A special judge has thrown out a challenge to the Columbus Ward 4 Democratic primary election after four hours of testimony Thursday at the Lowndes County Courthouse, meaning Marty Turner’s place on next week’s general election ballot is secure.
Former Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Larry Roberts said the plaintiff, Patricia Ann Douglas, failed to meet the burden of proof necessary to overturn the results of the April 6 primary, upholding former councilman Turner’s four-vote victory as the “will of the people.”
Jackson attorney Spencer Ritchie, representing the Douglas campaign, filed suit in Lowndes County Circuit Court on May 6, claiming 11 people who lived outside Ward 4 voted in the primary while four other voters cast illegally-obtained absentee ballots. Roberts, of Meridian, was appointed as special judge to hear the case by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Four of the five subpoenaed witnesses took the stand with the other failing to appear.
The first witness, Turner’s sister, said she lived at the same Ward 4 address as her brother at the family home since the death of their mother in January. Although she admitted under oath that she had previously lived at an address outside of Ward 4 and occasionally stayed at that residence, her primary residence was in Ward 4.
Likewise, another witness said that while she did own a home outside Ward 4, she has lived at her father’s Ward 4 address as his caretaker since December 2018.
Another voter said she had lived at her father’s Ward 4 residence since 2013, despite a social media profile that said she was a resident of Starkville.
“I just never changed the status,’’ she said.
The proceedings were not without a moment of levity.
The fourth voter called to the stand, an older man, confirmed he and his wife of five years maintained separate residences — his home in Ward 4 and his wife’s home outside the ward — but that the Ward 4 residence has been his home since 2015. He brought with him his Homestead Exemption certificates and utility bills to support his claim.
Asked why he and his wife still maintained separate residences, the witness said, “My brother is married. Every three or four months, he gets put out (of his home). That ain’t gonna happen to me.”
Later, Ritchie brought City Registrar Brenda Williams to the stand to question her about four absentee ballot applications Ritchie said violated state code because they were requested by a third party over the phone rather than in person before the registrar.
Testimony showed that two of those requests were indeed made over the phone. A third absentee ballot request was made by a person who claimed to be the sister of two absentee voters who shared the same first name.
Asked about that unusual circumstance, Williams said she inquired why two sisters would have the same first name to the person requesting the ballot applications.
“She said she didn’t know why her mother gave them the same first name,” Williams said.
After Ritchie rested his case, Turner’s attorney, Chuck Easley of Columbus, asked Roberts for a directed verdict to immediately dismiss the case.
“The witnesses they called actually helped Marty,” Easley said. “They have nothing. Let’s say you did throw out those two ballots that were requested in person. That would make it 92-90 in Marty’s favor. And if you threw out one of those two ballots by the sisters, it’s still 91-90 in Marty’s favor. It still reflects the will of the people in this election.”
Roberts denied Easley’s request, consulting with the five members of the city’s election commission for about 20 minutes before returning with his ruling.
“In a case such as this, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove the allegations by a preponderance of evidence that these violations have occurred,” Roberts said. “This court’s conclusion is that the plaintiff has failed to prove that (the voters in question) were not residents of Ward 4 and that the questions about the four absentee ballots is not sufficient to alter the outcome. It is the opinion on this court that the majority of qualified electors cast their ballots in favor of Marty Turner. The plaintiff’s case is dismissed with prejudice.”
Turner said he never doubted the outcome.
“As I’ve been saying all along, this was just a distraction,” Turner said.
Douglas did not respond to questions after the ruling.
“I have nothing to say,” she said. “Nothing.”
Turner, who served as Ward 4 councilman from 2013 to 2017, will now meet his successor, Pierre Beard, in Tuesday’s general election.
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus. Details are available in previous reporting.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]