Treasure trial continues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Selma Times-Journal

The prosecution turned over their witness to the defense; Erskin Mathis, attorney for Steve Phillips, bulldozed his way to the witness stand, Mickey Mouse tie flailing, to cross examine George Mickey Corson.

“Are you the river police?” Mathis asked.

“No,” Corson, a Selma public works employee, replied.

“You were just nosy and sticking your nose in somebody else’s business,” Mathis barked.

The prosecution objected.

“He doesn’t have the right to badger and attack the witness,” Dallas County prosecutor Mickey Avery said.

Corson had just finished testifying that he spoke with Phillips, of Vandover, and Perry Massey, a magazine executive from California.

Both men were charged with theft of a cultural resource under a 1999 state law – the Underwater Cultural Resource Act.

According to the law, anyone disturbing, taking or damaging a “cultural resource,” usually an archeological or historic artifact, without a permit issued by the state can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor or a Class C felony, depending on the value of the artifact.

According to Corson, he told Phillips on the banks of the Alabama River on Oct. 23, 2003, that it was illegal to dive for artifacts.

“I explained to him there was a law against it,” he said. “He (Phillips) said he had a permit and he knew the law.”

Phillips didn’t have a permit when he and Massey emerged from the river with an 1865 Civil War musket

and they were arrested.

Corson testified that he told officials with Old Cahawba Park about the dive trip after speaking to Phillips. They contacted state officials, the district attorney’s office and a local conservation officer who actually made the arrest.

Prosecutors presented a witness Monday, Dr. William Shane Lee, who said the rifle pulled out of the mud in the Alabama River was worth an estimated $2,000.

If the jury agrees with him, the charge against Phillips is a Class C felony and if convicted he could face jail time.

Lee, a doctor in a Marion clinic, is also a collector and exhibitor of Civil War artifacts.

He served as a national state park volunteer for 15 years. He minored in military history in college, and later received a master’s degree in military strategy. His dissertation was an analysis of Wilson’s Raid on Selma.

He said the rifle was a musketoon, shorter than a standard musket, which was originally used by support staff and artillery soldiers.

“Which makes it a bit more rare,” he said.

Musketoons were imported from England by both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. Lee testified that tools and dies were also imported and a musketoon factory was established in Tallassee. If the rifle is from Tallassee, which Lee said he had no way of knowing from the photographs, then its value might be even higher.

The defense’s argument centered around the validity of the law, which was enforced the first time for this incident.

Matthis asked the state archeologist, Dr. Thomas Mayer an employee of the Alabama Historic Society and a witness for the defense, if the state had authority in the case.

He presented a federal statute stating that the federal Department of the Interior had a final say over what properties were considered eligible, challenging Mayer’s statement that the state had authority.

“You told this jury the state made the registry,” Mathis said.

“We determine in the state office what is eligible,” Mayer replied.

“I guess you can do what you want as long as nobody calls you on it,” Mathis said.

“No sir.”

While earlier in the trial, Mathis made arguments to the effect that without a listing of eligible historic sites, which isn’t publicly available, Phillips couldn’t have known he was violating the law.

Mayer, during questioning from the prosecutors, testified that he met with Phillips in 2000 regarding the Underwater Cultural Resources Act.

Phillips, during that meeting, “expressed his dislike” of the law. Mayer said Phillips did not get permission to excavate any site in the state during that meeting.

Mayer was called in when Phillips was arrested. He testified that he spoke to him then.

“Mr. Phillips asserted that he had a permit from Dr. Weaver,” Mayer said. “He asserted that I had to give him a permit right then. I declined to do so.”

The discrepancy between state and federal regulations was cleared up by Elizabeth Brown, interim director of the Alabama Historic Society.

“I’m happy to do (the job) on a short-term basis,” she said.

She said that Mathis was correct in stating the Department of the Interior was the keeper of the national historic Registry, but a different section of the statute gave state authorities more leeway.

“The whole process really runs without the keeper of the Registry,” she said.

She said the list of eligible sites isn’t publicly available to protect them from potential looters, but if a potential excavator wants to find out, the Society can provide them with details about a particular site on a case by case basis.

Later the trial recessed until 9 a.m. today, when the witnesses for the defense will be called.

Mathis said he felt really good about his chances in the case.

“I don’t think (the state) proved their case,” he said. “I’ll make a motion (to dismiss the charges) to that effect tomorrow.”

He feels like the state hasn’t proven that the site is eligible for listing on the state or national Historic Registry. Without that proof, Mathis said there is no charge against his client.

“Phillips has never denied diving anywhere,” he said.