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Jury convicts Sibbitt on four counts

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Cannelton schools superintendent says he will appeal

Editor’s note: Following is information compiled from a series of stories filed by a reporter for the Times-Mail, a newspaper serving Bedford and Lawrence counties, about a trial of Cannelton Schools Superintendent Alva Sibbitt, which began Sept. 25 in Crawford County. As the News has reported previously, several charges were lodged against Sibbitt after a 2010 traffic stop

By ROGER MOON

Times-Mail Staff Writer and Columnist 

ENGLISH – A Crawford County jury, at about 7 p.m. Tuesday, found Alva Sibbitt Jr. guilty of four charges that had been filed against him following his arrest in 2010.

Sibbitt, 70, was found guilty of resisting law enforcement, a Class D felony; intimidation, a Class D felony; resisting law enforcement, a Class A misdemeanor, and criminal mischief, a Class A misdemeanor.

Sibbitt also had been charged with a fifth count, criminal mischief, a Class A misdemeanor, but Crawford Circuit Court Judge K. Lynn Lopp granted a directed verdict for that count earlier in the trial, stating the prosecution had not provided enough evidence for a guilty verdict. When a directed verdict is granted, a judge orders a jury to return a particular verdict.

Sibbitt told the Times-Mail he will appeal the decision, but he declined further comment.

A sentencing for Sibbitt is scheduled in Crawford Circuit Court at 1 p.m. Oct. 29.

The Class D felonies are punishable by six months to three years in prison, while the Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in prison.

Following the verdict, Orange County Prosecutor Kelly Minton asked that Sibbitt’s bond be revoked, but Lopp ruled that he would allow the current bond to remain.

Sibbitt, who grew up in Paoli and has lived most of his life there, was Paoli’s superintendent for 36 years. He resigned from the job in late 2010 after having accepted the superintendent’s post at Mitchell.

Sibbitt was scheduled to begin the job in Mitchell Jan. 1, 2011, but he never began those duties. His contract later was canceled.

As the News reported Dec. 19, 2011, the Cannelton School Board employed Sibbitt, first as a fiscal consultant, then later as interim superintendent, with at least one board member knowing he faced the charges. That member, Barbara Beard, refused to discuss his conviction Wednesday morning.

Board President Bill Garrett did not return a call to his home. 

Neither Sibbitt nor Principal Roger Fisher were at work Wednesday morning, the News was told, and Academic Dean Dan Freed simply repeated “no comment” several times in response to questions.

Sibbitt’s arrest, which occurred Dec. 9, 2010, stemmed from a traffic stop in Paoli. Indiana State Police Trooper Robert Lambert stopped Sibbitt on Water Street for a seat belt violation. Lambert testified during the weeklong trial that Sibbitt also had disregarded two stop signs, that his speech was slurred and that he had an open container in his car, leading Lambert to request that Sibbitt take a portable breath test. Sibbitt declined, and Lambert told him he would be cited for refusal.

Sibbitt testified that he told Lambert he believed he had a right to take a test at the jail and that he asked Lambert to take him to the jail or to follow him there. Police say that when Lambert went back to his car to write Sibbitt a ticket for refusal, Sibbitt rammed the back end of the school-owned vehicle he was driving into Lambert’s police car. Sibbitt then was arrested, taken to the Orange County Jail and then to the hospital in Paoli. He was checked and was administered a test that revealed he had not been drinking.

Sibbitt’s attorney, Scott Callahan, maintained throughout the trial – and reiterated in his closing statements to the jury – that Lambert had no reasonable suspicion to request that Sibbitt take the breath test and had violated Sibbitt’s constitutional rights. In earlier testimony before the jury, Lambert testified that he had been wrong in telling Sibbitt that he could be cited for refusing to take the test.

In Callahan’s closing statements, he said police had omitted from the report of the incident any facts that were favorable to Sibbitt, including the test results showing Sibbitt had not been using alcohol or drugs.

Callahan also reminded jurors of Sibbitt’s testimony that he had hit his knee against the pavement and had rolled over on his hip, causing injury to both his knee and hip, when Lambert removed him from the car.

“Lambert went up to him and jerked him out of the car,” Callahan said. “That was excessive force. That was unnecessary force.”

Callahan also pointed out that an audio recording that documented much of the conversation, particularly while Sibbitt was at the hospital, made no reference to his having gone through the stop signs. He said of the stop-sign violation, “It’s a real possibility that it was just tagged on the back.”

