Creola City Councilman Harold Martin was acquitted of a misdemeanor menacing charge at a Dec. 3 bench trial after prosecutors chose not to call on a man once thought to be a crucial witness.
Martin was accused of brandishing a gun during a heated conversation with fellow Councilman Ralph Avis Walker outside the Creola Police Department last November. Martin and Walker both agreed in court that the subject of their Nov. 30, 2017, conversation was Martin’s wife.
That’s about where the similarities in the two men’s version of events stop, though. Walker has maintained that, while seated in his truck, Martin pulled a handgun from his pocket and put it in his lap so it was pointed in Walker’s direction while telling him to stop “bullying my wife.”
On the stand, though, Martin maintained he never touched a gun while speaking with Walker that day, and added, while he is a gun owner, he doesn’t own the kind of nickel-plated .22 caliber pistol Walker described in court and wouldn’t keep it stowed in his pocket if he did.
No physical evidence was ever submitted to the court, and there was also no security camera footage available from outside the police station on the day of the incident.
According to Creola Police Chief Harold D. Kirkland’s testimony, it would have long been recorded over by the time it was requested in a subpoena from Martin’s lawyers, and even if the footage had been preserved, the cameras wouldn’t have caught the incident clearly.
After about an hour of testimony, Mobile County District Court Judge Jill Phillips found Martin not guilty because, according to her, the state ultimately failed to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I feel very relieved,” Martin’s attorney, Buzz Jordan, said after the verdict. “[Martin] is committed to the city of Creola as a councilman. He and Mr. Walker were friends, and they haven’t had any incidents before or after. I think everything is going to be fine going forward.”
Jordan appeared to build Martin’s defense upon the lack of tangible evidence presented by state prosecutors and the way Alabama law defines menacing — any physical action “that places or attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury.”
Walker was asked many times how he felt when Martin purportedly pulled out a pistol and laid it in his lap while speaking to him, but he gave varying answers at different times. At first, he redirected the question, asking Assistant District Attorney Beth Stepan: “How would you like for one of your friends to pull a gun on you?”
He later said it “made me a little angry.” However, when Jordan pressed the issue further, it caused a particularly heated exchange during Walker’s cross-examination.
“I’m not interested in answering your questions anymore,” Walker told Jordan at one point.
After being reminded by Phillips he was a sworn witness in a criminal trial and had to answer questions, Walker told the court: “No, I wasn’t scared of Martin.” He also testified he’d regularly attended council meetings since the incident occurred.
While the trial wound up being one man’s word against another’s, that wasn’t always supposed to be the case. Former Creola Police Sgt. Donald Turberville was, at one point, a potential witness for the prosecution because he signed the criminal complaint against Martin leading to his criminal charge. But while Turberville attended the trial, he was never called to testify.
Stepan did not take questions after the verdict was handed down, but Jordan told reporters he believes prosecutors realized Turberville would not have been a credible witness because of recent accusations that he fabricated a report about being shot at in the line of duty.
Turberville reported being fired upon by an unidentifiable motorist during a traffic stop in Creola in the early hours of Nov. 12. However, an external investigation by the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office immediately raised questions about Turberville’s claims.
While he initially stuck by his story after refusing two chances to take a polygraph test, days later Turberville admitted things “did not happen the way [he] said” they did. He resigned from his position with the Creola Police Department late last month.
“As those incidents have occurred recently with the [MCSO] investigation, I think the DAs realized he wouldn’t be a very believable or credible witness,” Jordan added. “So, they did not want to call him.”
Trial testimony also raised issues about the veracity of Turberville’s claims against Martin.
In Alabama, an officer can only arrest someone for a misdemeanor if it occurs in the officer’s presence. Given that he signed a sworn complaint and then later told reporters he witnessed the Nov. 30, 2017, incident, Turberville was long believed to have been an eyewitness.
However, according to Walker, Turberville was not present at the truck when Martin allegedly pulled a gun on him that day and only found out about it when he told him afterward. Walker said he was asked if he wanted to press charges against Martin at the time but declined.
In all, Jordan said the case brought against Martin has been one of the strangest he’s handled in his legal career.
“I’m suspecting that somewhere along the line this has some political background, and we may never be aware of how this came about,” Jordan said. “This whole thing has been strange from the first day, and you’d have to ask Mr. Turberville about that.”
Martin didn’t personally take questions from reporters after the trial, while Walker spoke briefly t0 say he still “can’t believe” Martin’s behavior on the day in question. Walker said he wouldn’t let the incident or the trial impact city business, but added he’d be keeping his distance from Martin.