Election Trial Begins in Hattiesburg - WHLT 22 Connecting the Pine Belt

Election Trial Begins in Hattiesburg

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     A jury and a packed courtroom heard opening arguments from Mayor Johnny Dupree and former mayoral candidate Dave Ware's attorneys Wednesday morning.

     Ware lost to Dupree in the June 4 municipal election by 37 votes and filed suit claiming the process was unjust.

     Ware's attorney Malcolm Jones started by saying who he is and what he wants is not important; rather it is about voters. 

     "I believe in juries," Jones said.  "I believe they get it right."

     He continued saying if elections don't work the way they're supposed to, people lose confidence in the government.  There was a time in the state of Mississippi that elections weren't run the way they were supposed to have been, he said, and people fought to change that, making the process fair for all voters. 

     "People aren't going to cheat at the polls while everyone is looking," he said.

     Then he explained to the jurors the absentee voting process, noting that the votes have to be notarized before they're sent back to the circuit clerk and the clerks have to initial and give the document the official seal to make sure it is genuine.  He claimed that out of 600 absentee ballots, 375 didn't comply with mandatory rules, and only 12 of them were kicked out.

     Defense Attorney Brandon Jones said he felt like his opponent's opening statement was like being sent to the principal's office for chewing gum and being kicked out of school.  He said although rules are important, they are not there to "trip us up."

     "Our election rules are not there to make a loser feel better," he said.

     He then explained that everyone is human and there is no such thing as a perfect election. 

     Captain Donell Brannon, Forrest County Sheriff Department Jail Administrator, took the stand as the first witness.  An attorney for Ware questioned him about the absentee voting process that took place at the county jail May 24. 

     Brannon said Dupree's wife, Johneice, and Tonya Fairly took letters to the jail asking the inmates to vote.  He recalled that Mrs. Dupree was wearing a T-shirt with her husband's picture on it.  He said there was not a form with every single inmate's name on it and did not know how they were chosen.

     The attorney presented documents noting that three of the inmates were disenfranchised felons who lost their right to vote because of the type of crime they had committed.  He also presented documents showing that a vote was cast for Rico Roberts, Sr., but he was released from jail in 2012, and since the jail does not allow visitors on Fridays, there is no way he would have been there.

     Dupree's attorney, Precious Martin, fired back.  Brannon acknowledged that though Mrs. Dupree was wearing a political T-shirt, none of the inmates saw her.  Also, he said Dave Ware called asking to canvas the jail for votes.  They set a date, but Ware never showed up.

     Robert Charles Sanders, a Forrest County Sheriff Department Facility Supervisor, confirmed that two ladies also entered the Forrest County jail delivering letters requesting absentee ballots.  When Ware's attorney asked him about the actual voting process, he said they called the inmate's names and they came forward, took their ballot and voted.  No one checked for identification.

     City Clerk, Eddie Myers took the stand next.  Ware's attorney said there were 6 curbside ballots - for voters who could not walk inside the building and cast their vote outside in their car - which were placed in affidavit envelopes incorrectly.  Myers confirmed that was a mistake and that the poll workers were supposed to initial the ballot before it went outside.  There was also a question regarding envelopes that were not signed across the flap of an envelope ensuring that it wasn't opened or tampered with in any way.  Apparently, this was also done incorrectly in several instances.  A document Ware's attorney presented with instructions from the Attorney General's office stated the vote doesn't count if the document isn't signed across the flap.

     "We're not talking about the chemical makeup of rocket fuel," Martin responded.  "We're talking about simply signing an envelope."

     He went on to say "there are different ways to skin a cat," and just because it wasn't signed completely across the flap didn't mean it wasn't signed across the flap.  On the subject of the initials on the ballots, he asked if it is true that the poll workers are just people and are capable of making mistakes.  Myers agreed.  Martin then asked if there was a way to determine which votes without initials were for Dupree and which were for Ware.  Myers said he could determine that, but had not looked at them yet.  Martin finished by asking if a poll worker made a mistake, does it make the voter's vote less important?

     This time, Ware's attorney Malcolm Jones said the initials placed on a ballot by the poll workers authenticate the ballot.  He asked if Myers found a vote later in the ballot box without a signature on it, could he be sure it came from his office?

     "I guess not," Myers replied.

     The judge called an early recess.  Court resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday.

    

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