Callahan referenced various other “exaggerations” and “mistakes” he said Lambert had made during the incident.

In his final words to the jury, Callahan said of Sibbitt, “Let’s face it. He made a bad decision. That’s not a crime. Al Sibbitt is not a criminal. He has never been arrested in his life. Do not brand him as a criminal.”

Minton, addressing the jury after Callahan spoke, said the defense strategy to suggest “the cops are liars” was not a novel approach.

“He wants you to focus on the police actions, but not on the defendant’s actions,” Minton said.

“That’s what they would have you believe, that this was all part of a conspiracy to ruin Dr. Sibbitt’s reputation,” Minton said.

He also told jurors, “Common sense tells you that you do not leave a traffic stop” before being released by a police officer.

Concerning the police report, Minton said, “We want you to read the report. We think it corroborates all of what Trooper Lambert said and much of what Dr. Sibbitt said.”

Minton added, “No one denies that the defendant is a good superintendent. He certainly has accomplished much within his career.”

But Minton said those accomplishments did not entitle Sibbitt to be above the law.

In calling upon the jury to find Sibbitt guilty, Minton said, “It’s not because of who he is, but because of what he’s done. The defendant is responsible for his actions.”

Editor’s note: Sibbitt had testified Monday and his wife, Judy, took the stand the previous Friday, Moon reported in separate stories. Following are highlights from those reports. 

Judy Sibbitt, like other witnesses, was asked about her husband’s tendency to stutter and about the frequency with which he drinks Diet Coke.

Sibbitt’s attorney, Scott Callahan, directed the questions to witnesses in suggesting that stuttering and a cup containing a dark-colored beverage in his vehicle had not provided “reasonable suspicion” for Indiana State Police Trooper Robert Lambert to request that Sibbitt take a field sobriety test. Lambert had made such a request during a traffic stop.

Callahan asked Judy Sibbitt if her husband drinks Diet Coke.

“He lives on it,” she responded. “He probably drinks 12 cans a day.”

Other witnesses, including Julie Osborn and Cindy Eubank, who worked with Sibbitt in the (Paoli) superintendent’s office, said he often drank diet soda while at work. The two of them also testified that Sibbitt had worked all day at the office on the day he was arrested and that he had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Callahan asked witnesses about Sibbitt’s stuttering.

“He has a speech stoppage. Some … call it stuttering,” Judy Sibbitt said.

She explained that it had been a characteristic that dated to when she first knew him while he was in college. She described him as being “self-conscious” about it and she said a college professor had helped him overcome a reluctance to speak in public.

Osborn testified that Sibbitt has a tendency to stutter if he becomes “excited or frustrated.”

After the prosecution rested its case at about 1:30 p.m. — and outside the presence of the jury — Callahan moved for a “directed verdict” for all five counts against Sibbitt, asking, in essence, that the court find Sibbitt not guilty on all five counts against him. He told Judge K. Lynn Lopp the state had not provided sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict.

Callahan argued, in part, that the state had not proved Sibbitt was leaving the scene. Defense testimony had suggested Sibbitt accidentally backed his van into the police car when he was attempting to drive to the Orange County Jail, thinking the officer would meet him there.

“It’s clear a person can’t leave a traffic stop until the officer excuses him from the traffic stop,” Minton countered. “He had said he was going to the Orange County Jail. ... He was leaving the scene.”

When a directed verdict is approved, a judge orders a jury to return a particular verdict.

On Callahan’s motion for a directed verdict in all five counts, Lopp ruled that the first four counts would remain for jury deliberation, but he did grant a directed verdict for the fifth count, which is criminal mischief, a Class A misdemeanor. The count maintains the police car had sustained damage estimated between $250 and $2,500.

The judge agreed the state had not provided sufficient evidence in relation to the amount of damage to the vehicle. Saying the absence of such information “calls for the jury to make a speculation,” Lopp granted the directed verdict for the criminal mischief count.

Lambert has said he began pursuing Sibbitt’s vehicle at Elm and West Water streets. He said he turned his lights on and followed Sibbitt east on the street and that Sibbitt disregarded two stop signs before he crossed Indiana 37 and pulled into the parking lot of the Orange County Community Foundation office. Lambert then approached Sibbitt’s van.

“He told me I wasn’t wearing a seat belt,” Sibbitt said, “and I said, ‘Yes sir, you are correct. I realize you will have to write me a ticket for that.’”

