Monday, December 12, 2005

 

Birmingham diver given suspended sentence in artifact theft case

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Tuscaloosa News
December 08, 2005

A Birmingham diving shop operator has been convicted of theft and given a suspended sentence for taking a Civil War-era rifle that he pulled from the river bottom while diving in the Alabama River at Selma.

A Dallas County jury Wednesday convicted Steve Phillips of misdemeanor third-degree theft but found him not guilty of felony or misdemeanor theft of a cultural resource. It was the first case prosecuted under a 1999 state law designed to protect artifacts.

"I don't feel guilty of anything except helping history," Phillips told Judge Marvin Wiggins during sentencing.

Phillips and Perry Thomas Massie of Los Angeles were arrested in October 2003 and charged with violating a law against taking or possessing cultural artifacts without a permit. They were charged after a conservation officer watched them dive and then found the Civil War-era musket in their pontoon boat.

Massie pleaded guilty earlier this year to trespassing and was fined $500 plus court costs. Massie is president and CEO of Outdoor Channel Holdings, which owns the Outdoor Channel.

Phillips received a six-month suspended jail sentence and six months of unsupervised probation.

He is also required to pay $500 in restitution.

The musket, preserved in a container of distilled water, was sent to Texas A&M University.

Erskin Mathis, Phillips' attorney, claims the Underwater Cultural Resource Act was vague and almost impossible to enforce.

While his client was convicted of theft, Mathis felt like he won that point. Mathis said he may appeal the conviction.

"I don't know if it is possible to steal something the state didn't know was there," he said.

District Attorney Michael Jackson said he believed the first test of the state law protecting artifacts was a good one.

"This will let others know not to come to Selma and try and rip off our important cultural items," he said.


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