Deadly tornado, abortion ban, kidnappings and more top 2019 news headlines

Published 2:55 pm Sunday, December 29, 2019

Alabama’s biggest news stories of 2019 included a legislative effort to outlaw abortion, an ongoing crisis in state prisons and a deadly tornado that claimed 23 lives. Here’s a look at the stories that dominated headlines over the last year.

Twenty-three people were killed and dozens more were injured when a powerful tornado ripped through the rural community of Beauregard in Lee County, Alabama on March 3, 2019. The youngest of those killed was 6, the oldest 89. The EF4 tornado with winds of 170 mph (274 kph) swept homes from their foundations and reduced others to unrecognized piles of twisted rubble as it cut a damage path up to a mile wide.

Alabama lawmakers approved a controversial near-total ban on abortion that did not allow exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. The ban would make performing an abortion a felony, but a federal judge temporarily blocked it from taking effect as a challenge plays out in court. Supporters of the ban say they want to mount a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case legalizing abortion nationwide. A backlash over the legislation caused protests at the Alabama Statehouse and Capitol.

The U.S. Department of Justice in April said Alabama prisons house male inmates in unconstitutional conditions where violence is “too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.” The Justice Department threatened to sue the state if conditions did not improve. The investigative findings detailed a chilling litany of incidents. Alabama also faces a federal court order to boost staffing in a separate case over mental health care. The state faced a rash of inmate homicides despite the attention on reducing prison violence.

Alabama lawmakers approved a 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase to fund road and bridge construction. The gas tax increase will be phased in over three years. The first six-cent increase went into effect on Sept. 1. With the backing of Republican leadership, the bill moved on the legislative fast track after Gov. Kay Ivey called lawmakers into a special session at the start of the 2019. The tax increase also placed new fees on hybrid and electric vehicles that will take effect in 2020.

Six Alabama law enforcement officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2018. Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams was among those slain. Williams was shot at a gas station in the county where he served as sheriff. The other officers killed in 2019 were: Huntsville police Officer Billy Fred Clardy III; Tuscaloosa police Officer Dornell Cousette; Birmingham police Sgt. Wytasha Carter; Mobile police Officer Sean Tuder; and Auburn police Officer William Buechner.

Three-year-old Kamille McKinney vanished in October while playing outside at a birthday party at the Tom Brown Village Housing Community. The search for the missing toddler gripped the state. Police found her body 10 days later in a dumpster at a county landfill. Two people face capital murder charges in the girl’s death. Separately, 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard, the stepdaughter of UFC heavyweight Walt Harris, disappeared after police say she was abducted from an Auburn gas station. A man faces capital murder charges after her remains were found in a wooded area.

Researchers working in the murky waters of the Gulf Coast located the wreck of the last ship known to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States. Remains of the schooner Clotilda were identified near Mobile after months of assessment. In 1860, the wooden ship illegally transported 110 people from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda was then taken into delta waters north of the port and burned to avoid detection of the illegal trip.

A year after being forced out as the nation’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions announced a return to the political stage with a bid for his former Senate seat. His decision adds to the brewing drama in the 2020 race. Sessions joined a crowded and competitive GOP primary field that includes Congressman Bradley Byrne, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. The Republicans are vying for the right to challenge incumbent Democrat Doug Jones in November.

A power struggle emerged in the Alabama Democratic Party as two sides wrestled for control. Longtime party bosses Nancy Worley and Joe Reed were pitted against a reform group that had the support of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and others. The Democratic National Committee ordered the state party to hold new leadership elections and state Rep. Chris England was elected as party chair under new bylaws. Worley maintained the election was illegitimate and filed a lawsuit to try to block England from taking control.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the majority-black city of Birmingham violated a state law protecting Confederate monuments when it put plywood panels in front of a towering obelisk in a downtown park. The all-Republican court reversed a circuit judge’s ruling that struck down Alabama’s 2017 law protecting Confederate monuments as an unconstitutional violation of the free speech rights of local communities. Alabama sued Birmingham in 2017 after municipal officials erected a wooden box obscuring the inscriptions on a 52-foot-tall (16-meter-tall) obelisk honoring Confederate veterans.