Most people familiar with the criminal justice system understand that a jury acquittal after less than an hour is an embarrassing loss for the prosecutor and a sign that the case should never have come to trial.
Then there’s Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. Having spent major political capital (not to mention hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars) to spin simple errors into grand criminal conspiracies, he managed to claim victory yesterday when a Lee County jury declared an ineligible voter not guilty of perjury.
Ryan Foley of the Associated Press has followed this case closely, and his reports on Kelli Jo Griffin’s trial and acquittal are must-reads. Griffin was a non-violent drug offender convicted of felonies in 2002 and 2008. Her attorney told her at the time of her last conviction that she would regain the right to vote when she had completed her five years of probation. Griffin says she did not know that Governor Terry Branstad changed state policy after returning to office.
She said she got remarried in 2011 and was living in the town of Montrose, population 878, with young three children and one stepdaughter. Griffin was a stay-at-home mom who was volunteering at school and served as vice president of a county child abuse prevention council.
She said she voted in the Nov. 5  municipal election in Montrose [Lee County] because her stepdaughter had been learning in school about elections. She went with her children to the polling place, where the workers told her she needed to present identification to register on election day. Griffin said she went home to get her ID and returned to fill out the voter registration form, attesting that she was not an ineligible felon, and cast her ballot. Just over 100 votes were cast in the election, which had no contested races on the ballot.
Shortly after the local election, the Division of Criminal Investigation got in touch with Griffin because she showed up on a database of ineligible voters.
The typical Iowan does not follow political news closely. I’m shocked that a prosecutor thought it was worth the court’s time to take Griffin to trial for perjury. She had reasonable grounds to believe she was eligible to vote. Moreover, her ballot could not have been linked to any criminal intent to subvert the election, because there were no competitive races in Montrose last fall.
For reasons I’ll never understand, the prosecutor went after Griffin hard.
Lee County Attorney Michael Short raised his voice during cross-examination as he repeatedly told Griffin she was a “convicted drug dealer” who was trying to run from her past. He chastised her for not reading [former Governor Tom] Vilsack’s executive order and for not checking with anyone on whether the policy had since changed.
He rejected Griffin’s claim that she gained nothing from voting.
“You want to make it appear that you are a normal citizen, that you are not a convicted drug dealer, that you have the same rights as everybody else,” he told her.
Perhaps Short would feel more comfortable if every ex-felon wore a giant scarlet “F.” That way no one who’s made a serious mistake could escape lifelong social stigma.
During his closing arguments, Short again accused Griffin of
trying to hide her past as a drug dealer and promote an image of a “stay-at-home mom who is just doing her thing.”
Her attorney, Curt Dial, told jurors that theory was ridiculous. He said Griffin had nothing to gain by participating in an election in which 110 people voted in uncontested mayoral and council races, other than to show her curious stepdaughter how voting worked.
Griffin testified that she turned her life around after numerous struggles, including being molested as a child, having mental illness, being domestically abused, and addicted to drugs. Now, she said, she’s happily married and volunteers for causes such as battered women’s shelters, child abuse prevention and education.
She would not risk her stable life in Montrose, where she moved in 2011 after remarrying, to intentionally vote illegally, Dial said.
Not surprisingly, the jury acquitted Griffin, in the absence of evidence that she meant to lie on her voter registration form.
Secretary of State Matt Schultz should have apologized to Griffin. After all, his crusade to depict voting mistakes as nefarious crimes turned her life upside down. Instead, he claimed a sort of victory in a statement to the Associated Press.
Schultz, who is leaving after one term as secretary of state to run for Congress, said the facts proved Griffin voted when she was ineligible, and “as a result of this case this individual will not cancel out the vote of anyone in the future.”
Maybe, maybe not. Griffin plans to apply to have her voting rights restored, although only about 40 ex-felons have gotten their voting rights back since Governor Terry Branstad issued his executive order in January 2011.
UPDATE: The AP’s Ryan Foley interviewed the jury foreman, Mike Hickey, after the trial. File this under “B” for blindingly obvious:
“We came to the conclusion from what we heard and were told that it was a mistake,” he said, noting there was “no real dissension” on the panel. “She thought she had her rights restored. As it turned out, they weren’t.” […]
Griffin testified that she was unaware the policy was changed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011, who reinstated an old policy that requires ex-offenders to apply to the governor individually to regain their voting rights. Her probation officer testified that she never warned Griffin about the policy change. […]
[Hickey] said it was also clear that Griffin did not have any scheme to vote that day but did so spontaneously to show a stepdaughter who was learning about elections how voting worked. Testimony showed that she had four kids with her when she registered, three of whom were younger than 4 and bored.
“There was a lot going on there,” Hickey said. “We saw where she could have been distracted” when filling out the form.
Prosecuting Griffin for perjury showed extremely poor judgment. I hope some local lawyer is preparing to challenge Short in the 2016 Democratic primary for Lee County attorney.