Pamela Moses, a resident of Tennessee, tried to register to vote, after completing her period of probation for a felony violation. People in that state are ineligible to vote if they are on felony probation. She submitted a document signed by her parole office that said that the had completed her parole. The state of Tennessee argued that she had not, if fact, completed her parole and that she had tricked the parole officer into signing the document.
Mark Ward, the judge at the trial, gave her and her lawyer a scolding for her supposed fraud.
“You tricked the probation department into giving you documents saying you were off probation,” [Ward] said. Judge Ward drilled Moses over her past convictions and the fact that she was already on probation when she committed the voting crime. “After you were convicted of a felony in 2015, you voted 6 times as a convicted felon,” he said.
The hearing turned contentious when Moses’ lawyer tried to tell the court about the probation department’s role. “Your honor let me school the court for a second,” the attorney said. “You need to stop talking sir. Sit down! Sit down!” the judge responded.
The judge then sentenced her to six years in prison in November 2021.
The severity of her sentence for an error created controversy and the Guardian newspaper unearthed evidence that the prosecutor’s office knew that Moses had been told that she was eligible to register and yet went ahead with the criminal case and the harsh sentence. (Did I mention that Moses is Black? Do I need to?)
Evidence obtained by the Guardian this week showed that corrections officials investigated the error immediately afterwards and determined that the probation officer – identified as Manager Billington – was negligent and made an error while Moses waited in the lobby of his office.
“Manager Billington advised that he thought he did due diligence in making his decision,” Joe Williams, an administrator in the department of corrections, wrote in an email to Lisa Helton, a top department official. “Manager Billington failed to adequately investigate the status of this case. He failed to review all of the official documents available through the Shelby county justice portal”.
Ferguson, Moses’ attorney, said he had never seen the document before the Guardian showed it to him on Wednesday.
W Mark Ward, the judge who oversaw the case and sentenced Moses, cited the prosecution’s failure to disclose the letter, even if it was inadvertent, as one of the reasons he was ordering a new trial. “The document does contain information that was not addressed in the direct and cross-examinations of Billington and contained the identity of an additional possible witness for the defense.”
Ward also said the court had erroneously allowed information about a prior 2000 felony conviction and an earlier effort by Moses to get her voting rights back to be introduced at trial. “The only real issue for the jury during the trial was whether the defendant knew the certificate of voting rights restoration form was not accurate when she obtained it and utilized it to attempt to register to vote,” he wrote. “The fact that she was convicted of a felony in 2000 and had her right to vote restored in 2014 has no significant relevance” to the case at hand.
The ruling was an abrupt reversal for Ward, who yelled at Moses’ lawyer during the sentencing hearing and said she tricked the probation officer.
“This ruling is an extraordinary development. It is very rare for a judge to reverse himself like this, and it’s telling that he sentenced her so severely and summarily discounted her position before the case made national news,” said Josh Spickler, the executive director of Just City, a criminal justice non-profit. The district attorney’s office, he said, “has long had a reputation for failing to disclose material evidence that could benefit the accused. This is yet another shocking example of that”. [My italics-MS]
Moses now has been granted a new trial. But really the charges should be dropped altogether. This kind of abuse pf prosecutorial powers will not end until prosecutors face sever penalties for this kind of act. Surely depriving a person of their liberty should warrant investigation and, if found to be willful, harsh punishment?
This is part of the drive in the US to reduce voting by members of poor and minority communities by scaring the hell out of them that any slip up, however minor, will be prosecuted harshly.