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Not Guilty: Waverly Mayor Mason acquitted of election fraud charges

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SUSSEX - "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus."

Those words were uttered over and over by Waverly Mayor Walter Mason just before the stroke of midnight late Friday evening after a jury found him not guilty of election fraud stemming from his successful 2016 bid for office in the town after 30 minutes of deliberations.

Friday's verdict ended months of questions and speculation in regards to the validity of the allegations levied against Mason, where the Commonwealth, represented by special prosecutor and Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, alleged Mason made false statements on a number of absentee ballot applications submitted and helped aid several people in the violation of absentee ballot voting procedures.

Entering Friday's trial, Mason faced 12 counts of felony election fraud, specifically four counts alleging the longtime Waverly resident “unlawfully and feloniously, willfully make a false statement or entry on an absentee ballot application,” a violation of Virginia Code Section 24.2-1016 and he “unlawfully and feloniously aid or abet or attempt to aid or abet” a total of seven different people “in a violation of absentee voting procedures,” violating regulations in Chapter 7, Title 24.2 of the Code of Virginia, which details who is qualified to vote via an absentee ballot.

Before the end of the night, all but three of those charges were dismissed by sitting Judge Allan Sharrett.

Even though the outcome was what both Mason and his attorney, Richmond's Joe Morrissey sought from the beginning, reaching Friday's conclusion proved to be a time-consuming endeavor.

Much of the morning session was spent moving through jury seating as both Morrissey and Branscom worked to whittle the large pool of over 40 prospective jurors down to a standard 13, 12 jurors and an alternate, with a group of eight women and five men selected to hear the case just before the noon lunch hour.

Prior to a lunchtime recess, Judge Sharrett provided the jury and small audience gathered inside the Sussex County Circuit Courtroom with a chance to hear from both sides in the case as they delivered opening statements. For Branscom, who had been relatively quiet in the weeks leading up to the trial regarding the Commonwealth's position on the case, he tried to drive home the point of Mason's alleged actions being a violation of "the rules and regulations that are designed to protect the integrity of the vote."

"What the Commonwealth has done is put in place rules regarding absentee voting and those rules are the law," Branscom said to the jurors. "In this case, because we're trying to protect the American democracy, violations of the law is a crime."

Much of the case centered around allegations that Mason provided absentee ballot applications to voters in the town during the 2016 mayoral election, where they said he allegedly provided information that was not true regarding the "reason code" for why a specific person was requesting an absentee ballot.

Within the Code of Virginia, specifically Section 24.2-700, and on the back of an absentee ballot application, there are a number of different groups of people and reasons that are deemed eligible for a voter to be granted an absentee ballot. In this case, the Commonwealth argued that many of the applications submitted by Mason and signed by voters were marked with a "reason code" of "2A," which the Code of Virginia defines as, "Any duly registered person with a disability ... who is unable to go in person to the polls on the day of election because of his disability, illness, or pregnancy."

"Some of those people were probably not able to go vote at the polls, but some certainly could have," Branscom argued.

In addition, Branscom called into question the alleged procedure that was conducted by Mason in regards to the handling of absentee ballots when they finally arrived at the homes of those who had requested them via the application. During his opening statements and through a group of witnesses called by the Commonwealth, Branscom attempted to call into question how those ballots were physically handled, pointing to the required witness signatures on the back of the ballot envelope and if those who signed in that position were actually present at the time the ballot was voted and if Mason placed the ballots in the mail, each of which Branscom asserted was a violation of state law.

According to Code of Virginia Section 24.2-707, after a voter has marked their ballot, they are to "enclose the ballot in the envelope provided for that purpose, seal the envelope, fill in and sign the statement printed on the back of the envelope in the presence of a witness, who shall sign the same envelope, enclose the ballot envelope and any required assistance form within the envelope directed to the general registrar, and seal that envelope and mail it to the office of the general registrar or deliver it personally to the general registrar."

"Each ballot has to be cast according to the law or it's a crime," Branscom continued.

Countering Branscom, Mason's attorney Morrissey challenged the Commonwealth's assertions while attempting to put the entire case in perspective for the jury, working to help them distinguish the case from more higher-profile cases that dot national headlines.

"This is not about dead people voting, or people voting twice, or forging a name on an application for absentee ballots, or offering money for votes," he said. "Everyone who voted intended to vote for Mason."

The case began with a focus on six specific absentee voter applications out of 72 that were submitted during the spring 2016 mayoral election, which was eventually reduced to a single count of violating making a false statement on a ballot and two counts of violating absentee voting procedure by Judge Sharrett.

Following testimony from a number of absentee voters, including Florence Whitaker and Jamie Ellis, with Ellis' testimony resulting in significant scrutiny from Mason's attorney and featured a heated exchange between the two regarding the alleged disclosure of private information by Ellis to Mason that was used as a reason on her absentee ballot application, citing "2A," a key witness for both sides was the county's registrar William Jenkins, who testified under oath that Mason was very meticulous in his handling of the absentee applications and that Mason visited him multiple times to discuss procedure, adding that he also reviewed the applications with the then-candidate.

