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Appeals Court Delivers Good News in Anti-Democracy Texas

credit: Molly Kaplan / Courtesy of ACLU of Texas.

An appeals court overturned Texas prosecutors’ brutal attempt to “send a message” to voters this week. Yesterday, Second District Court of Appeals Judge Wade Birdwell reversed a Fort Worth woman’s voter fraud conviction and the harsh five-year prison term for casting an illegal provisional ballot.


The judge determined defendant Crystal Mason, a Black mother of three, did not know Texas law made voting while on probation for a previous felony conviction illegal.


"[T]hey wanted to ‘send a message’

Mason’s attorney Kim T. Cole praised the decision, saying prosecutors had been determined to use Mason to chill Black voter turnout in Texas.


“The state’s prosecution specifically stated that they wanted to ‘send a message’ to voters,” Cole said in a statement. “They deliberately put Crystal through over six years of pure hell. She woke up every morning not knowing if that would be the day that her freedom would be stolen from her.”


Criminal defense attorney Alison Grinter Allen called Mason’s prosecution and punishment “a vanity project by anti-democracy Texas political leaders.”


“We’re happy that the court saw this for the perversion of justice that it is, but the harm that this political prosecution has done to shake Americans’ confidence in their own franchise is incalculable.”


Judge Birdwell opined that Mason had been unaware that Texas outlawed her vote and had shackled it with heavy penalties. Birdwell doubted the testimony of Karl Dietrich, the election judge for the polling place where Mason voted in 2016. Dietrich claimed he had failed to find Mason on the precinct voter list, confirmed that Mason knew the rules and then gave her a provisional ballot. However, Mason said she was helped by a woman, not Dietrich, and that the woman made no attempt to school her on Texas law. Birdwell said the lower court made the mistake of accepting portions of both Mason’s and Dietrich’s testimony to Mason’s detriment.


“The trial court could have chosen to believe either Dietrich or Mason, but it could not have chosen to believe both,” Birdwell said.


Mason’s 2018 conviction preceded the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature passing a punishing overhaul of the state’s election laws in 2021. Lawmakers tightened already strict voting rules in what Democrats argued was a brazen attempt to disenfranchise minorities and Democratic-leaning voters. The new legislation, they warned, deliberately made it more difficult to cast ballots for people who generally vote Democrat, including young people, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities The bill specifically targeted Democratic strongholds, including urban areas like Houston and further tightened rules in a state considered by critics to be among the hardest places to vote.


The GOP made a point to spray a pretty face upon its brick wall to democracy by also mandating that Texas residents may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” and they required additional evidence to corroborate a willful unlawful vote. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted this additional requirement in an earlier 2022 legal decision that sent Mason’s case back to the Second Court of Appeals for reconsideration.


Birdwell concluded “that the quantum of the evidence presented in this case is insufficient to support the conclusion that Mason actually realized that she voted knowing that she was ineligible to do so and, therefore, insufficient to support her conviction for illegal voting under Election Code Section 64.012(a)(1). In the end, the State’s primary evidence was that Mason read the words on the affidavit. But even if she had read them, they are not sufficient.”


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