Texarkana Gazette
July 14, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

Alamo Trial Begins

Prosecutors won’t be able to say words like polygamy, cult and compound during Tony Alamo’s sex abuse trial, U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes announced Monday.

But if witness testimony reveals such conditions existed, jurors will be able to draw their own conclusions, Barnes said.

Alamo, whose given name is Bernard LaZar Hoffman, is accused of bringing young girls across state lines for sex.

“Witnesses can testify about their own experiences but the term ‘polygamy’ is off limits,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Plumlee. “I think the objective is not to turn this into a trial on a religious issue.”

The defense wasn’t so successful with a request for the counseling records of three of Alamo’s alleged victims.

“We were notified July 9 the government had paid for counseling for three witnesses at Wellspring,” said Florida attorney Phillip Kuhn, a member of Alamo’s defense team.

Kuhn said the defense is entitled to know if the girls’ recollections had been enhanced by hypnosis.

“That is a red herring request, your honor,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner. “These witnesses gave lengthy statements long before they went to counseling to put their lives back together.”

Jenner argued as well that the records are not in the government’s possession and constitute private medical documents.

Barnes put his rulings on the record Monday afternoon after qualifying 109 Arkansans as potential jurors in the case.

They will return this morning and from their ranks, 12 will be selected as jurors and two will be chosen as alternates.

Alamo’s dark gray suit seemed a bit baggy as he sat at the defense table with his lawyers, Don Ervin of Houston, Kuhn and Texarkana attorney Jeff Harrelson.

Ervin, who is leading Alamo’s team of legal advocates, said Alamo has lost 70 pounds since his arrest last year.

“It’s the circumstances in the jail,” Ervin said of Alamo’s diminished stature. “But he’s healthy. He’s strong and he’s with it.”

The 74 year old has been held in a cell in downtown Texarkana since October 2008.

Alamo’s phone calls have been recorded since his incarceration began and his visits with female followers have been taped since March, according to court documents.

Portions of jail house conversations that mention the personalities of his lawyers, their fees or church business won’t be heard by the jury, Barnes ruled.

Prosecutors can’t refer to marriage as a “sealing” but evidence of alleged underage matrimony can be introduced.

Discussion of Alamo’s sexual relationships with women above the age of consent is off limits, unless it arises incidentally during witness testimony.

Talk of the forced fasts Alamo allegedly imposed on his flock as a consequence for rule breaking will be allowed and prosecutors can delve into allegations of beatings, as long as punishment isn’t referred to as “proverbs.”

Typically a defendant’s prior criminal history is not mentioned during the guilt or innocence phase of a trial because it could unfairly cause a jury to assume guilt.

Alamo is accused of assaulting girls while traveling to prepare for and participate in his criminal trial in 1994 for tax evasion and while he was under the supervision of federal probation officials following his release from prison in 1998.

Because the alleged abuse is intertwined with his previous brush with the law, Barnes will permit limited testimony regarding it during the trial.

Shortly before adjourning for the day, Barnes reminded the attorneys that jury selection is a “crucial time” and told them to be ready to get to work in the morning.

He said he wants jury selection to finish up in time for several witnesses to testify after the lawyers give opening statements.

Jenner told Barnes the government’s first witness is likely to take hours. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Candace Taylor and Clay Fowlkes are assisting Jenner.

Roughly half of the 204 summoned for jury duty reported in the morning while the other half filled the courtroom in the afternoon.

Those with health problems, small children at home or other circumstances that meant they were unable to serve won’t return today.

Neither will people who admitted they’ve already formed unwavering opinions about Alamo.

“I think he’s guilty of it and my opinion won’t change,” said a woman as she left the courtroom.

Because Barnes’ courtroom isn’t equipped with enough seating to hold all 104 members of the jury pool, U.S. District Judge David Folsom’s courtroom, on the Texas-side of the building, will be used to hold those waiting to be questioned by the defense and prosecution.

Barnes told the panel members to avoid media coverage of the case and to refrain from talking about it.

As the potential jurors filed in and out, white SUVs with royal blue logos could be seen parked around the courthouse. Homeland Security Protective Service Police have been brought in to help the U.S. Marshal’s service with the security of jurors, witnesses, lawyers and Alamo.

The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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