"If there was a technical problem with the applications, I could reject them, but there was nothing technically wrong with the applications," Jenkins said, elaborating further by discussing a conversation he had with Mason's challenger and eventual runner-up in the 2016 election Susan Irving. According to Jenkins' testimony, Irving visited in the weeks before the election and inquired about "a lot" of absentee ballots being used in the election and that "some of the people might not be ill."

As part of a Freedom of Information Act request from Irving, Jenkins said he provided copies of the applications, adding that he directed her to speak with Sussex Commonwealth's Attorney Lynida Ramsey if Irving had further concerns following Jenkins' review where he found nothing wrong and similar documents were provided to Ramsey for review, which resulted in a similar conclusion by the commonwealth's attorney.

"She said there's nothing we can do here," he said. "I was not instructed to stop mailing out ballots."

Following that interaction, Ramsey forwarded the case to Branscom as part of a request for a special prosecutor since the matter involved an elected official in the county, where he then requested the green-light from the Attorney General's Office to allow Virginia State Police to investigate the case, which resulted in a number of interviews with people who cast absentee ballots in the 2016 election, with some of those voters being subpoenaed to appear and testify in court Friday.

Jenkins went on to say during cross-examination by Morrissey that his understanding of the stipulation within Code of Virginia Section 24.2-707 that states the voter him or herself must mail it directly to the registrar or bring it to the registrar's office themselves was "Anyone could mail it in."

"The way we are taught, it's no different than if a son mailed his dad's [ballot] in," Jenkins said.

Additionally, speaking to the allegations that Mason had ballots signed by witnesses who may not have been present at the time of the ballot being voted, Jenkins conceded that a ballot without a witness signature isn't counted during the election, but his hands are tied when there is actually a witness signature on the ballot.

"All I can do is see if there is a signed witness," Jenkins said, noting earlier in his testimony that his office in rural Sussex County lacks the resources to conduct investigations. "I do not have the authority to arbitrarily throw [the ballot] out."

Following a one-hour dinner break, the evening session featured the defense as it presented its witnesses, with much of the attention spent on Mason and two other individuals, Ralph Ruffin, who helped with Mason's campaign efforts and Barbara Banks, who said she campaigned alongside Mason during the 2016 race.

Questions regarding both Ruffin and Banks and their actual presence at the time of the absentee ballot voting took center stage, with both people stressing that they were present at the time the ballot was voted and that the person voting was aware they were there, which several of the voters testified was not the case earlier during the daylong trial.

During Mason's time on the stand, aside from touting his accomplishments as mayor during his 2010, 2012, and 2016 terms, he was emphatic about being careful regarding absentee voter application procedure and spoke to his position on the information allegedly provided by the voter that resulted in him writing "2A" on the ballot, which denotes a person is physically disabled or ill and is unable to make it to the polling place on Election Day.

"I met with [Jenkins] between eight and ten times," he said. "I followed the advice he gave me to a tee and when I brought the applications in, he would always check them over."

"I was going by what I was told by the voter and their ailments," Mason continued. "I had no way to find out if this was true or not."

As the 12-hour mark approached, closing arguments saw Branscom play to the close-knit community of Waverly and Sussex while expanding on the implications the trial had in the grand scheme of democratic procedure while Morrissey called into question the testimony of witnesses that seemed, at the admission of Branscom, to divert from what they had said to Virginia State Police investigators in the days and weeks leading up to the trial and pointed to Mason's reputation in the community, reinforced positively by several local government leaders speaking to Mason's character, including Henry District Supervisor Rufus Tyler and Windsor Mayor Carita Jones-Richardson.

"Whenever a candidate is the one handling a ballot, your radar should be going up," Branscom said "These are your elected officials who serve your community. This may not seem important today, but the integrity of the vote will be important."

"My client didn't do anything different in 2010 or 2012," Morrissey argued to jurors. "He worked his tail off going door-to-door and street-to-street while carrying applications in his pocket. He beat her," he said referring to Irving, who was defeated by Mason by a margin of 44 votes in the 2016 election.

Data from the Virginia Department of Elections shows that a total of 68 absentee ballots were cast during that election, with 61 of those votes going to Mason.

The jury retired to their deliberations room shortly after 10:30 p.m. as a few members of the gallery lingered in the courtroom awaiting the outcome. When the jury returns one minute past 11 p.m., Morrissey and Mason's supporters were visibly encouraged by the news, which eventually resulted in the full acquittal of Mason of the remaining three charges.

Claps and hugs were shared by Mason and his wife Mariah, along with other members of the gallery who stayed through the over 14 hours of proceedings at the courtroom.

As a heavy rainstorm raged outside, even that wasn't enough to dampen the spirits of Mason and his attorney.

"This has been a long ordeal for Walter," Morrissey said. "As I said, I found little evidence that he had done anything wrong. This is such a relief for Mason and his family to have this behind him and we are thankful for the jury's hard work."

"It was not easy going through this, but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong and I just thank God, my wife, and Joe Morrissey," Mason said.

With this chapter behind him, Mason said he is ready to continue his efforts to move Waverly forward as he works with the town's government to move the community in the right direction.

"I am going to continue to work hard for my community and continue to try to push Waverly forward," he said. "I am just excited. I just couldn't hold my emotions when the verdict was read."