A four-year legal ordeal is over for a dozen defendants accused of improper handling of absentee ballots—a felony—in South Georgia's Brooks County.
The state dropped the remaining charges against the "Quitman 12" in December, following the acquittal in September of the first defendant to go to trial, Lula Smart. Her acquittal came after two mistrials.
Defense attorney Tiffany Simmons said her clients were relieved, but she questioned why the charges were brought at all. "This was, essentially, a case to discourage absentee voters, as well as a case of voter suppression," Simmons said. She and attorney Chevene King Jr. of Albany defended Smart in the September trial.
Simmons called the prosecution a retaliation for a political shift in which the first ever African-American majority was elected to the Brooks County Board of Education. All the defendants are African-American. Some were school board members—removed from office by the governor because of the indictment, then reinstated when they were not convicted within the time limit of the law.
Francys Johnson, a Statesboro lawyer and president of the Georgia NAACP, said the prosecution was unjust and politically motivated. After the Smart acquittal, he urged the state to "end the nightmare" by dismissing charges against the remaining defendants. "This victory was only after four years, a removal from office of some of the defendants by the governor, two mistrials and millions of dollars of wasted taxpayers funds," Johnson said last week by email.
"I made the decision as a prosecutor not to go forward," said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council. He took over the case after Southern Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Miller recused because one of his assistant district attorneys was a member of the school board's new white minority. Miller said complaints of mishandled mailed ballots were referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the secretary of state's office.
As to reasons for dropping the charges, Spahos referred to his nolle prosequi motion, signed by Senior Judge Gary McCorvey in December. That document said the Smart case was tried first because it was the strongest of the 12. It disputed the defendants' contention that they "did nothing illegal" by mailing absentee ballots for able-bodied voters, pointing out that the Georgia Secretary of State website states policies that require a voter be disabled to allow someone else to handle a ballot.
"Nevertheless, the state anticipates the absentee voter witnesses in the remaining cases will also recant, as they did in the Smart case," the motion said. "Because the witnesses in the remaining cases were neither asked to prepare handwritten statements nor were their interviews recorded via audio or video tape, it will be difficult once again to impeach them."
The motion said the state has less evidence in the remaining cases than in the Smart case. "Based on the outcome of the Smart case, the state believes that it is unlikely to obtain convictions in the remaining cases. After three trials, the state must consider the financial burden to Brooks County and weigh what is in the best interest of the community."