Rev. Arthur M. Carlton; the Rev. Walter E. Kilburn; the Rev. W.O. Phillips; the Rev. Jack Clark; and the Rev. John Jeffers.

Ab Powell, who would have been about 11 at the time, was already in the habit of visiting the courtroom to watch trials. He remembered his mother’s service and some of the details of the case.

And, he said, it was common for a courtroom to be full of spectators.

“Court was an event,” he said. There were no drug cases then, no child abuse cases. Most criminal cases were murders or deadly assaults.

Former Circuit Judge Bill Baldwin said the 1955 case was very likely the first time women served on a jury in the state. His recollection was that the law had just been changed to allow female jurors and speculated that Covington County might have had the first court term after the new law took effect.

But it’s just as likely, he said, that Judge Simmons knew the case would be a hot one and decided to have an advisory jury to redirect some of the heat.

He, too, recalled that court was an event. How did people have time to go?

“Well, nowadays, they take off to go hunting,” Baldwin said. “I guess then they took time off to watch court.”

The newspaper’s account noted that the both parents had remarried since their divorce. The mother was a former secretary-stenographer of the Andalusia Chamber of Commerce and the father a former Pleasant Home basketball star and an office employee at a local wholesale grocery firm.

The jurors voted 11-1 to award custody to the mother, who “was overcome with tears and wept openly during phases of the trial and when the verdict was announced.”

“A highlight of the Tuesday morning hearing was the questioning of the child by the jury in private chambers,” the newspaper reported. “Judge Simmons retired with the jury for this questioning that continued for 30 minutes.”

Although he was an adolescent when this jury including women was seated, Powell was an adult before it became commonplace to see female jurors here.

“I started practicing law in 1967,” he said. “For the first two or three years, jurors were white men and landowners.

“There was a hat rack in the juror’s box and you’d see a dozen typical hats on it,” he recalled.

The composition of juries changed considerably within two or three years, he said.

This photograph was scanned from a 1955 edition of The Star-News and shows the first women to serve on a jury in Covington County and perhaps in the state. Identified were (front row, from left) Sheriff Cliff Meredith, Mrs. Abner Powell II, Mrs. Guy Carmichael, Mrs. Lester Thagard Jr.,  Mrs. L.J. Reeves, Mrs. Dige Bishop and Mrs. E.E. Anthony Jr.; (back row) the Rev. SHeppard Bryan, the Rev. Arthur M. Carlton, the Rev. Walter E. Kilburn, the Rev. W.O. Phillips, the Rev. Jack Clark, and the Rev. John Jeffers.