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Clay County, Kentucky's Corrupt Set Free; Drugs and Voter Fraud

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

For decades, a group of local politicians allegedly conspired to buy and trade votes in order to control Clay County, Kentucky. The operation came to a halt when eight people were indicted in 2009, and many other alleged co-conspirators flipped and testified on the government’s behalf.

The court’s opinion sets forth the most recent version of the conspiracy, from 2002 to 2006, in detail. In some cases, voters would be paid and shuttled to the polls. Corrupt poll workers would to into the booths to “help” with the machines. In other cases, absentee ballots would be used to ensure that the candidates got what they paid for. When electric machines came to Clay County, votes would be changed by telling the voter that it was unnecessary to finalize their votes.

The conspiracy was allegedly led by two men: elected Judge Russell Cletus Maricle and School Superintendant Douglas C. Adams. According to the evidence presented at trial, the duo began fixing elections in the 1980s as vote brokers. By the 2000s, they themselves, along with their associates, were the candidates. All the while, drug cultivation and trade increased in Clay County.

After a grueling seven-week trial, the indicted eight were convicted of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) conspiracy charges, as well as an assortment of money laundering, extortion, conspiracy, and obstruction crimes. The evidence included details on votes purchased and stolen, elections bought and sold, and vague ties to drug cultivation and sales.

That same evidence, especially the drug-related evidence, is what necessitated that court's 65-page opinion, and is what has set the eight alleged co-conspirators free -- for now.

Background Evidence and 404(b)

The most questionable decision by the prosecutors, and by the district court, was to admit background evidence, purportedly pursuant to Rule 404(b), consisting of extensive testimony about drug dealing operations, from importing tons of marijuana and kilos of cocaine to growing thousands of marijuana plants locally.

Rule 404(b) prohibits "prior bad act" evidence that shows a propensity towards wrongdoing. Here, there were no evidence of drug proceeds having any connection to the voting scheme at issue in the case.

The defendants also took issue with the admittance of evidence regarding the two alleged bosses, Judge Maricle and Superintendant Adams, participating in 1980s election fraud as vote purchasers.

[T]he government did not need to establish the source of the [drug] funds because it was neither an element of any charged offense nor alleged in the indictment. In contrast, the evidence of vote buying in the 1980s was proper background evidence because it showed how Maricle and Adams rose to become political bosses in Clay County, their knowledge of vote buying, and their personal relationship.

403 Prejudice

What about our old friend, Rule 403? Even had the drug-dealing been admissible per 404, the Sixth Circuit panel would've had issues with the evidence meeting the 403 "unfair prejudice" standard:

[T]he sheer amount of drug-dealing evidence that was presented is entirely disproportionate to its probative value, tipping the scales towards unfair prejudice.

The drug-dealing evidence alone may not have been enough to set the defendants free, however, as it still would have to clear the "harmless error" standard. Tomorrow, we'll look at the remainder of the mistaken evidentiary rulings and the future of the case.

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