Mistake leads to mistrial in contractor fraud case

By Carolyn Roy – bio|email|Twitter

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA)- It's a mistrial for contractor James Alex III, accused of home improvement fraud in connection with contract repair work done on the Queensborough home of an elderly low-income couple.  Caddo District Judge Mike Pitman dismissed the jurors shortly after 8:00 P.M. Thursday, three hours after the case was turned over to them for deliberation.

The mistrial order follows two days of testimony, followed by an impassioned plea from the prosecution to the jury to consider the message their verdict would mean to other contractors in the area who might be prone to perpetrating the type of fraud that Alex is accused of:  "A walk is an endorsement of this behavior," said Caddo Parish Assistant District Attorney Lea Hall, calling Alex "unqualified and dishonest," a grifter who scammed the an elderly couple and the taxpayers out of  $7700 worth of work by cutting corners, in order to pocket more of the $23,000 paid to him through a contract with the Department of Community Development.

Alex's attorney Frank Brown says he an honest man who did not intentionally defraud anyone, telling the jury Thursday afternoon that the case should have been handled in civil court, not criminal.  "The District Attorney and the Caddo Sheriff's office is trying to criminalize allegedly substandard repair work," said Brown.

But it would turn out that this jury would not have a chance to decide Alex's guilt or innocence.  Caddo Assistant District Attorney Lea Hall says attorneys on both sides agreed to make a joint motion for mistrial after it was discovered that the jury was given the wrong instructions involving the penalty provisions in the home improvement fraud statute.  "The jurors were given law that didn't necessarily apply," explains Hall.  "The duration of this offense was one that occurred across a long spectrum of time, and there was a legislative change during the middle of this duration of time, such that part of the offense occurred under the old law, and part occurred under the new law."

The updated version of the statute went into effect August 15, 2009.  Alex, along with three other contractors and inspectors with the Department of Community Development were arrested on August 31, 2009.  Hall says the state was charging that the offense occurred between early 2009 through the present day, up to and through the date the amended statute went into effect.  "We could not be certain that we wouldn't have problems on appeal, so we chose to go with the mistrial and do it again."

That will mean 69 year old Rosie James will be called twice more: once again to testify for the prosecution in the case against Alex, and later in the case against Community Development inspector Ray Jones.  Jones is accused of filing false public documents in signing off on the work prosecutors say was incomplete on James' home.  James was emotional on the stand Wednesday, breaking down at the mention of her husband.  Levron James died of cancer in March, and was undergoing outpatient radiation treatment when the work was being done on the home.

Alex will also have to testify again.  Taking the stand on Thursday morning, he directly addressed the jury as he testified in his own defense.  He offered the jury explanations for most of the problems investigators say they found with the work done on the James' home.  Investigators found 28 problems areas in their assessment of the work done on the home, but prosecutors focused on four: a cheaper brand of air conditioning unit installed that was not on a list of approved brands,  plywood sub flooring left exposed after the removal of the old furnace, a set of pre-fabricated concrete steps incorrectly installed at the back door and little or no insulation installed in the attic.  Of these, the prosecution called the missing insulation "the most egregious."  Alex had no explanation for the missing insulation, and admits he never checked to make sure it was done correctly himself.

Three of Alex's employees, his pastor and former Community Development supervisor Wavy Lester were all called to the stand this week in his defense. They could be called again in a re-trial.

Community Development Director Bonnie Moore, and Assistant Administrator Mortimer Harris, Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office investigators Sgt. John May and Lt. Jay Long. Caddo Parish Public Works Assistant Director and certified building inspector Tim Weaver, and State Licensing Board investigator William James Valentine could all be called to testify again for the prosecution.

"I just wish it could have been over today, and it could have been resolved," Alex said after the judge ordered the mistrial and a re-arraignment date was set for June 1.

Alex's re-trial is expected to be set for August.  Contractor Santana Brown was set for a jury trial on that date, along with inspectors Ray Jones and Jackie Mandigo.  There's no word yet on whether their trial dates could be affected.  Contractor James Lester is set for jury trial on June 21.  A trial date has not yet been set for contractor Alphonso Williams, but he is due to appear in court for preliminary examination on August 16.

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