Bench mark: Crowson retires

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 1, 2005

In his 17 years as a Shelby County circuit judge, D. Al Crowson sat before some of the highest profile cases ever tried in Shelby County, from the I-65 road rage killing to the Pelham pooper-scooper case.

Last week, Crowson officially retired as Shelby County’s presiding judge, closing a full-time judicial career that spanned some 18,695 total cases, including more than 100 criminal jury trials.

&uot;Some people say that’s a lifetime dream, Crowson said. &uot;The thing is, I didn’t even know I wanted to be a lawyer until later in life.&uot;

Crowson worked as an accountant, lawyer and law school teacher – developing an affection for law somewhere along the way – before the appointing phone call came from Gov. Guy Hunt. He was tapped to replace W.W. &uot;Bill&uot; Rabren, who was removed from office in 1988.

&uot;I was extremely excited, no doubt about that.&uot;

Crowson took the bench with some expected anxiety over his first case, but always commanded respect in the courtroom.

&uot;You’re going to be nervous and you want to be sure that you’re doing everything right,&uot; he said. &uot;And then later on, of course, it gets easier to rule. Then you don’t doubt yourself as much.&uot;

A defendant once found himself called to Crowson’s bench after hollering &uot;yo&uot; during roll call before a criminal case.

&uot;That’s one thing you could say whenever we have criminal cases up here they appear to be pretty respectful. If they’re not, they get the message real quick.&uot;

Crowson served as the presiding judge in some of Shelby County’s most gruesome and horrifying cases, many of which received national media attention.

&uot;Any time you try a capital murder case, those are by far the most stressing because what you’re dealing with is a person’s life,&uot; he said. &uot;The jury’s going to make a recommendation if he’s found guilty of life without parole or the death sentence.&uot;

His first capital murder trial was in 1994, resulting in the conviction of Eugene Milton Clemons II, who killed a federal agent during a carjacking.

&uot;That was very trying on me as it is on any judge that handles these cases,&uot; Crowson said.

Crowson has never had a capital murder conviction overturned, but recently had to re-sentence convicted killers Mark Anthony Duke and Marcus Pressley – both of whom were under 18 at the time of their crimes – because of a supreme court ruling dealing with the capital punishment of minors.

&uot;I had to follow the law at the time and felt like the rulings I made were justified,&uot; Crowson said. &uot;But I guess you just follow the law and go with it, get on the next thing and put your feelings behind you and that’s all you can do. I feel like what I did was the appropriate thing though.&uot;

It was the 2000 case of Shirley Henson, a Shelby County woman convicted of manslaughter for the road-rage slaying of Gena Foster alongside I-65, that Crowson says had the most impact on him as a judge.

&uot;Here’s a lady who had never been in trouble with the law and yet you had a situation where the jury came back and found her guilty of manslaughter. You’re weighing – and you’re constantly having to do this as a judge whenever you hand out sentences – a person that has not got a record versus taking a life.&uot;

Henson was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

&uot;I mentioned in that case that it was a message for the entire public to hear . . . you punish and deter and I had to look at those two goals in that case.&uot;

From behind his bench Crowson has watched Shelby County, which previously shared a circuit with Clay County, grow to four circuit and two district judges.

Having once tried a civil case the courthouse kitchen, he also welcomed the construction of six courtrooms.

Some of the county’s greatest achievements during his tenure, Crowson said, were the development of the Community Corrections program, the implementation of juvenile and adult drug courts and increased courthouse security