The wheels of justice: active homicide cases in Cullman County, part 1

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Top row, left to right: Andrew Maresh, Tyler Hudson, Susan Smith, Jeffrey Hugh Brown and Crystial Ballenger; bottom row, left to right: Jerome Flanigan, Kayla Thursby, Robert Gene Espy, Jr., Kenneth Malone and Jason Crawford (Cullman County Sheriff’s Office)

Editor’s note: All persons are considered innocent until proven guilty.

CULLMAN, Ala.  – It has been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and Cullman County is no exception, with active homicide cases dating back to 2013, based on incidents back to 2012. The Tribune is reviewing those cases and reporting on their current statuses and actions taken this year.

Andrew Maresh, Tyler Hudson, Susan Smith – murder of Daniel Osborn in Feb. 2018

Maresh and Hudson were indicted for murder May 24, 2018. Smith was indicted a week earlier, on May 17, on the charge of hindering prosecution and murder as an accessory.

  • Maresh, represented by Florence-based attorney Tony Hughes before Circuit Judge Martha Williams, has been awaiting a mental evaluation since last year, after pleading not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and requesting the examination. When Hughes filed a motion asking the state to reveal any deals offered to co-defendants, the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office revealed that no offers had been made. Pending the mental evaluation, the case has been continued (trial or hearings postponed) indefinitely. Maresh is in jail.
  • Hudson, represented before Williams by Johnny Berry and Brandon Little, changed his plea in March from not guilty to not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. A request for a mental evaluation claimed that he has long suffered from anxiety and depression which have become worse since he has been in jail. The request was granted in May, and no action on the case has been reported since. Hudson is in jail.
  • Smith, represented before Williams by Champ Crocker, has received two continuances this year.  She is out on $25,000 cash bail, and a request to convert the bond to property and return the cash was denied. Most recently, her case was scheduled to come before the court in August. 

Jeffrey/Jeffery Hugh Brown, Crystial Ballenger – murder of Hoss Benham in March 2014

Brown, whose first name appears under two spellings in court records, and Ballenger were indicted on Oct. 20, 2015 on charges of capital murder of a child under 14 years of age, capital murder involving sexual abuse, aggravated child abuse and sexual torture in the death of toddler Hoss Benham, Ballenger’s son. Benham died on his first birthday; examination of his body indicated blunt force trauma and multiple signs that he was tortured in a sexual manner.

  • Brown, represented before Williams by Sara Baker, has received five continuances this year, including two due to conflicts in his attorney’s schedule. The most recent motion, made by the defense earlier this month, said that “review of certain evidence by experts is incomplete,” and noted a “new statement by Co-Defendant which has not been acquired by Defendant.” Brown was on the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket, but recent developments could push his trial to early 2020. He is in jail.
  • Ballenger, represented before Williams by Melvin Hasting and Michael Haynes, has received two continuances this year, and likely a third. Earlier this month, she submitted a handwritten request for the removal and replacement of court-appointed attorney Melvin Hasting. The request was denied. She is on the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket, but her trial may be postponed until after Brown’s. She is in jail.

Jerome Flanigan, Kayla Thursby – murder of Leslie Anne Clements in Sept. 2016

Flanigan and Thursby were indicted May 17, 2018: Flanigan on charges of murder, arson (setting fire to his own home in Colony after the murder), and theft of property; Thursby on charges of murder and theft of property. Prosecutors allege the pair strangled Clements and stole her car.

  • Flanigan, represented before Circuit Judge Gregory Nicholas by Thomas Drake, received four continuances this year, two due to scheduling conflicts on the part of his attorney. In June, Drake filed a request for the court to reconsider Flanigan’s bail; two weeks later, the District Attorney’s Office objected, labeling the defendant a “danger to himself and the community.” He currently remains in jail, and is on the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket.
  • Thursby, represented before Nicholas by Sara Baker, has received three continuances this year, two because the defendant had to appear in court for another case. She is scheduled for trial on the Aug. 12, 2019 docket, but is also scheduled for another trial in Cullman at the same time, on a separate drug charge and with a separate attorney. Thursby is out on bond.

Robert Gene Espy, Jr. (co-defendant of John Edward Cole) – murder of Frederick William Galin in Dec. 2013

Espy, represented before Williams by Michael Burleson, was indicted Apr. 2, 2014 for murder, first-degree hindering prosecution, first-degree theft of property and two counts of first-degree burglary. His co-defendant Cole was considered to be the person who actually killed Galin when the pair invaded the victim’s home.  Cole agreed last year to plead guilty to the most serious offense and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Espy has received four continuances this year with reasons not listed, but appears on the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket.  He is out on bond.

Kenneth Malone – murder of Joshua Adam White in July 2018

Malone, represented before Nicholas by Wayne Fuller and Michael Fuller, was indicted Feb. 13 of this year for both murder and reckless manslaughter, which would allow a jury options in considering the severity of his actions.  He is accused of striking White in the head with a loaded firearm, which discharged on impact, killing the victim.

Claiming self-defense, Malone’s attorneys made a request in April for a “Stand Your Ground” hearing to determine if the murder/manslaughter case should even move forward.  That hearing has been twice postponed due to schedule conflicts, and the trial has been continued until after that hearing takes place.  Malone is out on bond.

Jason Crawford – murder of Tiffiney Crawford in May 2017

Crawford, represented before Williams by Huntsville-based attorney Robert Tuten, was indicted May 22, 2018 for murder.  The case was scheduled for trial in April of this year, but an attorney’s schedule conflict led to a continuance until June.  A subsequent continuance, issued in May due to another schedule conflict, pushed the date into August.  In June, another conflict was cited and the case was continued with no reassignment date given.  Crawford is out on bond.

Why so many continuances?

One of the most visible factors in the court record of many cases is the presence of continuance after continuance, often with no reason given. The Tribune asked Nicholas to comment on common reasons why continuances can stack up.

Note: since some of the cases being examined by The Tribune are before Nicholas, he was not asked to address any specific case or continuance, but simply to speak about common reasons for case delays based on his experience on the bench.

Nicholas said, “Every case, of course, has its own unique situational problems.  Usually there are reasons given at the bench when that motion is filed.  And sometimes, it’s a witness problem, because witnesses who are material to the defense, if it’s filed by the defense attorney, are unavailable.  Sometimes there are discovery issues where there’s some documents or perhaps photographs, or some sort of forensic evidence that the defense has learned about, so they need additional time to review that and prepare adequately the defense.

“Sometimes, of course, the state files because, as you know, a lot of the problem in the first few years with a lot of these murder cases, (is) it takes so long to get forensic evidence back from the state lab now, because of the financial problems that the state has been having.  There are just so many cases going up to that state lab, and they’ve just got to get in line, and that sometimes takes a while.

“At one time, it was taking, just on a drug case, it was taking a year and a half to two years to get those forensic lab results back, to establish that, in fact, the white substance that was obtained was cocaine or the green leafy substance was marijuana.  And they’ve just got to put it through those tests and there’s, unfortunately, not a lot of staffing there because of the financial problems the state’s experienced.”

Note: Part 2 of this series will be published next week.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com