Trial over emails put off for now

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Questions linger about why a Lee County trial involving the state’s new cyberstalking law was postponed in its second day.
On Monday, retired businessman James “Mike” Surratt came to circuit court to defend criminal, felony charges for his 40-plus emails to his homeowners association.
Last February, a Lee County grand jury indicted him on two counts of email harassment, called cyberstalking.
Tupelo native Surratt, 60, sent dozens of email messages from April through August 2009 to Leonard Witt and Peter McCormick, leaders of his Heardtown Estates association. Surratt insisted that the men correct what he claimed were persistent violations of the subdivision’s restrictive convenant.
On Tuesday afternoon, the sabre-rattling by both sides’ attorneys was over for the time being and Surratt’s case, they agreed, will move to a later time. When is another question.
“This an unusual case,” Judge James L. Roberts Jr. said after the jury returned from a long lunch break.
Surratt’s attorney, Jak M. Smith of Tupelo, termed it a free-speech issue that spoke directly to his client’s constitutional right to protest what he perceived to be injustices where he had built a new home.
Prosecutor Paul C. Gault told the court Monday, outside the jury pool, that the state would prove Surratt’s continued electronic messages to Witt and McCormick constituted a “course of conduct” that amounted to felony harassment, in this case, cyberstalking.
After Tuesday’s proceedings, Gault declined to comment because the case is pending. Smith also must maintain public silence on the issues.
The case is unusual because the state’s cyberstalking law is only one year old, and as Roberts prepared to release the jury, he told them he had a certain reluctance about delaying this trial.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this will either help the situation or will not make it any worse.”
Under the court’s order, agreed to by both sides, Surratt will not contact Witt or McCormick or their families, will not secretly videotape Witt, his neighbor, or communicate with the media about the case. He also agreed not to write anonymous Internet messages about the case.
The case continues on the docket, just as any other case that isn’t resolved during a specified court term.
Roberts told the jury he saw “some weakness” in the charges against Surratt and in the defense.
“I’m not sure either side was totally ready to go to trial,” the judge said.
“The case remains alive, it hasn’t gone away.”