Paying the Price In Pickens County
By Kelly Dowe
Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 13-14
When 69-year-old Julia Wilder of rural Pickens County, Alabama, was allowed to transfer from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to a work release program in Tuskegee last January, she praised God in thanksgiving.
“I thank God for opening the minds of the people here to help us. I knew he would work in his own way,” said the elderly black woman. She and her longtime fellow civil rights worker, 51-year-old Maggie Bozeman, were imprisoned Jan. 11 for a 1979 conviction on three counts of voting fraud. All-white Pickens juries had found them guilty of marking ballots for elderly and illiterate blacks in the 1978 Democratic primary and runoff. Circuit Judge Clatus Junkin sentenced Mrs. Wilder to the maximum five years in prison, and Mrs. Bozeman to four. It was the stiffest vote fraud sentence in the memory of state officials.
After the women failed in their three-year process of appeals to state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, they made an eleventh-hour plea to Junkin for probation. When he refused and immediately dispatched them to Tutwiler, the state’s penitentiary for women, a public outcry by civil rights workers and black political leaders reached a crescendo. State officials, including Gov. Fob James, hurriedly met and came up with the Tuskegee arrangement. On Jan. 22, 11 days after entering prison, the women moved from their common cell to a mobile home and jobs in Tuskegee. There they remain, living quiet lives under the guardianship of Macon County Sheriff Lucius Amerson, no doubt comforted, but still incarcerated.
If the women were thankful for this bit of clemency by the state, they surely appreciated its irony as well. Convicted and jailed as they were under a system which has no standardized mechanism for prosecuting voting violators, and which almost never imprisons those transgressors it convicts, the Pickens County women grabbed the brass ring. They got to serve time for everyone.
* In 1979, a federal grand jury indicted sixteen people in Randolph County in east Alabama on charges of voting violations in a 1978 sheriff’s election. The charges included conspiracy, vote buying, casting false ballots, soliciting illegal absentee ballots, and voting more than one time by an individual. Of the sixteen, seven pleaded guilty and received fines ranging from $250 to $500 and suspended sentences. Two more were found guilty in federal trials and received thousand dollar fines and suspended sentences. A tenth person, Randolph County Sheriff Charlie Will Thompson, was convicted on seven counts of conspiracy and vote buying. His sentence: a thousand dollar fine and three months in jail.
* Secretary of State Don Siegelman received more than eighteen complaints about municipal elections in 1980. These included charges of persons who had moved to other states remaining on the voting rolls in Florala; a candidate in Headland having absentee ballots distributed and cast illegally; vote buying in Woodville; and misused absentee ballots in the towns of Fyffe, Moulton, Double Springs, Bridgeport, Hamilton and Haleyville, among other allegations. Siegelman said that as far as he knows, none of these situations has resulted in convictions.
* An investigator with the Alabama district attorney’s office took statements from more than twenty Sylacauga area residents after the 1978 Coosa County election. The statements alleged coercion by elected officials, illegal registration of non-residents and vote buying. Neither the Alabama district attorney nor the attorney general, however, both of whom were given copies of the statements. pursued the matter into court.
* Circuit Judge Clatus Junkin of Pickens County gave the police chief of nearby Haleyville a sixmonth suspended sentence in a vote fraud case recently. Junkin says the circumstances of the case were different from those of the Bozeman-Wilder case. Anyway, he said, the police chief had admitted his guilt, which Mrs. Bozeman and Mrs. Wilder never did.
In the absence of a statewide elections commission or fair campaign practices commission in Alabama, the handling of vote law violators obviously is as inequitable as it is varied.
Said Siegelman: “Alabama law is so diversified and decentralized, it puts the prosecutorial decisions in the hands of local, elected officials. The (state) attorney general has been reluctant to get involved for political reasons.
“When it gets down to the district attorney level, many of them are hesitant to pursue vote fraud cases. They are elected officials and they are prosecuting people for election offenses. From a district attorney’s standpoint, they just don’t like election cases.”
Siegelman pointed to further limitations imposed by Alabama law.
“You have to take prima facie evidence to a judge, showing there were enough illegal votes cast to make a difference in the outcome of the election. The judge will order the examination of the ballots, if it’s a county with paper ballots, or the voting machines, if it’s a county with machines.
“But to do that, you would either have to have direct knowledge (of voting fraud) or a list of voters. Unfortunately, that list is locked up and sealed inside the voting machine or ballot box. It’s a Catch 22 situation which deters any cases filed on the basis of vote fraud.”
As for the sentences of the hapless Pickens County women, “I think they are out of line for the type of crime they are alleged to have committed,” Siegelman said.
“Obviously any act that results in votes being stolen or thwarting of the Democratic process must be punished. But in this case the sentences seemed to be out of line with other acts committed by other people in other parts of the state.”
The convictions of Wilder and Bozeman stemmed from the assistance with absentee ballots they gave to thirty-nine elderly and illiterate voters in the 1978 Sep-
tember Democratic primary and runoff elections. Using testimony of local voting officials and thirteen absentee voters, the prosecutors tried to show at the trials that the women had used the ballots of the old people to vote many times for candidates of their own choosing.
