Deliberation will continue by the jury hearing a lawsuit between Creek Land and Cattle owner Blair Dance and St. Mary’s Historical Cemetery Association on Friday. The jury was out for almost four hours Thursday, starting at 1:23 p.m., when Judge Bob Carroll dismissed the 40th Judicial District Court for the day.
The cemetery association filed a lawsuit against Dance’s company after it began property development. The cemetery grounds are the final resting places of many of the association members’ relatives.
Allegations made by the cemetery association are that Dance constructed a road, installed fence posts and is farming over unmarked graves. The association also alleges there were tire tracks in the cemetery and tombstones are missing.
Several association members have testified visible grave markers existed in the foliage on cemetery ground and those markers were removed by Dance’s workers.
The cemetery is located off of Hughes Cemetery Road near Italy. In earlier testimony to the court, Elmarine Bell, a cemetery association member, found work happening on the property March 24, 2012. She said the association was formed in September 2014.
In closing arguments, Craig Albert, the plaintiff’s attorney, reminded the jury that it is important to remember history and to honor the past.
“St. Mary Historical Cemetery is something that needs to be preserved like this courthouse (Historic Ellis County Courthouse). The preservation of the cemetery needs to go on for future generations,” Albert said. “Mr. Dance visited the cemetery frequently enough to know what was there. Mr. Dance headed out like a lone ranger to do something. There are many different ways that he could have done this.”
Albert said Dance could have contacted a number of different organizations before beginning work such as the Texas Historical Commission and the Ellis County Historical Commission to find out more information about the cemetery. He added that Dance even could have posted notice at the cemetery to notify the public about the work that was going to take place.
Albert said several witnesses such as Deborah Franklin and Bell talked about the found artifacts at the cemetery and their cultural significance to the black community.
Albert reminded the jury about an email written by Dance to surveyor Keven Davis. In the email, Albert read that Dance had asked Davis to “manipulate” the original survey to add the notes about a road on the property to read “unimproved field road and/or old gate.”
“This is our one chance today to make right what was done wrong in 2012,” Albert said.
Joel Reese, one of Dance’s attorneys, followed Albert with his closing arguments. Reese told the jury that Dance has been attacked from the beginning with untrue accusations made by Bell and the association. Reese showed the jury an aerial photo of the cemetery, displaying evidence of agricultural production taking place around it.
“What we had in 1964 was farm land and a cemetery. Mr. Dance had wanted to take it back to what it was. What this case is about is foliage, a fence and monuments,” Reese said. “What happened is that Ms. Bell and her brother showed up in the middle of the project.”
Reese said some of the photos shown to the court display a bare area and don’t give the whole story because when trees and foliage are removed, soil is disturbed.
Reese added Bell’s next step was to attack Dance, taking steps like going to the newspaper, getting negative information put up about Dance on the internet in a blog and trying to put Dance in jail.
“He (Dance) has weathered all of these tests,” Reese said.
Reese said Dance has worked to improve the look of the cemetery by doing things he was not obligated to do, like installing new fencing.
Reese said in the testimony given by Brian Chambers, the cemetery association’s vice president, the the last time Chambers saw a family member’s grave stone was 40 years ago. Chambers testified earlier in the trial that he saw the stone in the foliage when he was in high school in the 1970s. Chambers testified the stone was now missing because of what Dance did.
Reese said the claim for damages levied by the cemetery association should be zero.
“They don’t own the cemetery. Never did,” Reese said. “They are not claiming they are going to put in fencing or markers. They are under no obligation to do so. We have a beautiful cemetery. Everything has been resolved.”
Court will reconvene at 9 a.m. Friday at the Historic Ellis County Courthouse in downtown Waxahachie.