Thursday, May 5, 2016

Former Alabama principal Catherine Armstrong Bell, cleared of sex charges, has been denied expungement as Alabama courts repeatedly misapplied the law

Catherine Armstrong Bell
A ruling that denied expungement to a former Alabama school principal, who lost her job and home after being wrongfully accused of having sexual contact with a student, was the result of multiple butchered decisions by Alabama courts and law-enforcement officials. Even the Alabama Legislature appears to have played a role in screwing things up.

The good news is that Catherine Armstrong Bell appears to have a technical avenue by which she could get her record cleared. The bad news is that should have happened already--and would have, except for mind-boggling incompetence in Alabama's "justice" apparatus. Given that the case originated in notoriously corrupt Shelby County--where the legal nightmare for my wife, Carol, and me originated--it's possible Bell has been intentionally cheated.

Bell was arrested and charged in 2013 with three counts of being a school employee engaging in sexual intercourse with a student younger than 19 and one count of being a school employee engaging in sexual contact involving touching of a student. In late 2014, the case was dismissed after the student recanted and stopped cooperating with prosecutors.

Bell, 35, maintained her innocence all along, and the case received international attention via the UK Daily Mail, which reported that DNA and electronic evidence came back negative. The paper also reported that Bell has struggled to find work since the charges were made public.

Expungement of her record would have been a first step toward helping Bell get her life back. But Alabama "justice" officials have botched that process in astounding ways. Let's examine the actions of several dunderheads who have wrongfully kept Bell's record from being cleared. Our analysis is driven largely by review of an Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruling released last Friday. A copy of the ruling is embedded at the end of this post.

How gross is the corruption and incompetence in Alabama's "justice" system? The following "cavalcade of con artists" in the Bell case should give you an idea: (Note: Explaining this case involves a number of citations to the Code of Alabama, and that involves a lot of numbers that can be confusing. But please hang in there with us. The Bell case is a classic example of how Alabama courts cheat every-day people.)

(1) Shelby County prosecutors, "led" by District Attorney Jill Lee -- Prosecutors started the screw job in the Bell case by citing Code of Alabama 12-25-32(14) to support their claim that expungement should be denied because three of the charges against Bell involved allegations of "nonconsenual sex" and the fourth was "particularly reprehensible."

At first glance, the prosecutors appear to be on the right track because the Alabama Expungement Statute (under Sec. 15-27-2) states as follows:

(a) A person who has been charged with a felony offense, except a violent offense as defined in Section 12-25-32(14), may file a petition in the criminal division of the circuit court in the county in which the charges were filed, to expunge records relating to the charge . . .

That seems reasonable enough--until you realize what sub-section (14) actually says. Here it is:

(14) VIOLENT OFFENDER. A violent offender is an offender who has been convicted of a violent offense, or who is determined by the trial court judge or a release authority to have demonstrated a propensity for violence, aggression, or weapons related behavior based on the criminal history or behavior of the offender while under supervision of any criminal justice system agency or entity.

Our research has turned up nothing that indicates Bell has a "propensity for violence, aggression or weapons-related behavior based on the criminal history . . . of the offender." In fact, we've seen no sign that Bell has a criminal history at all.

Prosecutors found the language about "nonconsensual sex" and offenses that are "particularly reprehensible" in sub-section 15. But the statute clearly states that only sub-section 14 is to be used for determining if an individual is a violent offender who might not be subject to having records expunged. The rest of Section 12-25-32 applies to the Alabama Sentencing Commission and has nothing to do with expungement.

Were prosecutors grasping at anything they could find in an effort to punish an individual who had been falsely accused of a crime? Sure looks like it. Why would prosecutors care if a wrongfully accused party has her record expunged? If they see their role as making sure that justice is done, they should want that to happen, right? So why were these cretins in Shelby County opposing it.

(2) Shelby County Circuit Judge Dan Reeves -- Thankfully, this doofus retired from the bench in March 2016. But he still had time to show his utter incompetence in the Bell case. Carol and I have seen Reeves up close on several occasions, and he has shown that he is both a political hack as a judge and an utterly miserable human being.

