For a third time in six months, another delay has hindered the start of the Brooks County absentee ballot trial in Quitman.
The first delay was due to a change of prosecutors. The second was due to remodeling delays at the Brooks County Courthouse.
On Thursday, April 4, an appointed Superior Court judge from Seminole County, Ronnie Joe Lane, heard the challenge of Lula Smart in regard to having the Court consider that the jury pool is not diverse enough.
A defendant has the right to have a jury pool that’s composed of a fair cross- section of the community that one resides.
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).
The trial for Lula M. Smart was set to begin on Monday, April 8.
Each of the Quitman 10 + 2 defendants wanted to have separate trials, and the Superior Court judge agreed.
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 Southern Judicial District led by J. David Miller has held this case for nearly three years and the Quitman 10+2 has eagerly waited to have their day in court and have their individual cases heard before a jury.
A jury is required to be representative of the community and a defendent has a right to a speedy trial .
Both have been apparently circumvented by the Southern Judicial District with the alleged intent of influencing an outcome in favor of the prosecution.
It took more than a year for an indictment to be issued. If this was an ‘open and shut case’, then why has it taken so long?
When a grand jury was finally convened that produced an indictment in late 2011, the composition of the grand jury was not represenative of Brooks County. There were virtually no African-Americans on that panel that made the decision to proceed.
It is becoming more clear everyday that this Quitman absentee voting case is an example of a political prosecution and persecution of African-Americans who were attempting to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Smart’s lawyers challenged that diversity of the jury pool. Brooks County has a minority population of approximately 40 percent, and the city of Quitman is approximately 70 percent African-American.
Subpoenas had already been delivered in preparation to the aforementioned April 8 trial to various people such as Jo Ann Collins, who had been the Brooks County Probate Judge and Elections Superintendent for several years until her resignation– allegedly due to health concerns in late 2011.
Collins was replaced by Beth Hurst, who is Brooks County’s Probate Court judge.
Collins wanted to make absentee ballot an issue against the Quitman 10+2, but her own election in 2008 was decided by small margin.
- In 2004, Collins had run unopposed, but in 2008 she had faced opposition from two other challengers in a non-partisan race–Bill Rogers and Donna Swann.
- On November 4, 2008, Collins did not reach the 50.1 percent threshold. The incumbent Probate Judge of Brooks County and the election superintendent had received 46 percent or 2,622 votes overall. Swann had received 42 percent of the vote and had 2,346 votes.
- Bill Rogers came in a distant third with 12 percent of the vote and had 663 votes.
- Collins won voting precincts that tended to vote for conservative candidates and Swann appeared to have done well in more progressive precincts, including the county’s largest and most progressive , Quitman.
- A December 2, 2008 runoff election commenced and Collins won narrowly and the margin of victory was decided by absentee votes.
- Overall, Collins had won with 52 percent and had 1,646 votes and Swann had 1,491 votes which turned out to be 47 percent.
- However, the difference was the number of absentee ballots cast.
- Collins had 500 to Swann’s 305, a difference of 195. The overall vote difference in the runoff election was 155 votes.
Going by the logic of the district attorney and some in the local media, wouldn’t this race be the subject to some type of inquiry due to absentee ballots having an impact?
With nearly three long years passed, people may forget that Collins’ actions helped to set into motion ten African-Americans from Brooks County being accused and eventually arrested on December 21, 2010 on charges of illegally possessing an absentee ballot.
In the Valdosta Daily News, the newspaper had quoted Claude Butler in 2010 and this contributed to Collins passing this unfounded ‘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 County Commissioner for District Three.”They have gone rampant here in our county. And it’s unethical and it’s unconstitutional.”
Butler, now 72, a white Democrat, 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 Butler voiced his displeasure of African-Americans being able to use the absentee ballot in Brooks County, he didn’t run as a write-in candidate in the fall of 2010 for the majority-black district Board of Commissioners seat.
Despite Cody winning a seat in a district that has a majority-black electorate, conservative Republicans and Dixiecrats still had a 3-2 advantage on the Brooks Board of Commissioners.
However, the prospect of the Brooks County Board of Education having an African-American majority became the primary target of the majority-conservative Southern Judicial District .
