By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
For rolling accounts of these court proceeding, go to NEMS360.com
TUPELO – A Lee County jury today begins to hear evidence about whether a rural subdivision homeowner criminally harassed his neighbors to correct covenant rule violations.
Last February, a grand jury indicted James “Mike” Surratt on two felony counts that he illegally emailed Leonard Witt and Peter McCormick to harass them.
Monday, the 100-plus jury pool was narrowed and sent home before Judge James L. Roberts Jr. agreed to allow a variety of evidence to be offered by the state.
Defense attorney Jak Smith of Tupelo disagreed, saying much of it was not relevant and could prejudice jurors against Surratt, 60.
In early 2009, Lee County native Surratt retired from a career in Memphis and moved to a new home in Heardtown Estates, northwest of Tupelo.
Within a few months, he said he began to see violations of the subdivision rules and alerted McCormick, the president, and Witt, a board member, about them.
Over the course of the next five months, Surratt is alleged to have sent 40-plus emails to them about the problems and his insistence they address them.
Paul Gault, assistant district attorney, claims that Surratt’s behavior constitutes a “course of conduct,” that layer upon layer constitutes felony harassment.
Smith counters that Surratt’s emails are nothing more than “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.
He insists his client never threatened physical harm to anyone, although he did threaten a lawsuit, if the violations were not corrected.
“My client had the right under the contract to take any and all courses of action to make sure the covenants are enforced,” Smith noted.
Roberts declined to act on various defense pre-trial motions, including to dismiss the indictment, but said he will hold them for possible decisions during the trial.
The proceedings could run all week.
Among the witnesses will be the embattled Mitchell Scruggs, co-developer of Heardtown Estates. He also is embroiled in the recent controversy over the North Lee Water Association, for which he has been board president.