The Pickens County circuit clerk testified that many individuals requesting absentee ballots asked her to send their ballots not to their homes but to the address of either Mrs. Bozeman or Mrs. Wilder. All ballots mailed to those addresses were cast for precisely the same candidates, an investigator for the county district attorney said. He said that applicants whose requests for absentee ballots were signed with an “X” often signed the ballot with a legible signature, or vice versa. A Tuscaloosa notary public testified that he notarized, at his office, many applications for absentee voting that Wilder and Bozeman brought him during the two elections.
Prosecutors called to the witness stand thirteen elderly voters for whom absentee votes had been cast. The testimony of many was garbled and confusing, and several changed their stories back and forth depending on whether the questions were being asked by the prosecution or the defense. However, four consistently said they had not voted by absentee ballot, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals pointed to their testimony when it refused to overturn Mrs. Wilder’s convictions. The most damaging testimony was that of Sophia Spann, 79, whose application and ballot were signed with an “X”, and who said she always voted at the polls and not by absentee ballot. Moreover, she testified that she could read and write and did not spell her name as it was written on both documents. She testified that she did not know Mrs. Wilder, whose signature was on her application to vote absentee. Mrs. Spann said Maggie Bozeman had visited her on election day to find out if she had voted.
Robert Goines, 87, testified he had applied for an absentee ballot and made an “X” on the application, which Mrs. Wilder witnessed. But he said that although he had seen the ballot, he never filled it in or signed it, because he could not write. He said he didn’t give anyone permission to vote for him. Mrs. Lucille Harris testified that Mrs. Wilder brought her a paper to sign so she wouldn’t have to go to the polls. But she said she never received a ballot in the mail, and that Mrs. Wilder didn’t visit her again. Lula DeLoach testified she signed an application for absentee ballot, which Mrs. Wilder brought to her house, but she d id not mark any ballot. She said Mrs. Wilder had told her she could “sign the paper” and “fix the paper for me,” which Ms. DeLoach said she did not object to.
Mrs. Wilder and Mrs. Bozeman pleaded innocent to the charges against them. Mrs. Wilder testified at her trial she often helped people to vote by absentee ballot in the 1978 elections. She said she often picked up applications for absentee ballots at the circuit clerk’s office, which she distributed herself or through her workers. But she said she never had the absentee ballots of other voters sent to her own box unless the voter requested her to.
She said she would often have an exchange like this with a potential absentee voter: “‘What kind of election is this?’ I would say, ‘Well, it’s the Democratic.’ And they would say, ‘That’s the way I want to vote.'”
“You reckon you will be able to be at the polls?”
“They would say, ‘No. You know I can’t get around.”
“And I said, ‘Well, would you like for me to show you how you can vote without getting down there?’
She said she would offer to take the application back to the clerk’s office once the voter filled it out, and that the clerk would mail the voter a ballot.
“And most of the time, ‘Would you like for the ballot to come to you?’
“And they would answer no, that they weren’t able to, you know, get it back to me or nobody else, and they would say, ‘No, I can’t get it to you.’
“Would you like for me to–What would you like for me to do–let it come to my box, or how would you want it done?
“‘Let it come to your box.'” She said she would agree to that and to get the ballot back to the absentee voter. She said that when she or her workers signed names to absentee ballots, it was with the permission of the individual and that the voter would “touch their hand to the pen.” She said in such visits she took along a sample ballot fo the Alabama Democratic Conference, the major black political organization in the state, but filled out the ballot only as instructed by the absentee voter.
The unanswered question is: Why did the state, which turns a blind eye to so many accused voting offenders, allow the Pickens district attorney to throw the book at these two women? One marvels at the state’s self-contradiction: First it flings them into confinement, but immediately it fishes them out and sets them up in a work release program in a town at the other end of the state. And not just to any town, but to Tuskegee, the home of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, a town with a politically prominent black mayor and a black sheriff, a town which would give comfort and even honor to the two women. Did this transfer amount to a pardon? Or was it a sort of apology to the women for their having to take the stripes for all voting offenders?
Today, Mrs. Wilder works at a senior citizens center, and Mrs. Bozeman teaches at a center for retarded children. Their attorneys continue to seek post-conviction relief.
It could be argued that in a fifty-eight percent white, rural county, where most elected officials are white, the conviction and jailing of two black political organizers would not bring that much negative political pressure on the white district attorney, the judge, or the jury. Many of those who testified against Mrs. Bozeman and Mrs. Wilder made it plain they would not have voted at all had it not been for the women’s efforts. Many did not know what an absentee ballot was. Yet they, and other poor, black residents of Pickens County, are a likely group from which any opposition to white elected officials would logically come.
Attorney Solomon Seay thinks the prospect of this opposition becoming organized was the motivation for the vigorous prosecution and stiff sentences given the two women. Forty-two percent of the voters can’t determine an election, he says, but if they’re organized they can influence the results. In asking for dismissal of the case, Seay and the fifteen character witnesses he put on the stand have charged that the case was racially motivated and was contrived to halt black voter registration in Pickens County.
“I think if black people do not seize upon this opportunity to launch a statewide, effective voter registration campaign to register every qualified black person in this state to vote, we will have missed a golden opportunity,” Seay said.
“That’s what this is all about–the efforts of two old black women to assist functionally illiterate aged and infirmed blacks to cast their votes.”
Kelly Dowe its a freelance writer who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.