Steps were made to invalidate the 2010 election results with assistance from the regional GBI office in Thomasville, the Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the Republican Governor Nathan Deal.
The president of the Brooks Board of Education for many years until January 2011 was Brad Shealy, who was and still is today an assistant District Attorney and works beside J. David Miller and the Probate Judge/Election Superintendent (at the time)–Jo Ann Collins.
Was Collins influenced to pursue charges against Nancy Dennard, Elizabeth Thomas and Linda Troutman because the assistant District Attorney –Brad Shealy–stood to lose his position as President of Brooks County School Board to an African-American majority?
Collins’ conduct and handling of the elections along with the county registrar Melba Lovett has faced virtually no questions and little scrutiny and they have been allowed by the local media in Valdosta and Albany to go about their business without any type of formal and public review of their actions.
Did Collins and Shealy along with J. David Miller have conversations about who will control the Brooks County Board of Education back in 2010?
Collins did pass on information about alleged absentee ballot irregularity to J. David Miller.
Subsequently, Miller obliged and requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation based out of Thomasville to investigate– led by Steve Turner.
Keep in mind, the results of the summer primary in 2010 were certified by Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp in September 2010.
However, the focus of GBI investigation was to target Brooks County’s African-American community and its registered voters in which many decided to cast a ballot by absentee.
Absentee ballots are legal and a registered voter in Georgia doesn’t need to have a reason to request one.
There are laws in place for voters–especially older voters– who need assistance.
2010 was a federal election year.
According to the rules for Absentee Voting: A Guide for Voters and Candidates, one of the questions that it presents is the following:
Question 4.4: If I am a resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility, can I receive assistance with my absentee ballot?
….”The person rendering assistance to the disabled or illiterate voter in preparing the ballot must sign the oath printed on the same envelope as the oath to be signed by the voter. In addition, no person may assist more than ten such voters in any election in which there is no federal candidate on the ballot. If a federal candidate appears on a ballot, a person can assist an unlimited number of voters in that election….”
….”Only a physically disabled or illiterate voter who is a resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility can receive assistance in preparing his or her ballot from one of the following: any elector who is qualified to vote in the same county or municipality as the disabled or illiterate voter; an attendant care provider or a person providing attendant care; or the mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law of the disabled or illiterate voter….”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation regional office based out of Thomasville began to start targeting residents and questioning them openly about who they voted for.
Many voters in Brooks County are older African-Americans who are senior citizens in their 60′s, 70′s and 80′s that witnessed first-hand the politics of Jim Crow in the last century, but had to deal with GBI agents coming to their doorsteps of their small rural town with guns strapped to the side asking questions.
This was an example of voter intimidation in an effort to suppress the vote in this south Georgia community.
J. David Miller had written a 2011 letter to the Georgia Attorney General, Sam Olens, and expressed an interest to step away from the case because of the clear conflict of interest.
“I felt that since Brad (Shealy) is my Chief Assistant and was removed as Chairman of the Board of Education on Jan. 1, it was prudent to recuse our office so as to avoid any allegation of a ‘political prosecution’ by our office,” said Miller in an e-mail to the Valdosta Daily Times.
The line of ‘political prosecution’ was already crossed when the GBI was called by the Southern Judicial District–led by Miller, Shealy and Collins– and civil rights and voting rights were violated.
This is 2013, but Jim Crow politics is still alive in rural South Georgia and deserves closer scrutiny by the federal government and U.S. Justice Department specifically.
Despite Miller’s writing his letter to Sam Olens back in 2011 and giving the case for a year to Joe Mulholland out of Bainbridge, the case is now back in Miller’s hands after Mulholland didn’t prosecute and subsequently the African-American-majority led by Board President Nancy Dennard was installed back in October 2012 after Governor Deal suspended them in January 2012.
There have been trial dates and several postponements, and the ‘conflict of interest’ involving J. David Miller and Brad Shealy still persists.
On a side note, J. David Miller is one of nine members of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia and the attorneys (Al Martinez, Clara Bucci, Gary Bergman) that are assigned to prosecute the Brooks County voting case are from the staff of Miller’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia.