Eight top election officials from Clay County, KY previously found guilty in a massive vote buying and selling conspiracy --- which prosecutors charged had been run over several decades and included the manipulation of electronic voting machines in 2006 --- have had their convictions overturned and a new trial ordered by a panel on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of appeals.
The eight co-conspirators --- which included the County Clerk, a Circuit Court Judge and the School Superintendent, among others --- had previously been sentenced to a total of more than 156 years in federal prison following their 2009 arrest and 2010 trial and conviction over fraud carried out in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections.
The group had been found guilty of complex, endemic vote buying and selling schemes carried out over many elections over several years, often meant to game the Republican primary elections in the very rural, very poor, Republican area of the Bluegrass State in a location where winning the GOP primary was usually a guarantee for also winning the general election.
The schemes became more sophisticated over the years, according to prosecution evidence and cooperating witnesses, including in 2006 when poll workers participating in the conspiracy were said to have changed the votes cast by voters on touch-screen voting machines after they'd left the "booth" on Election Day. (The same 100% unverifiable touch-screen systems, the ES&S iVotronic, which allowed for the manipulation of votes in Clay County, are still in widespread use across the country today.)
Evidence presented during the trial also included testimony that one of the defendants, Circuit Court Judge R. Cletus Maricle, said to have been one of the scheme's main ringleaders, used his position as a judge to convince a woman, whose brother was a defendant before his court, to change her voter registration from Republican to Democratic so that she could serve as a "Democratic" poll-worker during elections there and take part in the scheme.
Over all, during the original trial, the prosecution had presented a remarkably wide-spread conspiracy taking place over many elections, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to buy votes and manipulate results, year after year, election after election, by highly-placed election official insiders --- precisely the type of folks who those concerned about the manipulation of elections, particularly via computer manipulation, frequently warn about. At the end, the officials placed on trial were all found guilty and sentenced to an average of about 20 years apiece.
So, why did the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturn the original convictions this week, and remand the case for a new trial?...
According to AP, the appellate court found that "U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves allowed jurors to hear some evidence that should not have been admitted and erred in his handling of transcripts of secret tape recordings that an informant made during the FBI investigation."
"Writing for the court, Judge Karen Nelson Moore concluded the errors taken alone might not have hurt the defendants' ability to get a fair trial. But, Moore wrote, the cumulative effect of the mistakes tainted the legal proceedings."
"The court's ruling mainly turned on a prosecution decision to offer several witnesses to testify about a decade-old drug conspiracy. Moore concluded the testimony shouldn't have been allowed because there was no direct link between the drug sales and the vote buying allegations."
"Furthermore, the sheer amount of drug-dealing evidence that was presented is entirely disproportionate to its probative value, tipping the scales toward unfair prejudice," Moore wrote in her decision. "In sum, the evidence of widespread drug dealing in Clay County did not serve as a prelude to the present case or help complete the story of the offense."
The elections conspiracy case had come about after a years-long federal investigation and prosecution into an enormous drug ring also being run out of the rural south-eastern Kentucky county. For example, as part of that prosecution, there had been the arrest of the local Mayor and others on charges of drug trafficking and more. The sale of oxycontin, or "Hillbilly Heroine," as well as marijuana played a large role in the first scandal that rocked the very rural, very poor, very Republican county over the previous decade.
The arrests from the narcotics ring eventually helped lead to the later election fraud busts. During the course of the drug-ring investigation, some defendants had begun turning on others, and that's how the massive election fraud scheme eventually came to light.
Other than Maricle, the District Court Judge found guilty and previously sentenced to more than 26 years in the election fraud case, the other defendants were former school superintendent Douglas C. Adams, former county Clerk Freddy Thompson; former Magistrate Stanley Bowling; election commissioner Charles Wayne Jones, election officer William E. Stivers and Bart and Debra Morris, a couple who owned a garbage business with large local contracts.
Following the decision by a panel of appellate court jurists this week, the government had 20 days to seek a review of that decision by the entire court.