Pamela Moses, the Memphis woman who was sentenced to six years in prison for trying to register to vote, says she is grateful to be released – but believes the case against her was a “scare tactic” to discourage other people from casting a ballot.
Moses was released from prison on bond on 25 February after a judge unexpectedly granted her request for a new trial, citing evidence, obtained by the Guardian, that had not been disclosed to Moses’ defense.
In her first interview since being freed Moses recalled the moment in the courtroom when Judge W Mark Ward decided to grant her a new trial – and said she was “overwhelmed with joy”. Video shows Moses nearly in tears and screaming in excitement when Ward ruled he was granting her a new trial.
She knew that judges rarely reverse themselves and grant requests for new trials, but she had been praying Ward would see beyond her criminal record. “I was very grateful that God had allowed him to correct his own mistake, and that’s what you need in the criminal justice system.”
But Moses, a longtime activist who founded the Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter, still faces the possibility of a retrial. Moses says she was unaware she was ineligible to vote, and state officials acknowledged they made an error in indicating to her that she was eligible. Her case has brought renewed focus to the practice, common in many US states, of depriving people convicted of certain felonies of their voting rights for widely varying lengths of time, but sometimes for life.
“It’s a scare tactic, what they did to me,” Moses told the Guardian. She thinks other people with criminal convictions will think twice before seeking to cast a ballot in elections. “It’s like, ‘if she went to jail for that, we don’t need to do that. We don’t need to follow her because we’re going to be in jail for six years too.’ I would say it sends a confusing message to people who want to vote.
“Why should people be worried if they’re going to be prosecuted for doing their civic duty?”
Moses is a well-known activist in Memphis who has filed numerous cases in local and federal courts, often representing herself. She has been outspoken against a number of local officials, including the local election commission, judges and Amy Weirich, the local district attorney who is prosecuting her case. She said she believes she’s being “persecuted” for being so outspoken.
“If you silence the loudest person that’s screaming, ‘hey Black people, go vote, don’t vote for her, remove her from office’ then you eliminate the opposition,” she said. “I believe, not only if I wasn’t Black, but if my name wasn’t Pamela Moses, this probably never would have been a case.”
Moses’ case attracted national attention because of the harshness of her sentence, which seemed at odds with the evidence in the case. Before the trial, election officials in Memphis conceded that they erroneously never removed her from the voter rolls after she pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2015.
In 2019, Moses launched a campaign for mayor of Memphis and sought clarification from court officials about whether she had completed her felony probation and could appear on the ballot. A judge told her she was still on probation, but Moses still believed she was eligible and went to a probation office and asked them to verify her eligibility and sign a certificate saying she could vote. After about an hour of investigating, the probation officer did so.
Prosecutors blamed Moses for this. In their request for an indictment, they wrote she “convinced” the officer to sign off on the document. And during her sentencing hearing, Ward, the judge overseeing her case, accused her of deceiving the probation officer into signing off on the eligibility certificate. Moses said she didn’t trick anyone and was stunned to hear such an assertion.
“I was like wow, I need to go to magic school or something. I’m the new Houdini. I’ve got that much power to trick somebody I’ve never met, never seen in my life into doing something just by walking in the place? You know, no.”
But a document obtained by the Guardian last month, after the trial concluded, showed that probation officials investigated the incident and found that the probation officer, identified as Manager Billington, had made an error on his own. Even though Moses’ file said she was still on probation, Billington thought that another person had made a mistake. The official who conducted the investigation ultimately determined that Billington was negligent and to blame for the error.
Moses went out of her way to defend Billington. “I don’t like how everybody is portraying that supervisor as a bad person. That man did his job,” she said. “I don’t think that man did anything other than what he could do based on the information that he had in front of him.”
But Moses was critical of Weirich, the prosecutor, who has said Moses bears some of the responsibility for her sentence because she declined to accept a plea deal that would not have resulted in additional prison time. “I gave her a chance to plead to a misdemeanor with no prison time,” Weirich said in February “She requested a jury trial instead. She set this unfortunate result in motion and a jury of her peers heard the evidence and convicted her.”
Moses pushed back on that characterization. “I haven’t done anything in my mind wrong so why would I plead to anything?” she said.
“We have a right to that. But you want me to give it up because you want it to be right? It was about the principle to me. “I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Weirich’s office did not immediately return a request for comment. Weirich has yet to say whether she will pursue a new trial. Moses and her new legal team plan to hold a press conference in Memphis on Friday asking her to drop all of the charges.
Her prosecution may already be having a local policy impact. Citing her case, a coalition of civil rights groups is pushing the county commission to conduct a “racial equity audit” to examine whether there is racial discrimination in Weirich’s office.
The Moses case is one of several high-profile instances that underscores the disparity between how white and Black defendants can be treated when it comes to election crimes. Several white defendants across the country received minimal punishments, such as probation, for purposefully impersonating family members in order to cast multiple votes – yet Black people who made mere mistakes when attempting to follow complicated processes and procedures received prison sentences.
“The reason why Ms Moses’ situation has got the attention of the nation is because this sort of disparate treatment happens all the time,” said Rodney Diggs, one of her attorneys. “The disparate treatment between people of color and non-people of color. You can just see the differences.”
Moses had been in jail since December, when the judge overseeing her case abruptly revoked her bond. She said that she contracted Covid-19. She was unaware of the attention her case was getting, except for periodic dispatches from a jail nurse who would mention that she had seen her on the local news.
Her incarceration had been particularly hard on Tyler, her 24-year-old son, who she said lost his job and took on tasks like handling her mail and bills.
Since she’s been released, she said she has spent time with her 13-year-old son Taj – a “mini me”. The weekend after she was released, they went to a funeral for a relative who had been killed. She has been taking him to school and they watch Netflix together. She hasn’t had to explain her case to him because he’d researched it on the internet. “He asked me certain things. And I just divert,” she said.
Still, Moses said she still has a lot of anxiety. On Wednesday, she was at 40% back to normal. On Thursday, she said she was up to 65%.
“I’m anxious. I’m worried because these charges haven’t gone away,” she said. “I mean look at how much money they spent on this. Just think about it. They probably could have built a school with all the money they spent prosecuting me over a piece of paper.”