It took a South Georgia jury just 20 minutes to find Olivia Pearson not guilty.
But the speedy verdict last month came at the end of a case that dragged on for years and came to be viewed by some as a blatant attempt to intimidate minority voters in a rural region of Georgia.
Pearson -- the first black woman to be elected to the Douglas City Commission, where she has served for 18 years -- was initially accused of multiple felonies tied to the 2012 presidential election.
While the case became complex, the facts were straightforward. During early voting in Coffee County, a first-time voter was not sure how to use the voting machine. Pearson, who was at the polls, showed her how the machine worked and signed a form as part of the process.
That action led to a three-year investigation by the Georgia State Election Board and the felony charges pursued by the local prosecutor. Three other people were also criminally charged with voting fraud in the 2012 election, and they opted for a plea deal instead of risking a trial.
Pearson, though, was determined to fight.
“I knew I had done nothing wrong, with these charges they had come up with. . .,” Pearson told the AJC. “I just couldn’t take a plea like the other three did who were indicted. I just couldn’t do that.”
Pearson’s attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights, who got involved after her first trial ended in a hung jury, said the case was unprecedented in Georgia.
They described it as a “racially motivated, targeted prosecution” of a woman who was simply doing her part to get out the vote.
“It’s still unbelievable to me that Ms. Pearson was the subject of a felony prosecution,” said Sarah Geraghty, a managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
But Ian Sansot, the assistant district attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, was definitive when asked by the AJC whether the charges were, in any way, an attempt to intimidate minority voters.
“No, of course not,” Sansot said.
“I’ve got my job to do and I did it and that’s all there is to it for me,” he said.
He noted that of the four people originally indicted, two were white and two were black.
The charges, he said, grew out of the investigation by the Georgia State Election Board. That investigation was prompted, he said, when local elections officials became suspicious after noticing an “abnormally large number” of people giving or receiving assistance at the polls.
The Georgia State Election Board’s investigators determined that Pearson and others “might have” violated state law and recommended that the case be referred to the Attorney General’s office for possible administrative action, said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
The election board is a bipartisan board, but it is attached to Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office and Kemp serves as the board’s chairman. Administrative actions in such cases typically result in fines, public reprimands and cease and desist orders.
(Claud “Tex” McIver, the attorney who is now on trial in the shooting death of his wife, was a member of the election board during much of the time the Coffee County case was under review.)
The election board did not seek the criminal prosecution, Broce said. “The decision to pursue criminal charges was made at the local level,” Broce said in a statement to the AJC.
Sansot said he pursued the criminal case after learning more about the investigation.
“It’s my job to prosecute alleged violations of the law that involve felonies,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
A history of activism
Coffee County, with a population of about 43,000, is in a rural area of southeast Georgia between Savannah and Valdosta. The city of Douglas is the county seat. About two-thirds of the county’s population is white and nearly a third is black, according to the latest census figures.
Pearson grew up in Coffee County, returning after she graduated from Clark College. Her mother helped sue the city of Douglas in the 1970s to gain more political representation for blacks, according to Pearson’s attorneys. She lived long enough to see her daughter elected to the city commission.
Pearson said she has worked to get out the vote for her entire adult life, starting when she worked on Andrew Young’s mayoral campaign in Atlanta when she was a student at Clark. She said she encourages people to register to vote. If they need a ride to the polls, she takes them.
The original complaint in the 2012 election case was filed by C.T. Peavy, chairman of the Coffee County Board of Elections, Broce said.
The state investigation found that the county failed to properly handle forms that are required when a voter is assisted at the polls and settled its case with members of the Coffee County Board of Elections, imposing a $1,000 fine.
With the criminal case underway, the State Election Board in September of 2017 dismissed its civil claims against Pearson and the other individuals, according to a board document filed in the criminal case.
In the criminal case in Coffee County, Pearson was originally indicted on four felonies involving two voters. Two of the charges were dismissed because the voter involved in the case was serving overseas in the military when the trial approached. The two remaining charges accused Pearson of assisting a voter and “false swearing” related to a form that must be filled out at the polls when a voter is assisted.
Sansot said Pearson falsely swore on the form that the voter qualified for assistance with voting when, in fact, she did not.
There was never an allegation that Pearson ever helped with marking the ballot or making voting decisions.
Pearson said she was shocked – and devastated -- when she heard of the criminal charges. “I just thought that was real, real low down and dirty, especially with me being an elected official. I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t sleep for days.”
At trial, the voter in Pearson’s case said she just needed a little help with the technical side of the process of using the machine since had never used one before. She asked for help, and Pearson offered to answer her question about how to use the machine.
At her first trial, the jury was 11-1 in favor of convicting Pearson. One juror held out.
As she faced her second trial, the Southern Center attorneys vigorously attacked the charges. The DA dropped one of the felony charges after conceding it should have been a misdemeanor. Pearson also won a change of venue to another county.
The jury quickly acquitted Pearson.
“We were ecstatic for Ms. Pearson because she had fought this case for two, two and a half years, however long it was, and it really weighed on her heavily,” said Mark Loudon-Brown, one of the Southern Center attorneys who represented her. “She was facing the loss of her job and she would have been a convicted felon and she would have lost the right to vote and so there were incredibly high stakes for her.”
In investigating the case, he said, the Southern Center talked to African-Americans in Coffee County who said they were not inclined to vote because they saw what could be done by those in power. He said he hoped the final outcome of the case would encourage them to exercise their right to vote.
Pearson says that while the case is over,she is still troubled by what took place.
The experience, she said, may change how she goes about some of her work, but it won’t stop it.
“Because I realize how important it is for people to vote,” she said. “Because I know the history that African-Americans have had and not just African-Americans, but women, too, have had, in trying to vote. It’s too important to not continue to work.”