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Lawn and order: How an Alabama veterinarian's garden landed her in criminal court
The prosecutor argued the garden didn't "fit in" with the neighborhood aesthetic.
They came in one by one.
The potential jurors filed into the Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, courtroom one after another, each sitting in the wooden gallery benches after hearing his or her name called by the clerk of court.
They were teachers and cooks. A nurse and a doctor. A Lowe’s employee, a cosmetologist, and a VA staffer. A construction worker, a sports turf manager, and more. But today, their job was the same. They were the deciders. Among the group of about 30 citizens of Tuscaloosa County were the 12 individuals that would soon decide the fate of Dr. Ellen Newsom.
By the time the jurors gathered Thursday, a judge had already convicted Newsom, a Northport veterinarian, of the misdemeanor charge against her — unlawful growth of vegetation. The scene of the crime, prosecutors in Northport’s city court had successfully argued, was Newsom’s organic garden, which they said violated an ordinance prohibiting the “excessive growth of vegetation” or any growth of “grass, weeds, or kudzu” over 12 inches. The lower court had found her guilty and ordered her to cut it all down.
But today was a new day.
In fact, as a matter of law, Thursday’s jury wouldn’t know a judge had ever convicted the veterinarian of anything. Newsom had appealed the decision, as is her right in Alabama, and asked for a new trial not by a judge, but by a jury of her peers.
She’d get it.
So on Thursday morning, as Newsom sat at the front of the courtroom, her peers took their seats. Her trial — a trial of lawn and order — would soon begin.
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“Extortion on the memo line”
Once the members of the jury pool had taken their seats and the necessary oath, the prosecution and defense began the process of questioning the potential jurors to discern any overtly prejudicial opinions among them.
And opinions, there were many. After standard questions about obvious conflicts, the attorneys in the case jumped into more relevant issues: How did the jury pool feel about homeowners’ associations? Had anyone ever fought with their neighbor? Did anyone, by chance, love to garden?
Potential jurors’ answers covered the gamut. A couple of members called HOAs “invasive.” One man said his HOA had made his neighbor take down a sign that said “Free Piano Lessons.” Another man said every time he pays his HOA dues, he writes “extortion” on the memo line. A couple of folks in the jury pool, including a woman who was later elected the body’s foreperson, said they’d occasionally fought with neighbors — but nothing too serious — bickering over a fence in one case and cat poop in the other.
In the end, after a brief break and without much controversy, the lawyers whittled down the pool as needed. Newsom’s jury had been chosen. Seven white jurors and five Black. Three women jurors and nine men.
The city’s case
J.R. Krebs, a young Tuscaloosa personal injury attorney, represented the City of Northport in its prosecution of Ellen Newsom. In his opening statement, Krebs told jurors that the case centered around one issue.
“This case is about tending your garden,” Krebs said.
In the city’s view, he told jurors, the case was simple.
In April 2022, he said, city workers received a call complaining about a garden in Northport’s Fairfax Village that was reportedly “out of control.” A code enforcement officer visited the property, Krebs told jurors, to follow up with an inspection.
“What he does is he walks around the property,” the prosecutor said. “He looks at the shrubs in the front. He looks at the vegetation on the side, and he measures the grass. He measures the weeds.”
The officer, Krebs said, issued Newsom a “notice to correct” and gave her 15 days to comply with the city’s ordinance.
Krebs said after initially being granted a brief extension on correcting what the city saw as an issue, the code officer returned to the property. “Honestly, not much had changed,” Krebs asserted.
The officer then issued a citation to Newsom for a violation of the city ordinance in question.
The relevant city ordinance makes it unlawful “for any person owning, residing, or having charge or control of any premises or vacant lot within the city to allow weeds, grass or kudzu to grow to the height in excess of 12 inches or to allow any other vegetation, including, but not limited to, grasses or weeds, kudzu, vines, cane, bamboo or underbrush to become overgrown…”
Newsom had clearly violated the ordinance, Krebs argued, and the code enforcement officer’s testimony would prove just that.
The testimony of Anthony Thomas
The state’s first witness against Ellen Newsom was Officer Anthony Thomas, the Northport cop who had, at the time of the incident in question, served in the city’s code enforcement division. Thomas was the officer who’d come to Newsom’s home after the alleged complaint about her garden.
Thomas testified that he remembered his visit to the home and that he could recall determining that Newsom’s home was in violation of the city code. To make that determination, the officer said he’d compared the height of the vegetation at the residence to the height of an orange traffic cone officers used for this purpose.
“It’s actually 12 inches,” the officer explained. “So when I pull up on those calls, I just put the cone next to the area and inspect.”
Thomas lifted the cone from behind the witness stand to show the jurors.
