Eight Clay County residents convicted in a widespread vote-buying conspiracy could be released from prison after an appeals court struck down their convictions.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that longtime Circuit Judge R. Cle tus Maricle, former county school Superintendent Douglas Adams and six others convicted in the case should get a new trial.
The appeals panel said U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves committed errors in his handling of the trial for the eight. Reeves admitted some evidence that jurors shouldn't have been allowed to hear and improperly made changes to transcripts jurors were given of secret tape recordings made in the investigation, the appeals panel said.
The appeals judges noted the trial was exceptionally difficult to manage and commended Revees for his close attention to arguments and his thoughtful opinions. However, the combined effect of the errors meant the eight defendants did not get a fair trial, the appeals panel said.
Lexington attorney T. Scott White, who represents Charles Wayne Jones, an election official convicted in the conspiracy, said family members of the eight defendants were elated by the decision.
"There are literal tears of joy," White said.
The government could seek reconsideration of the ruling or a review by the entire appeals court, but defense attorneys said the court is unlikely to grant such requests.
Defense attorneys said they will ask for the release of their clients on bond pending a new trial. It was not clear Wednesday how long it will take to get a decision on that issue.
"It's something that we're working towards," said Kent Westberry, Adams' attorney.
The defendants did not win on every point. The appeals panel upheld Reeves' ruling that vote-buying was a proper element to use in prosecuting the eight under a racketeering charge often used against organized-crime figures.
Adams also argued there was insufficient evidence for a conviction, a motion other defendants sought to join. The appeals panel disagreed, saying there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude Adams was instrumental in vote-buying in 2002.
Those convicted in the case were Maricle; Adams; former county Clerk Freddy Thompson; former Magistrate Stanley Bowling; Jones, who had been the county's Democratic election commissioner; William E. Stivers, an election officer; and Bart and Debra Morris, a couple who owned a garbage business that had contracts with Manchester and Clay County.
The eight were jailed following their convictions in March 2010, so they have served nearly 31/2 years. The government also has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property from the defendants.
"It's taken a huge toll," said David Hoskins, who represented Maricle at the trial.
If prosecutors decide to put the defendants on trial again, all of them would face a charge that they took part in a racketeering conspiracy to use vote fraud as a means of controlling local politics. Some of them also would face charges of conspiring to buy and steal votes.
Prosecutors could decide to pursue a new trial; try to work out guilty pleas with the eight; or decline to put them on trial again, ending the case with the time the eight have served.
U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said prosecutors are reviewing the appeals ruling "and will carefully consider how best to proceed with this prosecution."
One factor that might complicate a new trial is that the lead FBI agent in the case, Timothy Briggs, died of a heart attack in June 2011.
The case involving the eight capped an FBI investigation that gutted a powerful network of people that held sway in Manchester and Clay County for years. Dozens of people — including a longtime mayor of Manchester, an assistant police chief, city council members, a one-time city administrator, a county clerk, and magistrates — pleaded guilty to drug, corruption and vote-fraud charges during the investigation.
In one case, a drug dealer told federal authorities he had burned down a vacant house for the mayor, assistant police chief and 911 director in Manchester so the city could buy the land for a new police station and 911 office.
Maricle, Adams and those tried with them were charged with conspiring to use the county elections board as a tool to corrupt elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Participants in the scheme allegedly pooled hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy votes in one of the poorest counties in the nation.
The object was to rig elections so the participants could hold on to power and enrich themselves and associates through jobs and contracts, prosecutors argued.
"In Clay County, if you're not in politics or in with the clique, you don't get nothing," Kenneth Day, who sold drugs and bought votes while he was the county's Republican election commissioner, testified.
The jury ruled the eight defendants were jointly liable for a judgment of more than $3 million, based on the salaries and contracts they were able to obtain.
Attorneys for the eight argued that witnesses were unreliable and that Reeves allowed evidence that was not proper.
The appeals court cited a number of errors in the trial involving evidence the jury should not have been allowed to hear.
For instance, Reeves allowed Day, Eugene Lewis and J.C. Lawson to testify about their extensive drug trafficking in Clay County, as well as their involvement in vote-buying with Maricle and Adams as early as the 1980s.
Prosecutors argued the testimony about drugs helped explain the possible origin of money used in the vote-buying scheme, the opinion said. However, the appeals panel said there was no evidence drug money from the three was used to buy votes during the conspiracy at issue in the trial.
Instead, the evidence appeared to serve only one purpose: putting the defendants in a bad light by connecting them to drug dealers, the opinion said.
Reeves also improperly made changes to the transcript of audio recordings that informants made in the case, the appeals panel said, though it commended him for his efforts to get the transcript right.
In one instance, Thompson supposedly said, "I think I'm in trouble."
Defense attorneys argued the phrase was inaudible, and prosecutors did not include it in their version of the transcript.
However, Reeves added the phrase to the version given to jurors, the appeals panel said.
The appeals panel said the combined effect of the errors made the trial "fundamentally unfair."