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After nearly two years of legal proceedings, the verdict Olivia Pearson was waiting for arrived in a hurry.
Last week, a jury in Wayne County, Georgia, deliberated for only 20 minutes before delivering a verdict of not guilty. The decision ends the state’s prosecution of Pearson on a charge related to the 2012 general election.
One of Pearson’s attorneys called the case a “racially motivated” prosecution designed to hamstring an outspoken political activist who was working in her small, Deep South hometown.
Pearson, an African American grandmother and city commissioner of Douglas, Georgia, was accused of falsifying a document she signed after showing a new voter – also African American – how to use the machine in the 2012 general election.
Pearson’s first trial, held in her hometown of Douglas in April 2017, ended with a hung jury. A defense motion for a change of venue resulted in state Circuit Judge Andrew C. Spivey moving the trial out of Coffee County to Jesup, Georgia, in Wayne County, about 60 miles east.
“The difference [between the first and second trial] was you had 12 people from Wayne County who wanted to do the right thing,” Pearson said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
Pearson’s lawyer, Mark Loudon-Brown of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said the evidence presented in both trials was the same. The change of venue was critical, he said.
“My sense is that in [the city of] Douglas and in Coffee County, people know who Olivia Pearson is because she lives in the county and is a city commissioner,” Loudon-Brown told the Daily Yonder. “At the new trial in Jesup, there were 50 jurors in the pool, none of whom knew Ms. Pearson. No one had a preconceived bias about her.”
Pearson is a second-generation civil rights activist – her mother was active with the NAACP during the civil rights era – and the first African American elected to the Douglas, Georgia, city commission. She’s currently in her 18th year of office. Three other African Americans now serve on the commission, which has seven members listed on the Douglas city website.
Douglas has 11,600 residents, of whom 48 percent are white, 45 percent are black, and 7 percent are Latino.
Voting Rights Debate in Georgia
The November 2012 election that resulted in charges being leveled at Pearson was not an unusual one for the city commissioner, Pearson said in an interview last year after her first trial. She routinely encouraged people to vote and sometimes offered rides if transportation was a problem. For new voters, she sometimes showed them how to use the voting machine and then left the booth before the voter started making choices. None of the charges (there were initially four: two of illegally assisting a voter and two of false swearing about assisting a voter) said Pearson had tried to influence the voters’ choices while they were in the booth.
In the 2012 election, Pearson said a precinct worker asked her to sign a document saying she had assisted a voter. Pearson signed the document, which was later used as evidence that she had falsely claimed the voter was illiterate.
The charges against Pearson arose in the midst of a statewide debate accusing Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp of using voting laws to suppress Democratic votes. Kemp is a Republican and is now a candidate for governor. Kemp has said he is delivering on a campaign promise to fight voter fraud. (The accusations of voter suppression have been covered in state press such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, national press, and national newspaper chains.)
The Secretary of State’s spokesperson, Candice Broce, called those accusations “unfounded and absurd.” “The numbers alone — for both registration and turnout — do not support this assertion,” she wrote in an email. Broce said that the Election Commission is bipartisan and that once a case is referred to the Attorney General for criminal investigation, the decision to prosecute is out of the commission’s hands. “Local authorities decided to prosecute this case,” she said
A “Targeted Prosecution”?
Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which took Pearson’s case after her first trial, said it was clear to her that Pearson was singled out because of racial and political issues.
“This was without a doubt a racially motivated targeted prosecution of a woman who was exercising her right to get out the vote in her community,” Geraghty said in a press release.
Pearson first learned that the state Election Commission was investigating her via a letter in March 2016 – more than three years after the 2012 election. At a state Election Commission meeting, Pearson denied wrongdoing. The commission handed the case to the Attorney General’s office. A Coffee County grand jury indictment followed, resulting in Pearson’s arrest. Local press (here and here) ran the story along with mug shots of Pearson and three others accused of similar voting violations in cases unrelated to Pearson’s.
Pearson said that the arrest devastated her. She felt people in her town began to look at her differently.
The three other Coffee County residents (one black and two white) reached an agreement with the state and did not stand trial. Pearson refused to settle. One reason is that a plea to a felony charge would have resulted in her removal from the Douglas city commission. But more important, she said, was that she simply didn’t do anything wrong and couldn’t say that she had.
“The Truth Will Come Out”
If something good comes out of the case, it will be the message to others that they should stand on their principles when times are difficult, she said.
“I hope that other people will see that when you know that you are right, do not let anyone intimidate you into saying that you are wrong,” Pearson said. “If you stand up and you fight, there is a chance, there’s a great possibility that the truth will come out.”
Pearson said that her faith provided comfort in difficult times and that throughout the legal proceedings she believed God would take care of her.
“The last couple of mornings when I had been waking up, I had been waking up with just this enormous peace,” she said. “I’d been constantly praying through the whole thing. I pray all the time anyway, but with this going on, I was praying even more, night and day, fasting and praying.”
Last year, Pearson said she felt that the charge against her had affected how she was viewed in her community. Will her vindication help relieve some of that feeling?
“Definitely, definitely, it does,” she said. “But you know the fact of the matter is, to those individuals who want to still feel that I was wrong or guilty, they’re going to still feel that way. But the people who are not sure, it’s going to reassure them.”
Pearson said now that the case is over, she hopes to return to her routine.
“I’m going to continue to do my civic duties,” she said. “Now if the Lord leads me a different way, then I will be obedient to how I’m led. But my plans are to continue to do the work that I’ve been doing, helping people, trying to make things better.”