Elderly woman found not guilty after arrest for dispute at council meeting in small Alabama town

A 79-year-old woman arrested after a heated exchange at a city council meeting in a small town near Birmingham was found not guilty on Friday of two misdemeanor charges.

Novillee Williams left Tarrant City Hall holding a toddler and smiling with friends and supporters after Judge Lee Barnes acquitted her of accusations that she harassed a city employee during a fiery exchange in which she assailed the town's mayor as a corrupt leader.

"She's essentially been shushed for speaking out and she reacts accordingly. There's not a bad intent bone in her body," Tommy Spina, one of Williams' attorneys, told AL.com. "She's just speaking out against the mayor publicly at a public meeting during a public comment section of the city council meeting and she had no intent to cause anybody any harm."

Spina, who worked on the case with attorney Ben Preston, called the prosecution an overreaction and an attack on his client's First Amendment right to criticize her government.

Video footage of the council meeting on Dec. 4 showed Williams argue with Shayla Myricks, an accountant for the city of Tarrant. The trial centered around whether Williams' actions amounted to threats when she touched Myricks on the arm, called her "girl," and stood with her hands on her hips.

After hearing from five witnesses during the trial Friday, the judge said Williams' actions did not rise to the level of dangerous aggression. He found her not guilty of harassment and disorderly conduct.

"I do not find that her intention was to carry out a threat or to carry out harassment," Judge Barnes said.

The trial occurred in the same room where the Tarrant council meets in the town of about 6,000 people just northeast of Birmingham, the same room where Williams frequently speaks against the mayor, the same room where the town's officials frequently clash.

The trial was an illustration of the deep political divide in Tarrant as council members and critics of Mayor Wayman Newton arrived to support Williams, whom they said has been penalized for her political speech.

Wendell Major, the town's police chief, testified for Williams, while a police sergeant testified for Myricks. Councilwoman Veronica Bandy Freeman appeared in support of Williams as did Councilman Tommy Bryant. Over objections from the city lawyer, Williams' pastor testified as a character witness.

Mayor Newton, who was not present during the Dec. 4 exchange, nor the trial, has maintained that he had nothing to do with the prosecution. He disputed accusations that the arrest was politically motivated.

"I wasn't there. I played no part in any of that," he told AL.com in a phone interview after the trial.

In an effort to avoid a trial, the city's prosecutor offered to dismiss the charges if Williams would agree to attend anger management courses. She rejected the deal.

"She's not an angry person and she didn't act out of anger. Her anger, if it exists at all, is not with Ms. Myricks," Spina told AL.com after the acquittal. "Her anger is with the mayor and the way he conducts business in the city of Tarrant and the jaundiced eye the city of Tarrant is constantly under as a result of his conduct."

Myricks, who pressed charges against Williams, declined to comment to AL.com.

In court Myricks testified that she felt threatened by Williams, particularly when she reached over and touched her. Myricks told the judge that she did not begin the exchange with Williams, but turned around to see who was talking while Wiliams was complaining about the mayor.

"I got a lot of aggression from Ms. Williams," she said. "I was just listening. She kept addressing me, so I did respond. We had a little back and forth."

During cross examination, Spina questioned why Myricks chose to leave her seat across the room to sit in front of Williams just as remarks became heated. Myricks said she moved to be closer to a council woman she needed to talk to after the meeting. Spina scoffed at the explanation.

Footage from the Dec. 4 meeting showed Williams refer to Myricks as "girl," "honey" and finally "lady."

Sitting in front of Williams in the audience, Myricks turned around to speak in defense of the mayor during the meeting.

"Turn around honey," Williams said in response.

When Myricks again turned in her seat to face Williams, the video shows, Williams touched the accountant's arm and told her to turn around.

"Don't put your hands on me," Myricks said.

"Honey, go on," Williams responded. "I'm a citizen of Tarrant, lady, and I have a right to speak, even though you are in the mayor's corner, I can see that. I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to the city council."

Williams briefly stood up from her seat after the exchange, with her hands on her hips. The argument lasted only about three minutes in the final moments of the council meeting during public comment.

Williams in her testimony admitted to touching Myricks but said she only did so after Myricks turned around and extended her own arm.

"I am not a violent person," Williams said. "I touched her, I'm not denying that, but if you look, she could have hit me."

While the trial did not feature the drama of a Law and Order episode, the case of a senior citizen charged with harassment and disorderly conduct against the 39-year-old woman raised eyebrows locally and even nationally.

As the trial closed, Judge Barnes issued a final order to Williams and Myricks - stay away from each other.

"Y'all have got to be 10 feet from each other," he said. "I am asking that you have no contact at the meetings."

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