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VOL. 36 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 28, 2012

Appeals court overturns vote fraud convictions

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A state appeals court has overturned a candidate's voting fraud conviction after finding that West Tennessee prosecutors misled the jury.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this month for Brenda Woods, who was convicted of three counts of procuring an illegal vote, a felony. Woods was accused of helping felons illegally cast ballots in the May 2009 municipal elections in Bolivar, where she won a seat on the city council but lost the election for mayor.

The prosecution case included testimony from three felons, Yolanda Giles, Taletha McNeal Traylor and Amos Watkins, who were indicted on charges of voting illegally. But the charges were dropped after Woods was convicted.

Election officials testified all three were registered to vote at the time of the election. Giles and Traylor testified that they had registered after their convictions, lying about having a felony on their records in order to obtain proof of residency and never intended to vote. Watkins testified that he didn't know his conviction was a felony that prevented him from voting, although another prosecution witness testified that she told Woods that Watkins was a felon.

The three testified that Woods had encouraged them to vote even though she knew they were felons and, under questioning from prosecutors, they also said their criminal charges were still pending and they hadn't been promised anything by the state in exchange for their testimony.

In closing arguments to the jury, District Attorney Michael Dunavant and an assistant DA repeated that the three had been given "no promises" and that Woods had victimized them because "they're facing criminal charges now."

The defense argued to the appeals court that the prosecutors misled the jury because Tennessee voting law grants immunity to witnesses who testify in voting fraud cases. The state argued that the information the prosecutors gave the jury was "technically true," but the court found the maneuver to be out of bounds.

"The prosecutor did ... have a duty not to intentionally elicit testimony that was misleading to the jury. The prosecutor also had a duty not to use that misleading information in closing argument in an attempt to bolster the credibility of its witnesses," the court ruled.

Dunavant said in an email response to The Associated Press that because the case has been reversed and remanded back to Hardeman County for a new trial, he could not comment on a pending case.

Woods is a self-described activist, and she and others testified that she has assisted many felons in petitioning to restore their voting rights. According to prosecution testimony, she told a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent that she had been fighting "400 years of oppression in Hardeman County" against African-Americans.

"It was an attempt to silence my voice, because I am an activist in my community," Woods said Friday of the voting fraud charges.

Because she was convicted of a felony, Woods was no longer eligible to vote or run for office. It also cost her the seat she won on the Bolivar City Council.

Woods said she had never missed voting in an election before the conviction and it was devastating for her not to be able to vote. She said she has not stopped being active politically in the community.

Voter fraud cases are rare, but state officials have said they don't have statistics on how often they are prosecuted. Republican lawmakers cited fraud concerns when they enacted a law that requires voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot.