A woman supporting seven children and three grandchildren is facing a return to federal prison on Thursday because she was convicted of illegal voting.
Crystal Mason, 43, of Rendon, was found guilty in March of casting an illegal ballot for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race against Donald Trump and was sentenced to five years in prison.
A jury found that Mason cast that ballot while she was serving out her term of supervised release, the federal government’s equivalent of parole from prison.
Mason has appealed her illegal voting conviction, but the federal government is not waiting for the outcome of that appeal. At Mason’s hearing Thursday a judge could immediately send her back to federal prison for two years.
Mason said that whatever happens Thursday, she has faith in God’s plan for her and her family. But Mason said her faith in the United States criminal justice system is being severely tested.
“My children are asking me if I’m going to leave them again,” Mason said. “I tried to show them that when you do something wrong and get knocked down, you can get up and succeed. I tried to do everything right. But they want to put me in jail, dude. I know now that they want to lock me up.”
Mason’s attorneys maintain that her sentence and this current hearing are designed to send a message to people in minority communities to stay away from the polls during the upcoming midterm elections. Mason is African-American.
“Vote and the same thing that happened to Crystal could happen to you,” said Kim Cole, one of Mason’s lawyers.
“And it’s working,” Cole said. “We’ve been contacted by several people who say they will not vote because Crystal’s situation has made them unsure about their status.”
Mason’s story has received worldwide attention since her conviction. Mason said the adverse publicity has cost her two jobs, but that publicity has also gained the attention of attorneys willing to help with her case.
Mason’s troubles began when she was sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2012 after pleading guilty to one count of conspiring to defraud the federal government. She and her husband, who also pleaded guilty to fraud, ran a tax preparation business. The couple pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to prison for filing false income tax returns so they could inflate client refunds and recoup higher fees for their services.
“It was very hard when she went into prison the first time,” said Mason’s mother, Sherrin McGrady, the woman who pestered her daughter about voting in the presidential election. ”All the weight was on me. It was so good to have her back.”
Ironically, Mason’s vote for Clinton didn’t even count, McGrady said.
“I’m really distressed because I am the one who encouraged her to vote,” McGrady said.
Voting is a precious privilege, but in this case, the price has been too high, the family says.
“As a citizen, you can’t complain about the situation unless you go vote,” McGrady said. “I got on her about voting because the things that are going on in our country are truly frightening. Things in this country were going to change for minorities and not for the good. I had no idea that she was ineligible to vote.
“There is no way in the world that I would have risked sending my daughter back to prison if I knew she was ineligible to vote.”
If Mason returns to prison, McGrady, 63, said she has to resume her role as the family’s primary breadwinner.
Mason said she served more than three years in federal prison on that fraud sentence and still has 11 months remaining on her term of supervised release. She contends she is paying her debt to society.
Mason and her attorneys say they cannot understand why the federal government refuses to wait until the appeal process has run its course and her conviction is final. Attorneys have filed a notice to appeal Mason’s illegal voting conviction and the deadline for her attorneys to file an appellate brief remains weeks away.
But prosecutors will not budge, Mason’s attorneys said.
Alison Grinter, one of Mason’s appellate attorneys, said she initially believed the federal courts would wait until the appeals process was complete and her state conviction was final before pursuing revocation proceedings, which brings up a second irony.
“By the time my appeal goes through, I’ll be coming back home,” Mason said.
Winning her appeal may not matter if Mason goes back to federal prison based on a charge that she violated the terms of her supervised release due to her illegal voting conviction. If Mason’s appeal is eventually successful and her conviction is overturned by a higher court, no judge can refund the prison time she will spend after her term of supervised release is revoked, her attorneys said.
“If the judge revokes Mason, she immediately goes back to (federal) prison,” Grinter said.
If the state appeal is not successful, Mason would also have to serve the state’s sentence, Grinter said.
“We have a system that allows her to be double punished like that,” Grinter said.
Mason’s attorney filed a motion on Thursday to postpone the revocation hearing until the appeals process was completed but that motion was denied by U.S. District Judge John McBryde later that same day.
Frustrated, walking by faith
Mason described herself as a nurturer, who is raising her three biological children and supporting four of her brother’s children and three grandchildren. She declined to comment regarding her brother’s situation. Federal prosecutors declined to comment regarding the upcoming hearing.
Mason said she took in her brother’s four children because he also ran afoul of the law and was sentenced to prison. All but one of the children she is supporting have graduated from high school, Mason said. One daughter is working, one son is starting college and another daughter has just completed trade school in a medical field and is searching for a job, according to family members.
In June, her motion for a new trial in the illegal voting case was denied by State District Judge Ruben Gonzales, who issued the original sentence.
But Mason said her spirits have been buoyed by the amount of support she has received from the community.
Since Monday, a small group of people has rallied on Cherry Street in front of the federal courthouse to appeal to the courts for leniency in Mason’s case.
Donnell Ballad, who organized the rallies, is expecting a much larger group Thursday, when the hearing will take place in McBryde’s court.
“This is an ongoing injustice,” Ballard said.
Throughout her court trials, Mason has said she was never told that she could not vote. If she had known the trouble she could cause herself and her family, she would have never walked into the voting booth, she said.
“I’m frustrated and walking on faith,” Mason said. “I never thought I’d come before this judge again. But I’m hoping that he will see that the system failed me. I know he’s not going to punish me for an oversight by the federal government.”