A hearing on a motion for new trial in Tarrant County illegal voting conviction
Crystal Mason has seen her share of courtrooms and has had some bad experiences in them, but on Friday, she returned to the same judge who sentenced her to five years in prison in March for illegally voting with the hope she could turn her legal luck around.
Mason, 43, of Rendon, asked State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez to reconsider his previous ruling and grant her a new trial, based mostly on claims that her trial attorney, J. Warren St. John, provided ineffective council, but also based on claims that the state statute is too vague to apply in this case.
Tarrant County prosecutors opposed Gonzalez granting Mason a new trial.
After hearing arguments from attorneys and St. John's testimony, Gonzalez ordered both sides to file additional written arguments by June 7 that he will use to issue a ruling on the new trial motion by June 11.
Mason's new attorney, Alison Grinter, challenged the court's ruling on the basis that the state law is not clear about who can and cannot vote, especially when it is related to federal convictions.
Grinter said the Tarrant County district attorney's office uses the law's lack of clarity to punish people who mistakenly try to vote and then treats them like criminals.
"This only happens in Tarrant County," Grinter said.
Illegal voting prosecutions were rare until Trump "made that stupid comment about illegal voting costing him the popular vote," Grinter said.
"What I do have an issue with is the prosecution of every case that could be construed as illegal voting," Grinter said. "Our state statute is so vague it leaves open the possibility that it can be weaponized like this. The lack of clarity in the law is why people like Crystal find themselves in this situation. People should be able to present a provisional ballot without fear of prosecution."
This court is not being asked to address those broad issues Grinter is considering, according to prosecutors.
“This matter is pending in front of Judge Gonzalez," said Sharen Wilson, Tarrant County district attorney. "It would be wholly improper for any of the attorneys involved to comment while under the judge’s consideration. Now is not the time for political hyperbole.”
The Texas Attorney General's Office recorded 93 illegal voting or voting fraud prosecutions in the state between 2005 and 2017.
Those figures do not include the case of Mason, who was convicted in 2018, or the case of Rosa Marie Ortega, who was convicted in February 2017 and received an eight-year prison sentence.
Three of the eight previous prosecutions in Texas produced prison sentences that were as long as Mason's and none were as long as Ortega's.
Officials with the Texas Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to a request Friday for updated information on illegal voting and voting fraud prosecutions.
Mason, who was known as Crystal Mason-Hobbs at the time, pleaded guilty to fraud in 2011 and was ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution, according to court documents.
Mason admitted that she and her ex-husband, Sanford Taylor Hobbs III, submitted inflated tax refunds to the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of clients through their Everman tax preparation business.
Mason divorced her husband, who received a similar sentence after he pleaded guilty. Mason voted in the 2016 presidential race at her mother's insistence and brought her driver's license as identification, according to her testimony. When poll workers could not find her name on the list of registered voters, Mason obtained a provisional ballot and was guided through the process by an election worker.
Mason testified that she did not remember the form saying anything about people on supervised release being prohibited from voting. To register to vote in Texas, a person must be 18 and a U.S. citizen and cannot be a convicted felon or have been declared mentally incapacitated by a court.
In Texas, convicted felons can have their voting privileges restored after fully completing their sentences.
Rosa Maria Ortega, a 37-year-old Grand Prairie mother of four who had a green card, received a sentence of eight years in prison for illegally voting in the 2012 general election and the 2014 Republican primary runoff.
Ortega voted in five Dallas County elections since 2004 before she moved to the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie and submitted a voter registration application for her new address, according to testimony during her trial.
Ortega testified that she got a letter in October 2013 from the Tarrant County elections office rejecting her application, but she still believed she had the right to vote.
Prosecutors said that Ortega, after being rejected, requested another voter registration application by phone, completed it and returned it to Tarrant County, checking the box that indicated that she was a U.S. citizen. Ortega told the jury she believed that state officials would make a determination about her eligibility and inform her of their decision, not convict her.
St. John was conflicted in his representation, and his conflict is something Grinter is asking the court to explore as it considers granting Mason a new trial. St. John, who also represented Mason in her federal tax fraud case, testified Friday that he told her she would lose certain rights if she were convicted.
One of those rights was her right to vote, St. John said.
But at the time Mason's illegal voting trial was held, St. John said he was not certain he told her about all the possibilities a federal conviction might trigger. After the trial he reviewed his notes and discovered that he had told Mason she could lose her voting privileges, St. John testified.
St. John said since Mason did not remember being told by anyone about the possibility she could lose her right to vote, he testified that he conducted her defense based on her recollections.
Matt Smid, Tarrant County prosecutor, questioned St. John about what could have happened if he had testified about talking to her about her voting rights.
"It would have been highly improper for me to be called as a witness," St. John said.
It could have triggered a violation of the attorney-client privilege had he been called and testified, and it would have been hurtful to Mason's defense, according to St. John's testimony.
Grinter pressed St. John about why he made no effort to disqualify himself because of his admission on the stand that he told Mason during her federal prosecution that a conviction would mean she could not vote.
St. John testified that Mason told him that she did not remember anyone telling her she could not vote, and considered their conversation about her voting rights possibly being suspended by her conviction unnecessary to her defense.
St. John defended Mason by arguing that she did not know that she could not vote.
"She told me she didn't remember our conversation," St. John said. "It was a lengthy discussion. Her recollection is that no one told her she could not vote. There was no conflict based on my representation of Crystal Mason that she had no knowledge that she couldn't vote. I believe with all my heart she didn't know she could not vote."