BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
AUBURN—An Auburn municipal judge found Winston “Winchester” Hagans guilty June 9 of criminal littering for leaving flower boxes on his fiancée’s gravesite, which is owned by the fiancée’s father.
Though the judge suspended the 30-day jail sentence, Hagans faces a criminal littering fine of $50 plus court costs in the amount of $251. The defense will appeal the decision, according to Hagans’ attorney, Jeff Tickal.
“I’m paid to rule on law and the facts,” said Judge Jim McLaughlin. “…Whether [the flower box] is pretty or not is not a consideration of this court.” He called it a “clear case” based on the evidence and testimonies.
“It is a simple personal property right,” he added.
The “flowers on the grave” case gained international attention earlier this year after news of the formal complaint and subsequent arrest circulated on social media.
Hagans, of Opelika, was engaged to Hannah Ford for about a month when she was killed in a car accident on her way home to Montgomery on January 17, 2021. The couple had just picked out a wedding venue that evening.
Hagans later created a flower planter box with their engagement pictures on the sides, which he left on her gravesite at Auburn’s Memorial Park Cemetery in May 2021, the same month they were to be married. He soon found that the box had been discarded, a pattern he would experience in the following months.
Hagans said previously that Hannah’s father, the Rev. Hayden Thomas “Tom” Ford III, did not approve of the relationship.
On January 4, 2022, Ford filed a criminal complaint against Hagans for criminal littering. Hagans was arrested later that month and saw that Ford had signed the warrant for his arrest. Hagans claimed the Ford family never reached out to him directly to ask him to stop placing the flowers at Hannah’s grave. However, he allegedly vowed on social media to continue placing flowers there as long as they would continue to be thrown away, according to the complaint.
A municipal judge heard a motion to dismiss the charge in March, but the motion was not granted.
The bench trial June 9 saw several family members from both sides in attendance. Hagans pleaded not guilty and stood silent throughout the proceedings.
Tickal argued the flower boxes did not fit the definition of “litter” as outlined in the Code of Alabama. The judge ruled that it did, falling under the category of “foreign substance.”
Ford and City Prosecutor Justin Clark noted 10 separate instances of finding a flower box at the grave and discarding it. Ford claimed the first box was “rotten” and falling apart when he picked it up. He said he also noticed a surveillance camera in a nearby tree when he discovered the second box.
Ford testified he took ownership of the plot May 14, 2021. It previously belonged to his brother-in-law.
The prosecution called Sari Card, an administrative assistant for Auburn Parks and Recreation, as a witness. Card testified that she had interacted with Hagans on multiple occasions regarding the gravesite and advised him not to keep placing the flowers at Hannah’s grave, noting Ford might take legal action. She said Hagans responded that he “didn’t care” and would put more.
Tickal later argued the presence of several other similar flower boxes and other items at other gravesites in the cemetery gave “implied permission” for Hagans to do the same. Card confirmed the presence of these items.
Tickal then asked Ford if he approved of his daughter’s relationship with Hagans, to which Ford said he “certainly [did] not.” However, Ford said his decision to take legal action “had nothing to do with the relationship or anything else.”
The defense made a motion to dismiss the case “not on facts,” but because of a “defective complaint.” Tickal argued the complaint did not allege that Hagans “actually did anything,” and it did not focus on a particular instance.
He also pointed out an incorrect date in the documents, calling it a “fatal error” that did not get fixed when he brought it to the city’s attention.
The judge denied the motion and delivered the judgement, advising Hagans to pay tribute to Hannah somewhere else.
Tickal had no statement following the trial. Clark said he cannot comment since the decision is being appealed.
The defense has 14 days to file an appeal, according to McLaughlin.
Story updated June 9, 2022 at 7:48 p.m.