Reeves denied Bell's petition because he found the charges were excluded by the provisions of Code of Alabama 15-27-2(a). That foolishness apparently left even the justices on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals scratching their heads. Here is what they wrote in Footnote No. 4 on page 3 of their opinion:

FN4 -- By citing § 15-27-2(a), the circuit court apparently found that Bell's felony charges were "violent offenses" as defined in § 12-25-32(14), Ala. Code 1975.

As noted above, sub-section 14--for purposes of the Bell case--would apply only if she had been CONVICTED of a violent offense. But she wasn't convicted of anything; her accuser recanted and essentially told prosecutors to take a hike.

Reeves denied Bell's petition because he found the charges against her were excluded by Code of Alabama 15-27-2(a). That's because the charges are not included on the list of violent offenses. And Bell was not convicted of either offense, so the section Reeves cited didn't apply anyway.

Bottom line? Reeves, by law, had to grant Bell's petition on multiple grounds--but he still could not get it right.

(3) Court of Criminal Appeals -- The geniuses on this court found there is no statutory provision for direct appeal to them on denial of a petition for expungement. Rather, the trial court's ruling in such a matter is subject to review only by certiorari.

That is correct, meaning the appellant must petition to the Alabama Supreme Court. But get this: The Court of Criminal Appeals ruling states that Bell already had petitioned to the Supreme Court. Here it is:

Bell appealed the denials to the Alabama Supreme Court and that Court transferred the appeal to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, rescinded the transfer, and then transferred the case to this Court.

Yes, you read that correctly. Bell and her lawyers (Jonathan Lyerly and Charles Cleveland) did exactly what they were supposed to do--and after all three Alabama appellate courts played hot potato with it--the petition still wound up in the wrong court. We hope you will remember that next time Alabama judges whine that the system needs more money. Fact: Judges tend to grossly mismanage the money they already have.

(4) Alabama Supreme Court -- Roy Moore and Co. apparently are so busy trying to cheat VictoryLand that they can't be bothered to actually read the Alabama Expungement Statute. It specifically says that the only avenue for review is via a certiorari petition to . . . THEM. But when they get such a petition, they send it to the wrong court--not once, but twice. (Sigh!)

(5) The Alabama Legislature -- This Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight screwed up on a couple of items:

(a) Why is certiorari review required? Why does a person who has been falsely accused of a crime not have a right to direct appeal? Certiorari review can be denied, with zero explanation. This provision makes zero sense;

(b) Legislators seem to have problems with simple arithmetic. As noted above, the legislation says the key provision regarding "violent offenses" is found in sub-section (14). But the list of violent offenses, to which the statute apparently refers, is in sub-section (15).

No wonder we are confused. The Alabama Expungement Statute appears to be horribly screwed up, and when you put it in the hands of corrupt judges like Dan Reeves, well, abominations like the Bell case ensue.

As for possible good news, but the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals gives Bell a possible avenue toward justice. It says she should seek an "extraordinary writ" under Rule 21 of the Alabama Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Perhaps that would give the appellate court an opportunity to tell the trial judges in Shelby County to pull their heads out of their asses--so that Catherine Armstrong Bell can start rebuilding her life after being the victim of horrendous injustice.


Anonymous said...

Can't imagine what this woman has been through. I pray she gets justice at some point.

Anonymous said...

This whole case smells to high heaven. I know there are some teachers who behave badly. But I also think every teacher is vulnerable to having false charges brought against them.

Anonymous said...

The accuser in this case must be from family that is politically connected.

Anonymous said...

What if you take the guilty plea because of what you lawyer told you to scare you. And not to mention they had no physical evidence at all the child was never medically examined.

Anonymous said...

My husband was convicted without any evidence. Judge Reeves sentenced to 18 years solely on the words of my daughter.

Robby Scott Hill said...

It won't get any better until the People of Alabama stop electing judges who were removed from office, judges stop hiring lawyers with expunged records & the Alabama State Bar (Keith & Tony) stops giving them a license to practice law.

Anonymous said...

It reeks of prejudice. Any conflicts? What's the background on the female prosecutor?

legalschnauzer said...

Not sure I understand, @10:28. Are you saying there was a guilty plea in the case, or there should have been one?

Do you feel it was proper for the charges to be dropped?

Anonymous said...

Good grief! This is unreal! Prayers that this woman can get her life back. I have a friend that's a teacher and she says everyone is scared to get close to kids...even if they, say, the kid just wants to hug the teacher. Fearful of someone trumping up a charge against you. Then a case like this comes along and I understand her position even more!

