A Tennessee prosecutor dropped all criminal charges Friday against Pamela Moses, a Memphis woman with a prior felony conviction who was sentenced to six years and one day in prison in January after she tried to restore her right to vote in 2019.
The voter fraud conviction from his trial was thrown out in February after a judge ruled that the Tennessee Department of Corrections had improperly withheld evidence that was later discovered by The Guardian. Moses had been scheduled to appear in court Monday to find out if prosecutors would seek a new trial.
But Ms. Moses will no longer face a second trial “in the interests of judicial economy,” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said in a statement. Ms. Moses spent 82 days in custody in this case, “which is enough,” Ms. Weirich said. Ms. Moses is also permanently barred from registering to vote or voting in Tennessee. Ms. Weirich declined to comment further on the case.
The sentencing of Ms. Moses, who is black, sparked outrage among voting rights supporters who said the case highlighted racial disparities in the criminal prosecution of voter fraud cases and opaque right-to-vote restoration laws. vote that sow confusion and leave many people with felony convictions. unsure of their rights.
In the summer of 2019, Black Lives Matter activist Ms. Moses decided she wanted to run for mayor of Memphis, or at least vote in the upcoming election.
He knew he couldn’t do either while on parole for prior felony convictions, including a 2015 conviction for tampering with evidence. But he believed his probation was over, according to his lawyer, Bede Anyanwu. Overall, Ms. Moses had 16 prior criminal convictions, including 2015 misdemeanor charges of perjury, stalking and theft under $500, according to the district attorney’s office.
In September 2019, a judge told Ms. Moses that she was still on probation. But when she went to the probation office to confirm, a probation officer told her that she had actually terminated her felony probation, records show. The parole officer signed her certificate of restoration to vote, and Ms. Moses then presented it to election officials.
A day later, the Department of Corrections sent a letter to the Shelby County Election Commission informing them that the probation officer had made a mistake and that Ms. Moses could not vote because she was, in fact, still on probation.
Video from a January hearing shows Ms. Moses telling Shelby County Criminal Court Judge W. Mark Ward: “All I did was try to get my voting rights back the way people told me in the electoral commission.
Judge Ward responded, “You tricked the probation department into giving you a document saying you were off parole.”
Ms. Moses was charged with perjury on a registration form and consenting to a false entry on official election documents. She had the first count dropped, but she was found guilty on the second count in November and sentenced in January. Ultimately, Ms. Moses’ 2015 felony conviction for tampering with her made her permanently ineligible to vote under Tennessee law, regardless of her parole status.
“The case should not have been prosecuted from the beginning because there was no deception,” Anyanwu said. Ms. Moses declined to comment on Saturday.
In recent years, Republican officials have moved to crack down on voter fraud, even though the crime remains a very rare and often accidental occurrence.
Florida election officials made just 75 referrals to law enforcement agencies regarding possible fraud during the 2020 election, out of more than 11 million votes cast, according to data from the Florida secretary of state’s office. Of those investigations, only four cases have been prosecuted as voter fraud.
Still, lawmakers in some states have toughened penalties for voting-related crimes, and district attorneys and state attorneys general have pursued aggressive felony prosecutions in cases that might have been considered legitimate mistakes.
Voting rights advocates interpret these actions as a voter suppression tactic.
“These prosecutions are intended to scare people with prior convictions into not even trying to register to vote,” said Blair Bowie, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, who has been helping Ms. Moses and the Mr. Anyanwu with the case since October.
These prosecutions also unfairly blame people for failing to navigate an unclear voter restoration process, he said, adding that state officials are responsible for implementing proper procedures for that process.
Ms. Bowie is representing the Tennessee NAACP in a lawsuit against Governor Bill Lee and other officials accusing them of failing to establish clearer procedures for people with felony convictions, “leading to a process of restoring rights which is uneven, inaccessible, opaque and inaccurate. .”
Nearly 80 percent of disenfranchised people in the state have completed probation and parole and are potentially eligible to have their voting rights restored, but fewer than 5 percent of potentially eligible Tennesseans have been able to acquire a full Voting Rights Restoration Certificate and have attempted to register to vote, according to the lawsuit.
Voting rights advocates say the case also highlights the racial disparity in the prosecution of voter fraud cases.
“What we consistently see is that honest mistakes made by returning citizens are penalized the most, and true bad intentions are not penalized to the same degree,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a group government surveillance. “And usually in those cases the defendants are white.”
In October, Donald Kirk Hartle, a white Republican voter, was indicted on two counts of voter fraud in Las Vegas after forging his late wife’s signature to cast his ballot. He was sentenced in November to one year of probation, The Associated Press reported.
Edward Snodgrass, a white Republican official in Ohio, forged his dead father’s signature on an absentee ballot in 2020 and was charged with illegal voting, NBC News reported. As part of a plea deal, he served three days in jail last year, The Delaware Gazette reported.
Ms. Moses is still seeking the restoration of her civil rights, which include the right to vote, through a lawsuit in Shelby County Circuit Court, according to Ms. Bowie. That lawsuit presents a constitutional challenge to a state statute that permanently bars people convicted of tampering with evidence from voting in Tennessee.