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Texas appeals court overturns Crystal Mason’s conviction, 5-year sentence for illegal voting

2 weeks 5 days 11 hours ago Saturday, March 30 2024 Mar 30, 2024 March 30, 2024 12:20 PM March 30, 2024 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
By: KAREN BROOKS HARPER | THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
Crystal Mason in Fort Worth on Sept. 9, 2019. Credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

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A Texas appeals court on Thursday overturned the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while on supervised release for federal tax evasion.

The decision by the Tarrant County-based Second Court of Appeals means she is formally acquitted of the felony voting charge. The court said in the decision that there was no evidence Mason knew she was ineligible to vote when she cast her ballot — which is a condition that must be met in order to convict her of illegal voting.

Mason has maintained throughout the seven-year case that she did not know she was ineligible and would not have risked her freedom if she had. She said Thursday in a statement that her long legal fight, which gained international attention, was devastating.

“I am overjoyed to see my faith rewarded today,” Mason said. “I was thrown into this fight for voting rights and will keep swinging to ensure no one else has to face what I’ve endured for over six years, a political ploy where minority voting rights are under attack.”

The case thrust Mason, who is Black, into the political fray amid a Republican-led crackdown on voter fraud, partly fueled by baseless claims of rampant illegal voting.

“I’ve cried and prayed every night for over six years straight that I would remain a free Black woman,” Mason said. “I thank everyone whose dedication and support carried me through this time and look forward to celebrating this moment with my family and friends.”

The Second Court of Appeals initially upheld her conviction but two years ago was instructed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to “evaluate the sufficiency” of the evidence against Mason, saying that the lower court had “erred by failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.”

“We are relieved for Ms. Mason, who has waited for too long with uncertainty about whether she would be imprisoned and separated from her family for five years simply for trying to do her civic duty,” said Thomas Buser-Clancy, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “The harms of the criminal prosecution can never fully be undone, but this decision is vindication for Ms. Mason and a win for our democracy, which can only thrive when people can fearlessly engage in the civic process.”

Mason’s case dates back to 2016 when, after discovering she was not on the voter roll, she submitted a provisional ballot in the presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Her ballot was rejected because she was not eligible to participate in elections while still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction. She was arrested a few months later.

Mason’s prosecution hinged on an affidavit she signed before casting her provisional ballot that required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.”

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, then a second-degree state felony, after a poll worker testified he watched Mason read, and run her finger along, each line of an affidavit. Mason said she did not read the entire affidavit. At trial, a supervisor from the probation office overseeing her release testified that no one from that office had informed her she was still ineligible to vote.

In its 2022 ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that Texas election law requires individuals to know they are ineligible to vote to be convicted of illegal voting. The law had been clarified by lawmakers in 2021 with additions to the election code stating Texans may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” and instead required other evidence to corroborate they knowingly tried to cast an unlawful vote.

The appeals court wrote in its 2022 decision that the new law showed that that lawmakers never intended to convict a voter with good intentions.

“To construe the statute to mean that a person can be guilty even if she does not ‘know the person is not eligible to vote’ is to disregard the words the Legislature intended,” the court wrote. “It turns the knowledge requirement into a sort of negligence scheme wherein a person can be guilty because she fails to take reasonable care to ensure that she is eligible to vote.”

Thursday’s decision by the Tarrant County court acknowledged that.

“We conclude 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,” the decision reads.

Insisting they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake, Tarrant County prosecutors have said Mason’s case is about intent and the fact that she signed the affidavit, which they argued was an acknowledgement of her own ineligibility.

“In the end, the State’s primary evidence was that Mason read the words on the affidavit,” the Tarrant County decision reads. “But even if she had read them, they are not sufficient –even in the context of the rest of the evidence in this case– to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she actually knew that being on supervised release after having served her entire federal sentence of incarceration made her ineligible to vote by casting a provisional ballot when she did so.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/28/texas-illegal-voting-conviction-crystal-mason/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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