Judge to determine extent of protection in vote-buying case

Last updated: February 13. 2014 3:38PM - 891 Views
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PIKEVILLE — Attorneys in the Martin vote-buying case have been engaged in a spirited debate over a request by prosecutors for a court order protecting the identities and statements of cooperating witnesses from dissemination.

Prosecutors initially requested that defense attorneys sign a statement that they would “take all steps necessary to insure that neither these [witness] statements, nor copies thereof, are disseminated to anyone other than the defense attorney, his/her staff, or the individual defendant.” The agreement further stipulated that defendants could only review the statements under supervision of their attorneys, could not make copies of the statements, and could not make the contents of the statements known to any unauthorized person.

All of the defense attorneys subsequently complied with the request, with the exception of Willis G. Coffey, who is representing Henry A. Mullins.

Following Coffey’s refusal, U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey filed a motion requesting the court force compliance with the request.

“In public corruption cases in Eastern Kentucky, experience teaches that witnesses who have provided statements to law enforcement are at risk for coercion, intimidation and abuse,” Harvey writes in the motion. “That risk rises greatly when written witness statements provided to defense counsel during the discovery process wind up on the street. Counsel typically feel compelled to share the discovery with their clients. The clients, in turn, may provide the statements to their friends and associates as proof that these witnesses are ‘rats.’ Accordingly, it has become somewhat routine for the government to seek, and the Court to enter protective orders in cases like this one.”

In an objection to the motion filed Saturday, Coffey questions the necessity of the prosecution’s request.

“This is not a case in which the U.S. is prosecuting a member of al-Qaeda or some other terrorist,” Coffey writes. “And this is not a case where Henry Mullins (or to counsel’s knowledge any other co-defendant) has presented a ‘clear cut danger’ to a cooperating individual.

“What has Henry Mullins done to merit such treatment from his government i.e. that his access be restricted and possession denied to certain incriminating witness statements (likely the strongest evidence against him)? The worse [sic] allegation counsel has heard to this point (I repeat, only an allegation) is Mullins accepted $30 from a co-defendant and used the money in an attempt to buy three votes in a local election at $10 a pop. Admittedly illegal conduct (if proven), but still hardly earth shattering.”

Saying that such an order would be a “nightmare for the conscientious defense attorney,” Coffey further says such a requirement would put an undue burden on attorney and could put defendants at odds with their lawyers.

“The proposed order states counsel must ‘insure’ no one other than the defendant gets access to the statements and only then under supervision of defense counsel or staff,” Coffey writes. “Further, the defendant cannot make a ‘copy’ of any statement. Why must counsel (have the burden to) ‘insure’ the limited access? It is one thing to say the defendant can review the statements only in the presence of counsel or his staff. It is something more to require counsel to ‘insure’ the limited dissemination of these statements to the U.S.’ satisfaction. What if, the defendant wants to takes notes while reviewing the statements? What if the defendant brings a hand-held recorder and reads the statement (or parts of it) into the recorder? What if, the defendant photographs the statements? (Must counsel wrestle his client’s smart phone from him there on the spot?)”

But in a response to the objection filed Tuesday, Harvey says Coffey’s fears are unwarranted.

“The defendant’s fears are overstated,” Harvey writes. “There is nothing about the proposed order that is vague or overly burdensome. The order does not deprive the defense of the opportunity to prepare for trial in any respect. The parade of horribles postulated by defense counsel is an exaggeration. Most of the conduct he posits as posing an issue — such as writing a summary of the evidence in a letter to his client or discussing the evidence in a motion — is not prohibited by the order.”

The arguments have been submitted to Magistrate Judge Edward B. Atkins for review.

Mullins is one of six defendants accused of conspiring to buy votes in the 2012 Martin mayor’s race.

Mullins; former Martin Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson; her husband, James “Red” Robinson; her step-son, James Steven Robinson; Ginger Michelle Halbert; and Johnny T. Moore were each accused of civil rights conspiracy in a December indictment. Ruth Thomasine Robinson, James “Red” Robinson, Moore and Mullins also each face a single count of vote-buying, while James Steven Robinson is charged with three counts of vote-buying. Halbert is the only defendant not charged with vote-buying.

According to the indictment against them, the six allegedly conspired to induce public housing residents and tenants renting homes owned by the former mayor to vote for her by absentee ballot, using an already completed ballot, during her 2010 re-election bid. Some of the voters were allegedly told they could get better apartments if they voted for Ruth Thomasine Robinson, while others were allegedly told they would face eviction if they did not. And the indictment alleges the defendants backed up those threats.

“It was part of the conspiracy that one or more of the defendants caused residents and tenants to be evicted because they believed they had not voted, or had voted incorrectly,” the indictment reads. “It was part of the conspiracy that Ruth Thomasine Robinson directed Martine police officers to serve eviction notices on tenants.

“It was part of the conspiracy that on at least one occasion, two of the defendants harassed a qualified voters about voting to the point that the voter would not come out of his apartment to vote because he was in fear of physical harm.”

Former Mayor Robinson lost that election by three votes.

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