7/14/09 – NWA: 2 Alamo Bible beliefs off limits, judge says

NWA News
July 14, 2009

2 Alamo Bible beliefs off limits, judge says

Prosecutors at evangelist Tony Alamo’s trial will not be able to elicit testimony about Alamo’s beliefs that the Bible does not prohibit polygamy and that girls are ready to be married when they begin menstruating, a judge said Monday.

On the first day of Alamo’s trial in U.S. District Court in Texarkana, U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes also said that prosecutors and witnesses will not be able to refer to the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries as a “cult” or its complex in Fouke as a “compound.”

He also said witnesses may not refer to marriage as a “sealing” or any punishment as a “proverb.” But he said victims may testify about being forced to fast as punishment.

Barnes outlined his ruling on a request by Alamo’s defense team after a day of culling a pool of potential jurors for Alamo’s trial on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines from 1994-2005.

Wearing a loose-fitting charcoal suit and a gray-and-black striped tie, Alamo leaned back in his chair as Barnes and the attorneys spoke. He appeared to have lost weight since the last hearing in the case in October. His full beard has been trimmed to a neat mustache and goatee, now white instead of salt-and- pepper, and his thinning hair has turned from dyed black to gray.

Prosecutors had hoped to present jurors with “significant evidence” on Alamo’s views on polygamy, arguing that it helped explain why he took underage girls as wives. Prosecutors also had hoped to elicit testimony from as many as 13 women who are not named as victims in the indictment but have had sexual relationships with Alamo.

Defense attorneys said Alamo’s religious beliefs and relationships with adult women have no bearing on the charges and that the information would unfairly prejudice jurors.

Barnes made the ruling during a closed conference with attorneys last week, but the details weren’t known publicly until Monday. He read the ruling in court, along with rulings on other pretrial motions, but did not offer detailed explanations. Barnes did say he would allow testimony from two women who are not victims in the case but were underage at the time they purportedly had sexual relations with Alamo.

Don Ervin of Houston, Alamo’s lead defense attorney, said he was happy with the judge’s ruling, adding that Alamo “is not a polygamist.”

“He’s pretty much had one woman at a time as far as I know,” Ervin said.

At a closed child-welfare hearing for the children removed from the ministry earlier this year, Alamo testified that he has been married to only one woman at a time, but continued to live with and support his ex-wives, Alamo’s former defense attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, has said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Plumlee said he didn’t think Barnes’ rulings would affect prosecutors’ ability to prove their case.

Earlier in the day, the 204 potential jurors showed up at the courthouse in two groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Barnes asked each group a series of questions, such as whether they have any physical conditions that would keep them from sitting during the two-week trial.

Those who had heard about the high-profile case were not automatically excluded, but more than a dozen were excused because they said they had already made up their minds.

“You don’t want to know my opinion – I lived in Fouke,” one woman excluded potential juror said as she left the courthouse.

Court officials had summoned 240 potential jurors, double the number of a typical criminal trial. About 20 were excused before Monday and several others simply failed to show up. Because of the large number of potential jurors, reporters were not allowed in the courtroom but could listen to the questioning through a speaker in the clerk’s office.

Today, the attorneys will narrow the remaining potential jurors to the 12 who will decide Alamo’s fate. Barnes said attorneys will give opening statements today or Wednesday.

Outside the courthouse, several police and security officers stood watch as Alamo was whisked inside before 7 a.m., more than an hour before the trial’s scheduled start.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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