SUMMERVILLE, Ga. - The jury should begin deliberations this morning in an election fraud case against suspended Chattooga County State Court Judge Carlton Vines.
In closing arguments Wednesday, defense attorney Rex Abernathy continued the team's strategy of characterizing the investigation and trial of Judge Vines as a political "witch hunt" that began shortly after he won re-election in a close race where absentee ballots made the difference.
Prosecutor Joseph Burford reminded the jury that the case was simple, "When you have ballots outside of the polling place, you have broken the law," Mr. Burford said. "It's not that hard to understand."
Judge Vines is charged with unlawful possession of ballots, conspiracy to commit election fraud and making false statements in connection with a 2006 election for the State Court bench.
The defendant was losing that election, with 1,943 votes to 2,119 votes for Sam Finster, but when absentee ballots were counted he won by 125 votes.
Judge Finster was sworn in to the State Court judge seat in February by Gov. Sonny Perdue while Judge Vines works out this case.
Possession of absentee ballots outside of a polling place is a felony under Georgia law.
But the defense has continually argued over the last three days that instructions on the absentee ballot envelope could be interpreted to mean that a person could deliver or mail a ballot for another person.
Mr. Burford wrote the wording of the law on a large paper display, explaining that the law trumped any instruction.
Lead defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook has continually attacked the investigation by the Secretary of State and Georgia Bureau of Investigation, likening investigators to Nazis because they asked witnesses for personal information and about for whom they voted in the 2006 election, which was nonpartisan.
Mr. Cook began the trial by calling the investigation an "invasion of Chattooga County" and that the entire incident began with the illegal copying of a voter's registration card by Chattooga County resident Ralph Wright.
Mr. Wright filed the original complaint with the Secretary of State's office regarding the election in early December 2006.
Defense attorneys brought Chattooga County Probate Judge Jon Payne back to the stand to confirm his recollection of a conversation he had in 2007 with Secretary of State investigator Steve McBrayer.
Judge Payne said the investigator told him at one point not to worry about others that, "we're just after Carlton Vines."
On Tuesday Mr. McBrayer testified that he had not said that to Judge Payne.
Mr. Cook and Mr. Abernathy have used this statement as a key point in their theory that the investigation targeted their client from the beginning.
The two also picked apart an affidavit signed by GBI agent Dan Sims to obtain a search warrant in the investigation. Mr. Sims said the Secretary of State's office had written "the body" of the statement; he had reviewed it, interviewed Mr. McBrayer and signed the affidavit to begin the investigation.
The ensuing investigation would involve questioning more than 100 Chattooga County voters about the election and gathering evidence through the search warrant.
The prosecution attempted to build a line of custody of ballots through testimony of four witnesses who admitted to either mailing or delivering 40 ballots to Judge Vine's office.
Four of the six witnesses had been granted immunity to testify.
On the same paper display, Mr. Burford wrote the names of each ballot collected and cross-checked the names with those kept by Dorothy Gilbreath, former secretary for Judge Vines. She applied postage to ballots to be mailed during the election.
Mr. Abernathy came back to instructions on handling the ballots during closing arguments.
"It does not say anywhere on it, 'warning, warning, touch this and you'll be a felon,'" Mr. Abernathy said clutching an envelope and pounding the podium for emphasis.