On a seasonably mild autumn afternoon in Quitman, Georgia on Friday, September 27, unexpected news was delivered by South Georgia Superior Court Judge Ronnie Joe Lane on the fifth day of the Brooks County absentee ballot trial.
Judge Lane declared a mistrial in regard to the Lula Smart prosecution, and the remaining defendants known originally as the Quitman 10+2 are also released as well.
Gladys Lee, a member of the Brooks County NAACP, provided a response moments after the decision rendered by the judge.
Brooks County Commissioner James Maxwell expressed his support for the Court's decision to dismiss the case and believes that the twelve people who were indicted two years ago had done nothing legally wrong and correctly followed election laws.
This legal saga started on December 21, 2010-- four days before Christmas-- which began with the arrest and booking of the original "Quitman 10" and now has come to a legal conclusion three years later inside the Brooks County Courthouse.
The prosecution's case which was led by Clara Bucci started to slowly fall apart as the defendants' attorney for one of the Quitman defendants, Chevene King, poked holes in a case in which some believe was more of a persecution of African-American citizens exercising their right to vote.
During the first day of the trial, King did ask Judge Lane for a mistrial and the motion was denied.
However, by the fifth day of the trial, Lane changed his mind.
There were some events such as information provided by J. David Miller which was allegedly tampered.
Miller had originally requested the GBI-Thomasville office led by Steve Turner to intercede in 2010, but all of the paperwork that provided details of the case were not available for review.
On a side note, the GBI or its regional office only assist if there is a written 'request' made--mostly by a local District Attorney. So the GBI just can't come in and investigate on its own.
So was the pursuit of the Quitman 10+2 by J. David Miller and Nathan Deal and others purely political in an effort to intimidate and suppress the vote of African-Americans?
Local media were ready in 2010 to post mugshots of the defendants, but there were no media in sight on Friday, September 27 outside the courtroom when Judge Ronnie Joe Lane dismissed the case.
The prosecution's first witness was Chris Williams, a former investigator for the Georgia Secretary of State. Williams and members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were called in to look at the first reports received concerning the case -- days after the July 20, 2010 primary.
According to the Valdosta Daily Times: "... (Chevene) King focused on the questionnaire and the process of going through it with absentee voters in his cross-examination, with Williams conceding that they obtained no physical proof from absentee voters of tampering, but stating that he believed the number and similarity of the complaints were relevant..."
Williams gave more weight or credence to 'sour grapes' complaints from Dixiecrats rather than correctly interpreting the law. And once those allegations hit the courtroom under cross-examination, a case such as this has a tendency to fall apart.
In the Valdosta Daily News, the newspaper had quoted Claude Butler in 2010 and this contributed to Jo Ann Collins (former Probate Court Judge and Elections Superintendent) passing this 'sour grapes' complaint to the District Attorney of the Southern Judicial District, J. David Miller.
Here's the quote:
"The issue is the absentee ballots," said Claude Butler, the former County Commissioner for District Three."They have gone rampant here in our county. And it's unethical and it's unconstitutional."
This was an emotional response, but voting by absentee ballot is legal and here in Georgia eligible, registered voters can request a no-reason absentee ballot and if people need assistance who have disabilities, illiterate, or elderly, then there are laws in place that protect them.
Butler, a white Democrat in his early 70's, lost back in the 2010 primary by 247 votes to Willie Cody-- an African-American. The final vote tally, according to the Secretary of State website, was 514 to 267.
Even though Brooks County has a minority population of forty percent and Brooks' largest city, Quitman, is 68 percent African-American, the jury which was selected in the absentee ballot trial consisted of 10 whites and 2 African-Americans.
Prior to the mistrial being declared, there were several details that came out in trial which were noteworthy.
According to the Valdosta Daily Times: "Due to the increase, (Melba) Lovett deputized two other people in the office to lawfully handle ballots, along with her granddaughter, to handle the workload. At one point, she took ballots home with her in an effort to keep up..."
Another detail is that Peggy Kimble who works for the Brooks County Sheriff's Office as a victim rights advocate had picked up two witnesses and drove them to the courthouse. Both testified that Lula Smart did not pick up their ballots.
Judge Lane had the Sheriff call Kimble to the stand , talked to her and had the sheriff escort her out of the courtroom.
Lane, who is from Donalsonville is part of Southwest Georgia's Patalua Judicial District which consists of seven rural counties: Terrell (Dawson), Randolph (Cuthbert), Quitman (Georgetown) , Seminole (Donalsonville), Miller (Colquitt), Clay (Fort Gaines), and Early (Blakely).
Lane was brought in as an 'independent' judge from another judicial to oversee the trial.
Lula Smart was the first of the original 'Quitman 10' defendants to have their day in court.
The original Quitman 10 are the following: Angela Bryant, April Proctor, Lula Smart, Kechia Harrison, Robert Dennard, Sandra Cody, Elizabeth Thomas, Linda Troutman, Latashia Head, and Nancy Whitfield-Dennard.
In November 2011, two additional defendants were added after an indictment was issued: Brenda Monds and Debra Dennard.
One of the original Quitman 10, Latashia Head, had passed away on March 17, 2012.
The Quitman 10 +2 has always maintained their innocence since the beginning.
The following provides the circumstances of why mistrials are called:
A judge may declare a mistrial for several reasons, including lack of jurisdiction, incorrect jury selection, or a deadlocked, or hung, jury.
A deadlocked jury—where the jurors cannot agree over the defendant's guilt or innocence—is a common reason for declaring a mistrial. Extraordinary circumstances, such as death or illness of a necessary juror or an attorney, may also result in a mistrial.
A mistrial may also result from a fundamental error so prejudicial to the defendant that it cannot be cured by appropriate instructions to the jury, such as improper remarks made during the prosecution's summation."