The trespassing trial of former Cullman High School principal Elton Bouldin has ended in a mistrial after a witness in the case made contact with a family member of one of the jurors.
Bouldin was on trial for the third time after he and CHS assistant principal Mark Stephens were arrested in April 2016 after visiting the home of a former senior student, Justin Butts, to investigate a handgun at the center of an alleged threat made against a classmate during a field trip.
Bouldin was found guilty of third-degree trespassing in a trial in October 2016, and an appeal of that conviction ended in a hung jury in August 2017.
Former Jefferson County Circuit Judge Scott Vowell, who presided over the case, declared the mistrial Wednesday morning as the second day of the trial was set to begin.
As part of the mistrial, the previous conviction of trespassing has been vacated, and the state will not pursue the case any further.
Before the trial was set to resume, bailiff Cheyenne Parker reported that a juror had come to her and told her that Justin Butts had reached out to his son about him being a juror in the case.
Butts was called into the court room and questioned by the defense and prosecution, and said he has regular conversations with the juror's son over Snapchat, but has never met him in person.
He said the son was the one who said his dad was on jury duty, and sent a picture of his father to Butts to ask if Butts had seen him in the trial.
Butts said he had seen the juror in the trial, but they had no further communication about the trial and he had not made any attempt to influence the case.
"We didn't have any communication about the trial or anything like that," he said.
Both the defense and prosecution reviewed Butts' phone, and the court found that he and the juror's son communicated regularly on Snapchat, including 14 snap messages that had been exchanged between them Tuesday morning.
Because Snapchat messages are automatically deleted after viewing, the content of the messages could not be confirmed.
After hearing Butts' testimony, the juror's son was then contacted by phone. He said Butts had asked him if his father was on the jury for the case, and he had sent a picture of his dad to Butts to confirm that it was him.
He also said that Butts had not asked anything else about the case or tried to influence it in any way.
After the prosecution brought up the idea of removing that juror from the jury and carrying on with the trial, Vowell said he needed to be sure that the jury had not been tainted by the alleged contact, even if there wasn't an attempt to influence the case.
"We don't want this jury tainted whatsoever by what Justin has done, whether it was intentional or not," he said.
After hearing the testimonies, Vowell joined the defense and prosecution in his chambers to discuss the matter further, and came back with the agreement for a mistrial based on the allegations of juror contact.
"Today, Dr. Elton Bouldin can move past the cloud that has hung over him for two years. The state, defense and the court agreed for the underlying conviction for a violation to be vacated and for the case to be dismissed. The Prosecutors in this case were one hundred percent professional and I respect them. I am proud for Dr. Bouldin and his family today — now they can move on to the next chapter of their lives," said Cullman attorney Champ Crocker, who was part of Bouldin's defense team.
Bill Dawson, a Birmingham attorney who also represented Bouldin, added, "In 49 years of practice I've never had a better client or a client who was more innocent."
After the trial, Bouldin said the complaint that brought him to court in 2016 should never have proceeded.
"I'm hopeful, after looking at my situation and the experiences of the last two years, that the Legislature will remedy it," Bouldin said. "Educators performing their duty in good faith and due dilligence should not be subject to arrest based on a written statement. There should have been an investigation, and if that had happened this would not have moved forward."
Bouldin said he is glad to put the case behind and remains proud of his career in education and the work he did through Cullman City Schools.
"For administrators to believe they can be arrested without an investigation has a chilling effect," Bouldin said.
Tyler Hanes can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 138. David Palmer can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 116.