'Klan' comment lawsuit kept in Colonial Heights
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Jul 31, 2014, 13:34
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — The lawsuit against Hopewell City Councilor Brenda Pelham filed by Cathie Mitchell, a former candidate for Hopewell sheriff and current Hopewell police officer, will stay in Colonial Heights and possibly go to trial in May of next year.
Judge Steven McCallum heard the motion in Colonial Heights court Monday morning regarding a change in venue for the defamation lawsuit, which was filed in the city earlier this year.
Pelham’s attorney, David Corrigan with The Harmonie Group in Richmond, told Judge McCallum the case was a Hopewell case and needed to be moved back to the city, citing from the filing that the sole basis for having the case in Colonial Heights was the WTVR broadcast on November 4 of last year.
“To my knowledge, there are no witnesses from Colonial Heights,” Corrigan told the judge.
Corrigan also said the filing in Colonial Heights was a question of race, given that the lawsuit centers around the allegation that Pelham called Mitchell a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The events in question began with a Facebook post in the days before the election last year. Pelham’s post states, “I believe Mitchell and definitely Newman were a part of the Klan that politicked behind the scene that had a part in ensuring he [Martin] resigned from his position.” At the end of her post, Pelham signed it as “Councilor Brenda Pelham.”
In the day following her Facebook post, WTVR, the local CBS affiliate, conducted a television interview with Pelham regarding her post on Facebook and the mis-spelling and improper capitalization of the word “clan.”
Wayne Covil, senior WTVR reporter, states that he asked Councilor Pelham about the post and “... told me she was surprised when people told her how she spelled clan with a ‘k.’’ Once on camera, Pelham states, “It probably was done subconsciously.”
At the end of the broadcast, Pelham again appears on camera stating, “It had nothing to do with what people are accusing me of. If you’re convicted by a word, that’s your choice. I know my intent.”
When the $2.3 million lawsuit was originally filed in Colonial Heights Court on Feb. 27, Pelham responded with a objection to the venue as well as a motion to have the case dismissed altogether.
The suit states that Mitchell filed in Colonial Heights, “because she believes she will have a more favorable and sympathetic jury, because her allegations of defamation involve race.”
Include in the suit, were demographics of both Hopewell and Colonial Heights. In 2012, Hopewell had total of 22,300 residents, with 56.9 percent being white and 38.8 percent black. Colonial Heights, in 2012, had a population of 17,500 residents with 81.8 percent white and 11.9 percent black.
Pelham said that Mitchell chose Colonial Heights because, she is “seeking a generally ‘plaintiff friendly’ venue. ... Rather, Mitchell hopes to inflame a white jury against the black defendant.”
Corrigan citing this demographic in his opening arguments and said that it was clear the plaintiff was choosing a jurisdiction where race is prevalent.
“There is a potential for unfair jurors,” he said. “... This case needs to go to it’s rightful home in Hopewell.”
“As a direct result and proximate result of the Defendant’s false and defamatory statements, the Plaintiff has suffered, continues to suffer, and will in the future suffer, injuries and actual damages including damage to her professional reputation and standing, diminished standing in the community, loss of earning capacity, embarrassment, humiliation, mental and emotional suffering and other damages,” the original lawsuit filed by Mitchell states.
Thomas Albro, attorney for Mitchell, with Tremblay and Smith LLC in Charlottesville, said the case had no reason to be moved to Hopewell.
“Not only do we have no substantial inconvenience, the case of action arose in Colonial Heights with publication and republication,” he said.
Albro said that by WTVR broadcasting the interview, as one of their coverage areas is the city of Colonial Heights, and then rebroadcasting it on their website, it makes the case permissible to be heard by a jury in Colonial Heights.
Mitchell’s attorney even stated selecting a jury in Hopewell would be even more difficult as many could have voted for or against both Pelham and Mitchell in previous elections.
“What everyone wants is an impartial jury,” he said. “If filed in a small, neighboring city it will be convenient for people to testify.”
After the arguments were heard, Judge McCallum said the issue of politics involved in Hopewell should be just as concerning as the issue of race in Colonial Heights in regards to picking a jury. He said venue for the case is permissible in the city as part of the action arose due to the WTVR broadcast.
The judge also said that because the courthouses are close in terms of distance there is no evidence of any inconvenience to either the plaintiff or defendant or the witnesses.
“I have found there is no good cause shown to transfer this case,” the judge said.
Another hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled in October and a potential four-day trial has been set for May of 2015.