Krebs also showed Thomas photos of Newsom’s garden — which covers much of her side and front yards. The photos, Krebs claimed, were from around the time of the officer’s inspection. According to the officer, the pictures, which were later shown to the jury, were representative of what Newsom’s yard looked like on the day she was cited.
Thomas said he used the cone to measure plants in several areas of Newsom’s home. Many were above the allowable 12 inches, he said, and nothing looked maintained in his view.
“Did she have flower beds in her yard?” Krebs asked the officer.
“I can’t say whether they were flower beds or not,” Thomas said. “I can’t tell what differentiates weeds from the plants I saw…”
Thomas said after he’d sent Newsom a notice to correct, she’d asked for more time. Eventually, though, in early May, he’d done a repeat inspection and issued Newsom a citation.
“I didn’t see any difference,” Thomas said of her yard.
To conclude, Krebs chose to ask the former code enforcement officer how Newsom’s yard “fit in” with those of her neighbors.
“Does the defendant’s yard look like any other yard in that community?” Krebs asked.
“No,” Thomas answered.
“Did it fit in with the scene of the neighborhood?” Krebs continued.
“No,” Thomas said.
In his cross-examination of Thomas, Cameron Parsons, Jr., one of Newsom’s attorneys, highlighted the officer’s lack of horticultural training and emphasized that his client had no legal obligation to make her home look like everyone else’s.
“The code doesn’t dictate to an individual that their yard has to look like other residents,” Parsons said.
The code isn’t prescriptive, Thomas admitted, but it does set a sort of minimum standard all homes must meet.
The testimony of Stephanie Liddy
It wouldn’t matter if good fences make good neighbors to Stephanie Liddy. Even a good fence would have a difficult time keeping her away.
“I do not want to be here… I do not want to find her guilty.”
Liddy, who lives two doors down from Newsom, is a talker. That much was apparent to those in the courtroom almost as soon as prosecutors had called her to the witness stand.
“I do not want to be here,” Liddy said.
Liddy was the neighbor who’d complained to city workers about Newsom’s yard. She’d also posted on Facebook about what she saw as an overgrown mess on April 29, 2022, just days before Newsom was cited. Kiddy had called for Northport officials to intervene.
“She calls this a garden and claims most of this stuff is eatable,” Liddy wrote in the post. “The neighbors of Fairfax are tired of this. I have killed multiple snakes and we had rats last summer. What is it going to take to get some action??????”
But Liddy’s tone in court was different than that of the post. She seemed open and friendly as she testified. She didn’t mention the snakes or rats. And almost immediately, her newfound neighborly whim backfired on the prosecution.
Krebs asked Liddy if she wanted the jury to find Newsom guilty so that she would be forced to cut down her entire garden. The intention of the question seemed clear in the moment: of course, Liddy didn’t want the garden chopped down. She simply wanted it maintained. Krebs had wanted to emphasize that.
But Liddy went off the tracks. She said she didn’t want the veterinarian found guilty at all.
“I do not want to find her guilty,” Liddy said.
Several jurors looked up attentively, but Krebs quickly moved on: “Do you want the garden to be maintained?”
“Yes, I want it to be maintained,” she said. “I turned to the City of Northport for help…They told me that there’s nothing they could do with someone that has a garden.”
Liddy said she believed that the garden had been “overgrown” and, after being asked by Krebs, said she didn’t believe Newsom’s yard fit into the neighborhood aesthetic.
Grace Prince, co-counsel for Ellen Newsom, cross-examined Stephanie Liddy.
Prince, Newsom, and Liddy, it turns out, are all three neighbors.
“We know each other,” Prince began, her folksy tone softening the mood in the room.
Like Liddy, Prince is a talker too. She was using it to her advantage.
“Yes,” Liddy said.
“You’re my next-door neighbor, right?” Prince asked.
“Yes,” Liddy responded, smiling.
Prince’s cross-examination focused on the potential problems with the city’s case, suggesting through her questioning that the citation was the result of officials wishing to quieten complaints, not an earnest effort to have Newsom comply with a legitimate ordinance.
She asked Liddy about a home in Fairfax Village with junk in its yard.
“Northport hasn’t done anything with the junkyard?” Prince asked.
“No,” Liddy replied. “They will not do one thing about it.”
Only when city councilors were tagged on Facebook and a local TV station ran a report about neighbors’ complaints did the city respond in any real way, her testimony suggested.
And Liddy said that at that point, Officer Thomas seemed upset, telling her the issue was “over his head” now.
Liddy, of course, said she didn’t mean to cause a fuss. She only wanted Newsom’s garden under control. She knew Newsom had spent a significant amount of money on the edible garden, she said, and she’d even helped her with yard work on occasion.
PRINCE: This garden has things we like, right? Mint? Why do you like mint?
