| By Billy Davis
Despite producing a string of witnesses who had told state investigators they were bribed on election day, the state attorney general’s office failed to prosecute two defendants who stood accused of paying voters to vote for Como Mayor Bobby Lewers last year.
Raymond D. Boyce and Jessie Mae Barnett walked out of court Wednesday after a jury delivered a not guilty verdict on bribery charges.
Circuit Court Judge Ann Lamar presided over the bribery trial.
A Panola County grand jury had indicted Boyce on one count of bribery and two counts of attempted bribery. Barnett had been indicted on two counts of attempted bribery.
The circuit court trial was held over three days in Sardis, where the jury delivered a "not guilty" verdict on all counts Wednesday afternoon.
Jury selection had lasted most of the day Monday, seating seven black females, four black males, and one white female, according to an account of the trial published Thursday in The Southern Reporter.
Boyce was represented by Ellis Turnage of Clarksdale. Barnett was represented by Cornelia Ford of Oxford.
The not guilty verdict rendered Wednesday comes after voter fraud charges were dismissed last week against Como Police Chief Cleve Gale and City Clerk Nedra Dandridge.
Gale and Dandridge were both indicted last October on one count of conspiracy to commit voter fraud and three counts of voter fraud by use of absentee ballots. Dandridge was also indicted on a single count of voter fraud by a registrar.
Circuit Court Judge Andrew C. Baker threw out the charges against Gale and Dandridge, citing a lack of evidence, the Sardis newspaper also reported.
Reached this week by The Panolian, Gale said the indictments were "embarrassing" to himself and Dandridge, and the town they represent.
"I knew all the time we didn’t do anything wrong," said Gale, who also serves as a county constable.
The state’s case against Boyce and Barnett stemmed from election day last summer when Lewers faced challenger Judy Sumner in a May 17 run-off election for Como mayor.
During voting that day, Boyce and Barnett allegedly hauled voters Laura Howard, Robert "Cup" Williams, Darlene Nunley, Timothy Nunley and others to the city’s polling place at the Como Police Department.
In separate interviews with an attorney general’s office investigator, Williams, Howard, Darlene Nunley and Timothy Nunley each claimed they had been offered $5 and a ride to the polls by the defendants if they would cast a ballot for Lewers.
The one-page interviews, on file in the circuit clerk’s office, were compiled as evidence in the state’s criminal case against Boyce and Barnett.
Timothy Nunley recalled to the investigator that he was near the Como Supermarket when he was approached about voting for Lewers for $5, later learning from Howard that the man who spoke to him was Boyce.
Nunley told the investigator that he was too young to vote but went anyway in a truck crowded with Howard, Williams and Darlene Nunley, the investigator’s report shows. At the polling place, the 17-year-old slipped around the building while everyone went inside and reappeared when they came out, earning $5 after saying he had voted.
Although the witness interviews offered similar accounts of the alleged bribes, the state’s case evidently crumbled in the courtroom during live testimony.
Williams, for example, first said he wasn’t in Como on election day – he lives in Memphis – but later said he was driven to the polls by Boyce, The Southern Reporter reported. His testimony also conflicted with other witnesses about the time of day he was driven to the polling place by Boyce.
Williams did name several others who were on the truck as well, including Howard and Darlene Nunley, and said he voted via an affidavit since he was not a registered voter.
The state’s case also encountered witnesses who seemingly changed their stories while on the witness stand. Como voter Dennis Pettis, who was expected to testify about payment, said on the witness stand that he was not riding on the truck because he had walked to the polls, telling the court he never saw Boyce or Barnett.
Robert Gardner, another state witness, stated during court testimony that he had voted absentee and hence was not on the truck either.
In closing arguments Wednesday, The Southern Reporter noted that Fondren suggested to jurors that Howard had changed her testimony while on the stand.
As the state’s case collapsed during trial, Fondren and Turnage asked Lamar to reduce the felony charges to misdemeanor, a motion she denied, then asked for a motion to dismiss the case against their clients due to insufficient evidence. Lamar denied that request as well.
A spokesman from the state attorney general’s office could not be reached for comment by press time.