Thanks LS for bringing this to us. And keep us informed. I would love to know if she gets justice!

Anonymous said...


I practice law in another state. I'm sorry to say Alabama is not alone. My state's judiciary is also largely a collection of boobs wearing black robes. The best and brightest of the profession do not become state court judges. It is a national problem, and it hurts the public. I can tell you it has hurt my clients.

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for an enlightening comment from the front line, @11:53. I value comments such as yours because I think they add greatly to the conversation. I've gotten this reputation as a guy who hates all lawyers, and that is not true. In fact, I feel sorry for the honest ones because I get the impression that they feel helpless to do anything about corrupt judges. I think real reform will not happen without major input from honest lawyers, and I struggle to think of a way to make that happen.

If you have thoughts on how concerned citizens of all stripes (lawyers, journalists, former litigants etc.) could take steps to make the system better, I sure would welcome them--either here in the comment section or via my private e-mail at I realize you might not want your identity known. I promise to keep our communications confidential.

Of course, I understand if you wish to remain Anon., but would welcome any thoughts you might have in the comment section.

It's funny (in an ironic way), because when our legal nightmare started 16 years ago, I assumed the judges were the lawyers who had proven to have exceptional legal skills and intellectual powers. Instead, I've found the judges tend to be ding-dongs, and the ones in Alabama often don't even try to appear fair or impartial or knowledgeable of the law. They come across as goobers who could not hack it as lawyers and somehow managed to get enough political pull to garner votes.

My experience has been that federal judges, with their lifetime appointments, aren't much better.

Anonymous said...

LS...probably a dumb request, but can you make us Alabamans feel better by showing this is as rampant in Missouri as it is here? Is it really bad all over? I see @11:35 above, but I just can't believe it's this bad everywhere. Any stories on the judges in other states?

legalschnauzer said...

Actually, a very good question, @1:26. My experience in Missouri is not nearly as extensive as it was in Alabama. But you probably are aware of our eviction experience here, with my wife getting her arm broken by a cop because of court and law-enforcement malfeasance. Based on that, I would say Missouri is every bit as bad as Alabama--and my own brother seems to be part of the problem. The Missouri legislature (they call it General Assembly) is an abomination, based on stories I read in news. Google "Kurt Schaefer and Missouri" and see what you find. That guy is a loon, and he has lots of company.

Across the border in Kansas . . . well, that state is completely nuts, as in the book "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

MO does have a Democratic Gov. (Jay Nixon) and one Dem U.S. Senator (Claire McCaskill), so it's not as dominated by one party as Alabama. But the system here smells, too--and we're only about 60-70 miles from Kansas border, and that's scary.

I like to hope there are a few states out there where the 14th Amendment still is taken seriously, but I don't know what they would be.

Would welcome comments from readers who've had experiences with courts in other states. Are there any hopeful stories out there?

Robby Scott Hill said...

This one's going out to all the malfeasors in State Government, especially the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board & the Alabama State Bar

e.a.f. said...

and then to top it off, the Republicans are running Donald Trump..............
ah, whatever happened to the U.S.A.?

In my opinion, they wanted to ensure the woman never had a life again, hence what has happened and continues to happen. Best to change her name, location, and occupation, because her life as she knew it is over and it may have nothing to do with what she was accused of.

The story sounds like a vengeful person wanted to ruin her life.

Anonymous said...

Cathy was wronged for turning down the advances of a rather well connected male from Columbiana whom is now over banking in the state. This was the entire cause for her being framed and arrested. The only variable they did not factor in was the boy failing to keep to his script. When he had massive guilt and refused to go through with it they had no other options. But his family has taken a beating due to him finding guilt was not something he wanted to live with. Their home was foreclosed on even though payments were current, the father lost his job as did the mother, and to top it off both were denied unemployment or food stamps by Shelby county and the state.

legalschnauzer said...

Very interesting, @2:18. I assume the advances came from a man who could be described as over the "Hill"? The boy's family had foreclosure on their house, even with payments current? That's a classic wrongful foreclosure. I would be interested in learning more about this if people are willing to talk to me. If this proves out, there is some serious wrongdoing here.