Lambert cited Sibbitt for the seat belt violation and issued warnings to him for not stopping at the stop signs and for not having his driver’s license in possession and for having an expired proof of insurance. Sibbitt said Lambert had returned to the police car at one point and it was upon his second approach that the trooper asked him about the contents of a cup in the console. Sibbitt told him it was Diet Coke and testified that he offered the cup to Lambert so he could smell it, taste it or keep it as evidence.

“He said, ‘How much have you been drinking today?’” 

Sibbitt told jurors. He said he had not been drinking and that Lambert could call his secretary to confirm that he had been at work all day. Sibbitt said Lambert then asked him what drugs he had been using that day.

Sibbitt described his medications for heart-related issues, but said Lambert then told him, “I don’t mean those kinds of drugs. What kinds of illegal drugs have you used today?”

He said Lambert specifically asked him whether he had used cocaine, marijuana or meth that day. Sibbitt said he had not been using drugs and told Lambert, “Maybe you should spend more time arresting people who are selling drugs over at school.

“It made him angry,” Sibbitt said, explaining Lambert then left his window and later came back to the car with the PBT. 

Sibbitt told him he would “be very happy” to take a breath test but that he understood he had a right to have it administered at the county jail and that he would ride with Lambert to the jail or Lambert could follow him.

He said Lambert told him refusal equated to admission of guilt and that he would lose his license for a year. Lambert again left Sibbitt’s window.

“I was frightened,” Sibbitt said.

He also expressed the fear he experienced during the traffic stop that he would lose the contract he had recently entered into to serve as superintendent of Mitchell Community Schools in January 2011. (The contract was later canceled.)

“I thought something is terribly wrong here. … I’ve got to get to the jail,” Sibbitt said on the stand.

He said that, in a moment of “panic and fear,” he put the car in reverse.

“I went backward very slowly, and I felt a very slight impact. … After I felt the impact, I put my car back in drive and I pulled forward maybe two or three feet and put my car in park.”

According to Sibbitt, Lambert then told him he was going to jail and that he grabbed him out of the van and pulled him onto the asphalt pavement.

“My right knee hit the asphalt pavement,” Sibbitt said.

He also said he suffered a scratch to his knee and that his hip was bruised.

“That was the most frightened I had ever been in my life. … He shoved my chest onto the hood of the car. My face was on the side, looking north.”

“Did you knowingly resist officer Lambert?” Callahan asked.

“No sir,” Sibbitt responded.

Prosecutor Kelly Minton, in cross-examining Sibbitt, asked whether he had complained – either at the jail or while he later was at the hospital in Paoli – to anyone about injuries suffered in the incident. 

Sibbitt answered that he hadn’t.

Minton also asked Sibbitt why he thought the traffic stop had ended.

“At that point, I was so frightened, I did not consider that,” Sibbitt said. He testified that, because he was frightened, he hadn’t looked behind him before he backed the car. Asked by Minton if he had mentioned at the jail that Lambert “had taken you to the asphalt,” Sibbitt responded that he hadn’t.

During the course of the incident, Lambert activated an audio recorder that captured much of the conversation associated with the arrest.

The jury heard an edited version of the tape Friday, and on Monday Minton reviewed with Sibbitt multiple times in the tape wherein he had said he was “either mad, upset or not thinking.” 

Minton also reviewed multiple times when Sibbitt was heard on the tape talking about his intentions to leave the scene of the traffic stop to go to the Orange County Jail to get a certified breath test.

Sibbitt, when questioned by Callahan, said he hadn’t known about the scratch to his knee or the bruising to his hip until after he had posted bail and gone home. For that reason he hadn’t complained of the injuries while at the jail or the hospital.

The News contacted the Indiana Department of Education Wednesday morning and explained the trial’s outcome. 

“There are two sections of Indiana Code that oversee license revocation for school employees,” Communications Director Stephanie Sample said in an e-mail message sent after researching the issue. “One lists specific offenses for which revocation must take place: IC 20-28-5-8. The other lists four reasons for which the state may seek revocation: IC 20-28-5-7. 

“While the department has not investigated this particular situation, it appears it would fall under the second category,” she continued.

“In these cases, the department evaluates the facts related to a case and makes a decision as to whether or not the individual’s actions fall into one of the four categories listed in 20-28-5-7 – making student safety the top consideration.”

The charges on which Sibbitt was convicted are not specifically listed in those code sections.