The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 29, 2013

Limestone D.A. clears major cases in 2013

Part 1 of 3

ATHENS — Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series of stories about notable criminal court cases cleared or dismissed in 2013 and those coming up in 2014 or beyond. Parts two and three will run Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Limestone County District Attorney¹s Office cleared several major criminal cases this past year. The list includes two murders, an overturned murder case, a rape, two fatal traffic accidents and a terrorist threat made by a man who brought a loaded shotgun to school.

Limestone County District Attorney Brian Jones said he inherited 10 major cases when he took office in January 2011. Five of those he could not bring to trial. Three of the accused had fled the country and have never been found. One remains in a mental facility, incompetent to stand trial and another will have to be tried by the Alabama Attorney General's Office because Jones, as a defense attorney, had once filed a document on her behalf.

Here is synopsis of the Limestone cases cleared in 2013:

Smoak - terrorist threat conviction

In March, the District Attorney's Office proved its case against Thomas Smoak, 54, of Athens.

Smoak was accused of making a terrorist threat and bringing a loaded shotgun to Athens High School in May 25, 2010, after Principal Chris Bolen suspended Smoak's son for five days for allegedly uttering a racial slur. He was sentenced to 10 years for making a terrorist threat and 10 years for bringing a deadly weapon onto school property.

He was allowed to serve the sentences concurrently.

Anderson - murder plea

In July, Lamar Anderson, 48, of Athens, accepted the D.A.'s offer to downgrade his charge from capital murder-burglary to murder in exchange for a life sentence rather than face the death penalty.

Anderson pleaded guilty to the March 13, 2011 beating and stabbing death of his estranged girlfriend, Wendy Defoe, 26, of Athens, at the abandoned Trinity School. The victim was seeking assistance at a domestic violence shelter at the time of the murder and had previously obtained a protection order to keep Anderson away.

Anderson will be eligible for parole in a decade or so.

Clem - rape conviction

In September, Austin Smith Clem, 25, of Athens, was convicted of raping a girl who was a family friend, neighbor and babysitter. Prosecutors say Clem raped the victim, Courtney Andrews, twice when she was 14. She did not tell her parents but told a friend two years later.

Prosecutors said Clem raped Andrews again at his apartment on Dec. 6, 2011, when she was 18. Andrews said Clem lured her there under the pretense of seeing the children. She said she fought Clem during this incident, including pushing him away, straightening her legs to prevent penetration, biting his collarbone and scratching his back. She told her friend about the rape the same night and then told her parents, who took her to report it to Athens Police.

Clem’s defense attorney, Dan Totten, said the victim was “a girl rejected and she got even." He said there was no proof of rape, including no evidence of a fight or DNA after she reported being raped at 18.

The case became controversial when Judge James Woodroof Jr. sentenced Clem - who had a juvenile record involving the sodomy of a boy - to probation but no prison time on one count of first-degree rape and two counts of second-degree rape. The district attorney's office is appealing that sentence.

Birge - manslaughter plea

In October, a former Madison woman once convicted of capital murder in the 2001 fatal overdose of her husband pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the crime. Kathy Diane Birge, 59, was convicted in 2003 of giving Cecil Birge a lethal dose of Soma on May 5, 2001, at their Copperfield Subdivision home in Limestone County.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction in 2007 due to a chain-of-evidence issue related to pathology evidence. Jones had hoped to retry her. However, the death of a key prosecution witness, the purging of physical evidence at the Indiana lab where the victim's body was examined and, as a result, the family's wish not to re-exhume the body prompted settlement of the case.

For the manslaughter, Birge was sentenced to 145 months - 12 years - already served in prison on forgery and theft convictions related to the manslaughter. She still has time to serve on the theft and forgery.

Arriaga - murder plea

In November, Deborah Arriaga, 51, of Decatur, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison. She was initially charged with capital murder ¬ robbery in the April 24, 2010, shooting death of Bryan Wayne Hutto, 43, of Swan Creek Mobile Home Park.

Moss - negligent homicide acquittal

In November, a Limestone County jury found Alabama State Trooper James Heath Moss of Athens innocent of two misdemeanor counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with a fatal wreck in Limestone County.

On the morning of April 25, 2011, Moss was driving at a high rate of speed to another accident to provide traffic control, when he rear-ended a car containing Jamie Lee Gossett, 31, and his wife, Sarah Rene Gossett, 38, on Lucas Ferry Road. Their vehicle was pushed into a field and burst into flames, killing the Gossetts. The Gossett family was outraged by the verdict, saying evidence showed Moss was traveling at speeds of 106 to 120 mph in the seconds before the crash.

The civil case against Moss, brought by the Gossett families, has not been settled.  

Bryan - vehicular homicide dismissal

A vehicle brake recall led to the dismissal of a vehicular homicide charge against Wes Allen Bryan of Ardmore, Tenn.

On Aug. 3, 2010, Bryan ran a stop sign at Laughmiller Road at U.S. 31 and collided with John Brent Brannon, 35, of Elkmont, who was southbound on 31. Brannon was ejected after his SUV overturned at least twice. He died of blunt-force trauma. Bryan said he tried to stop his truck but was unable. Police found no evidence of intoxication but they charged Bryan with running a stop sign.

Jones said he had to dismiss the charge against Bryan after learning that his truck had been recalled for possible brake problems and Bryan had never been notified of the recall.