LIDDY: It reminds me of my childhood.
LIDDY: I just ate some of it the other day.
PRINCE: Ellen’s asparagus?
PRINCE: Do you know if she gives it to anybody else in the neighborhood?
LIDDY: She would. If they came over and asked her, she would share with anybody.
PRINCE: Lemon balm?
PRINCE: A lot of stuff is in that yard.
Following Liddy’s testimony, the prosecution rested. The ball was in the defense’s court.
The defense’s case
Cameron Parsons, Jr., one of Newsom’s lawyers, delivered the defense’s opening statement, arguing that, as Krebs had suggested, the case centered around a single issue.
“That one thing is the difference between a weed and a purposefully planted garden,” Parsons said.
The evidence would show, Parsons argued, that his client had carefully crafted a sustainable landscape garden that was well within the letter of the law.
“It’s not an overgrown garden,” he said. “It’s not a bunch of weeds… The code section Northport is using is vague and ambiguous.”
The testimony of Vanessa Farmer
The defense’s only witness in the case was Vanessa Farmer, who prosecutors stipulated that, while an Auburn grad, is an expert horticulturalist with decades of experience.
Farmer, who wore a colorful scarf over a beige-tan jacket, said she had been able to visit Newsom’s garden the previous day to assess it.
“I was expecting the worst, and I was delightfully surprised,” she said.
Newsom’s garden, she said, is what might be termed an “edible garden” or “sustainable agriculture,” more generally. It’s a garden “for the neighbors” and “for the future,” Farmer explained. (“Yes, that’s my real name,” she told the jury early in her testimony.)
Farmer didn’t see any “useless” weeds or plants, she testified.
“This is a landscape design,” she said. “And it’s a very nice one.”
Newsom’s being cited for the garden, Farmer testified, was “rather unfortunate.”
“…She looks out at neighbors who just mow and blow. No shrubbery. Empty flower pots. It’s atrocious to me.”
Parsons asked if the garden was overgrown in Farmer’s expert opinion.
“No,” she said without hesitation. “It’s a young garden. It’s not neglected or overgrown… It’s a well-thought-out plan.”
On cross-examination, Krebs emphasized that Farmer had visited Newsom’s garden for the first time the day prior — Wednesday of last week — and had not directly observed the garden at the time the vet had been cited by the city.
Krebs also brought Farmer and the jury’s attention back to the orange traffic cone — the one Thomas had used to determine the yard was in violation.
“That’s pretty clear,” Farmer admitted of the measuring tool. She quickly added that she didn’t understand the city’s ordinance, though, which seems to prohibit all plants over 12 inches, regardless of their type.
“If they pay me,” Farmer said, “I’d come rewrite it for them.”
Newsom, according to Farmer, doesn’t even have grass in her yard. The plants are various, she testified, but are not the useless weeds or kudzu that are prohibited by the city’s ordinance.
“Kudzu has taken over the South,” Farmer said. “She’s not letting anything take over the South.”
At one point, Parsons showed Farmer the same photos that had been shown to Officer Thomas and to the jury.
He asked Farmer what she saw.
“I see beauty,” she said. “If I lived on that street, I’d want to live in this house as opposed to — she looks out at neighbors who just mow and blow. No shrubbery. Empty flower pots. It’s atrocious to me.”
To close, J.R. Krebs told jurors not to be distracted by testimony about what Newsom’s garden looked like last week. What jurors should focus on, the prosecutor argued, was the text of the statute. The magic number, he said, was 12 inches. Vegetation any higher was prohibited in the City of Northport.
He closed with a metaphor that Vanessa Farmer had first brought up — dirty dishes. She’d said that the garden may have needed some additional attention, but, she asked jurors, would you want someone visiting your home when you had dirty dishes? Krebs seized on the comparison in his final pitch to the jury.
“It’s your responsibility to get them clean or hire somebody to clean them for you,” he said.
For his part, Cameron Parsons closed with an appeal to common sense.
The photos introduced at trial weren’t even taken by the code enforcement officer, Parsons reminded jurors. And the text of Northport’s statute was ambiguous, potentially even prohibiting all trees, bushes, and other plants over a single foot in height.
“Send a message to the City of Northport: clean your ordinances up.”
“You all have common sense,” he told them. “You can figure out that this code is ambiguous at best.”
If enforced as written, Parsons argued, chaos would ensue. Citizens of Northport would be required to chop down even their humble hydrangeas.
Newsom’s prosecution, he told jurors, was one of convenience — meant to ameliorate complaints from nagging constituents.
“It wasn’t until they got pressured by news crews and the Facebook mafia that they decided to do something,” Parsons closed. “Send a message to the city of Northport: clean your ordinances up.”
