Bayou la Batre Mayor Brett Dungan was found guilty of harassment in state court this morning — a charge that stemmed from an argument with Councilwoman Annette Johnson at a regular meeting May 14.
District Judge Bob Sherling presided over the bench trial and ultimately determined the testimony and physical evidence was compelling. Dungan would have faced only a $250 fine plus court costs, but he and his attorney have already filed the paperwork to appeal the court’s decision.Though a date isn’t set, the case will be retried before a Mobile County Circuit Court Jury sometime in the near future.
“We always respect the court’s decision, but of course we’re disappointed. Brett maintains his innocence of any sort of criminal offense,” said Dungan’s Attorney Michael Hickman. “The way the system works, we have to go through all this before we can appeal and get a jury trial, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. “
Despite the small fine, Hickman said his client was willing to pay the $500 appeal bond because they wanted to “see what a jury thinks” about the case.
From the bench, Sherling put a stop to multiple attempts by both parties to air out Bayou la Batre’s ongoing political feud in the courtroom. Instead, he urged Hickman and Assistant District Attorney Spiro Cheriogotis to guide their witnesses towards the facts of the case.
According to Sherling, the harassment charge against Dungan boiled down to three relevant questions: Was there physical contact between Dungan and Johnson, what was Dungan’s intention in putting his hands on Johnson and did that contact make Johnson feel frightened, annoyed, harassed or alarmed?
At the May 14 meeting, Johnson alleges Dungan “put his hands” on her multiple times — each contact with growing intensity. She described the last grab as “piercing” like a “hot knife.”
In the report she filed with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, she also claimed Dungan slammed his gavel in front of her before holding it above her head as if he was going to strike her.The prosecution also showed photos of a damage to the council’s dais, which Johnson said was a result of Dungan slamming his gavel repeatedly in front of her.
When Dungan took the stand, he didn’t dispute touching Johnson on the arm, but said it was only to “calm her down” and keep her from interrupting him and other council members. He also denied raising his gavel above her head, and said he “didn’t believe” he swung it hard enough to damage the council dais.
Hickman took many steps to show what he called “bias” on the part of Johnson and the prosecution’s only other witness, Councilman Austin Collier. The defense was quick to point out Collier was nominated by Johnson for his seat on the council in January.
Aside from a perceived political bias, Hickman also questioned many witnesses about Johnson’s demeanor on the council after the alleged harassment took place. One key piece of evidence is a recording from the May 14 meeting, which shows the incidents in question and how the meeting was conducted afterward.
Based on the recording, Johnson remained in the meeting for more than an hour after Dungan’s alleged harassment. Speaking to the judge with Dungan’s gavel in hand, Hickman said it would be “inconsistent for (Johnson) to sit there for another hour and a half with a man who she says had threatened her.”
“I stayed calm and reflected on the fact that I had a job to do,” Johnson said in response. “I had eye contact with people in the meeting, and I felt protected by the officers in the room.”
Johnson has since swapped seats with councilwoman Ida Mae Coleman and also said she left immediately following the meeting — heading straight to the police station to file charges against Dungan.
Hickman also pointed to the inaction of the two police officers who attended the meeting as further proof the incident “wasn’t a big deal.” Something Johnson and Collier disagreed with on the stand.
The only evidence submitted by the state were Johnson and Collier’s testimonies, the audio recording from the meeting, photos of alleged marks and bruises on Johnson’s arm and a photograph of a crack in the council’s dais between Dungan and Johnson’s seat.
“I pray we can get the decorum back in our council so we can continue to do the business of the city,” she said. “It’s sad we get to a situation where people can’t control their emotions and it can cause somebody else to fear for themselves.”
However, Johnson did say she was making strides to address some of the procedural issues Dungan has raised about they way she conducts council business. She said she was trying to be more conscience of Robert’s Rules of Order and “be more respectful of the mayor in that way.”
As Johnson left the building, Hickman spoke to reporters and painted a different picture — one of political motivations and animus towards Dungan. He even alluded to previous claims the charges were motivated by the hostile politics that has kept Bayou la Batre in headlines recently.
“Mayor Duggan sued Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Collier and two other council members for violating state law, and guess what, within three weeks of him filing a lawsuit on these folks, he’s charged with the first criminal offense he’s ever been charged with in his entire life,” Hickman said. “I can tell y’all right now what’s coming next. In Mrs. Johnson’s little world, she believes she’s able to use this conviction to someway impeach the mayor. That’s not going to happen.”
Updated at 8:04 p.m. June 24, 2015 to correct grammatical errors.