After a day and half of deliberations, the jury presiding over the lawsuit involving St. Mary’s Historical Cemetery Association and Creek Land and Cattle owner Blair Dance remained deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict.
Bob Carroll, 40th District Judicial Court Judge, declared a mistrial in the case at about 4:45 p.m. Friday, after speaking with the jury in open court. Carroll thanked the jury for its time and efforts and dismissed them from service.
The cemetery association filed a lawsuit against Dance’s company after it began developing the cemetary property. The cemetery grounds are the final resting places of many of the association members' relatives.
Allegations were made by the cemetery association that Dance constructed a road, installed fence posts and was farming over unmarked graves. The association also alleged tire tracks marked the cemetery grounds and tombstones were missing. The property was purchased by Dance in 2010.
The cemetery is located off of Hughes Cemetery Road near Italy. Historically, St. Mary is an black cemetery. Some of the first burials in the cemetery took place after emancipation and some graves belong to former slaves.
Elmarine Bell, a cemetery association member, testified earlier that her brother notified her about work taking place on the property on March 24, 2012. The cemetery association was formed in September 2014.
“I really believe that we put on a good case. We put on the best evidence that we had. We think that we had creditable evidence. We feel that we did the best that we could because we are speaking for the dead. There is nobody here from St. Mary’s cemetery. We are just the descendants. We are speaking for the dead and we honor our dead,” Bell, said. “We are just very disappointed in the jury system that our evidence was not good enough and they could not come to a consensus on anything. But this is not over. This is just a little bump in the road. And you will see us back whenever the judge schedules the next trial dates.”
Bell is going to reach out to the community to find local more descendants of people who are buried at St. Mary Cemetery and try to get them involved in the association, she said.
Craig Albert, attorney for St. Mary’s Historical Cemetery Association, said the next step is to regroup and move forward.
“We are disappointed in this being a mistrial. We are encouraged that the jury got the negligence message through,” Albert said. “We are going to press on. We are going to huddle up as a team and figure out what our next step is exactly. But we are obviously going to get set for a new trial sometime in the next few months.”
Adam Sanderson, one of Dance’s attorney’s, said the outcome from the jury was not expected.
“It looks like we are going to be doing this again potentially. We are confident that Mr. Dance, when it is over, is going to be completely exonerated of the allegations. They will be proven to be not true,” Sanderson said. “He is a landowner that saw a need to repair a fence that had become dilapidated and rusted. That is what he did. He replaced that old fence with a new one and we think that sums up the case.”
Sanderson said they are going to regroup and maybe these parties can work out a possible settlement.
Joel Reese, another one of Dance’s attorney’s, shared Sanderson feeling about the conclusion of the trial.
“We were hopeful that a jury would reach a decision. We understand that they could not reach an agreement and we respect that. This lawsuit started with 50 plaintiffs suing Creek Land and Cattle and Blair Dance,” Reese said. “Now, we are down to one — St. Mary Historical Cemetery Association. And we think that we will prevail against that one plaintiff. All the rest of the plaintiffs have been dismissed.”
Through the course of the case, the 50 individual plaintiffs, apart from the cemetery association, have dropped out of the lawsuit over time, Reese said.
“We are going to continue to fight this,” Reese said. “I anticipate because (of) a mistrial, (we) would have to be reset for trial in the future.”