The jury decides
In the end, after less than an hour of deliberation, the jury of 12 citizens of Tuscaloosa County unanimously found Ellen Newsom not guilty of the charge against her.
“You came in here and did your job,” Judge May told the gathered jurors. “We appreciate it. That’s how our constitutional system works.”
Outside the courthouse, a juror spoke on the phone, waiting for his ride to pick him up. It was the young man’s first time on a jury, he said, and he’d been nervous going into the process.
“I was kind of scared at first,” he said. “But it ended up being straight. It actually ended up being kind of fun.”
The man, a 23-year-old originally from Birmingham, said he was shocked the case had made it to trial.
“I was really like… plants? We’re going to trial over plants?” He said.
He said that if the city’s code had addressed the overall condition of the property, he may have been inclined to convict Newsom, but that the specific requirement of having any grass cut below 12 inches helped the defendant.
“The only thing she had over 12 inches was edible stuff,” he said.
The prosecution also didn’t prove that the yard wasn’t well-maintained on the particular date in question, the juror said, and he and his peers took that into consideration.
“We just followed the evidence,” he said.
A view from the garden
Shortly after victory on Thursday, Ellen Newsom stood outside her home in Fairfax Village, her garden surrounding her. Her neighbor, Stephanie, had come over for a few minutes to talk, but soon, she headed back home.
Newsom, who chose not to testify during the trial, as is her right, said she was glad the ordeal was finally over.
“It was very frustrating for me,” Newsom said of the process.
Ellen Newsom’s family moved to Tuscaloosa County when she was just two years old, and she’d stayed in the area until traveling to Scotland for veterinary school. After that, Newsom spent about six years in Mobile for work before settling back down in Northport in 2017. Since 2019, she’s lived at her current home in Fairfax Village.
When Newsom moved into her home in the neighborhood, which does not have a homeowners’ association, the residence’s yard was a typical one for the area — an all-grass lawn. Newsom said she’d paid the guy across the street to mow it when needed. The issue was, Newsom said, that the yard was practically unusable for her. Because of the slope of the yard and the type of lawn, flooding was always an issue.
“It was just mushy out there,” Newsom said of the yard’s previous condition.
She’d heard about efforts to begin transforming traditional grass lawns into more sustainable, productive agricultural spaces, but Newsom didn’t know exactly where to begin. She reached out to a company called Thrive that specializes in helping its client create sustainable garden lawns, and the company sent out a local landscape architect to help get the job done.
When all was said and done, Newsom said she spent around $10,000 to get rid of the monoculture grass lawn and turn her yard into a productive, organic garden.
Newsom said that once the garden was put in, she began spending more time in her yard. The flooding issues went away. She began to enjoy space that had previously been useless to her.
“It became an extension of my house,” she said, gesturing at the garden around her. “I spend a lot of time out here. It’s really nice.”
Soon, though, the problems began.
She said that at first, she believed the city understood that her yard was a garden and that, according to them, any 12-inch standard would be irrelevant. She said that she’d spoken with Officer Thomas on multiple occasions and was told that as long as she maintained any grass at the appropriate height, the garden was not an issue.
Only later, Newsom said, likely after the “Facebook mafia” had begun its hit, did Thomas issue her a citation.
“He said he’s now getting pressure from above,” Newsom recalled. “He told me that all I needed to do was go to court and show a garden plan and that it would all go away.”
That’s not what happened. In August 2022, Newsom appeared before Northport’s Municipal Court Judge Paul W. Patterson. The judge found Newsom guilty, fined her $500 plus court costs, and ordered her to “remove all vegetation” located in her front and side yards.
Newsom found the judge’s ruling unacceptable.
As she explained her thoughts on the judge’s earlier ruling, she walked to the edge of her home and pointed.
“These camellias were here before I even bought the house,” Newsom said. “So my options were to remove all the vegetation or appeal.”
Newsom appealed. That’s what had brought her to court Thursday, ready to be judged by a jury of her peers.
“I just didn’t want to have to start over… So it was stressful,” she said.
She said she believes jurors’ life experiences may have given her an edge in court.
“We had some gardeners on there,” she said of the jury.
Newsom said she didn’t know which way the jury would go, but that when the clerk read the unanimous not-guilty verdict, she was relieved.
“It finally feels kind of established — that it’s a garden,” she said.
She said she believes Northport should amend its code to focus more specifically on properties that are neglected, not on properties that simply look different than those around them.
“There are many different ways to garden,” Newsom said.
After all was said and done, Newsom said while she thinks her prosecution was a waste of city resources, she hopes folks who hear about the story will imagine how they, too, can think outside of the traditional grass lawn.
“I hope that more people get interested in alternatives,” Newsom said, the sun beating down on her blossoming, now judicially-sanctioned garden. She laughed. “And I hope they don’t get harassed for it.”