Felons vote, too - but it's a crime

 

Killers and thieves cast Miami ballots

A flasher voted. He fatally beat his cellmate. A pot-smoking jailer voted. He helped two inmates escape. A convicted ex-Miami detective voted. He covered up the murder of a drug dealer. And a homeless, crack-addicted thief voted. His voting address: the apartment next to the place he burglarized. The Herald counted 105 ineligible felon ballots in last November's mayoral election. But a three-week Herald study reveals no evidence that any candidate recruited the ex-convict vote.

The only thing that keeps felons from voting in any election is an honor system. And when it comes to weeding felons from the registration books, the system simply doesn't work.

Records show about 2,800 ineligible felons registered to vote in Miami-Dade alone.

Statewide, voter fraud by felons is already common -- and growing more pervasive as more and more convicts leave prisons.

The youngest and the oldest who voted in Miami's mayoral election are 21-year-old Dionisio Santana, a former car thief, and 72-year-old Pablo Fundora, who was convicted of concealing a weapon. They agree: They had no idea they were committing a crime by voting.

"Sincerely, I didn't know, " Fundora says.

The law is clear: It's a crime -- a felony -- for any convicted felon to "willfully" cast a ballot.

Ruth Dunwoody, 52, who pleaded no contest to welfare fraud, professes ignorance, too. "I probably forgot to mark the box that asked if I was a convicted felon, " says Dunwoody, jailed for five months in 1990. "No one brought it to my attention."

'NEED FOR REVIEW'

The office of Miami-Dade Circuit Court Clerk Harvey Ruvin is responsible for identifying convicted felons for removal from the voting rolls. "There's a pressing need for a full systemic review of the process, " Ruvin says.

Ruvin also wonders how many votes are cast by noncitizens who tell clerks that they are U.S. citizens.

Under a century-old law, felons and people deemed "mentally incapacitated" can petition the clemency board in Tallahassee to restore their civil rights. Convicts must complete their prison term as well as their parole or probation.

In interviews, many felons express remorse. They deny deliberately breaking the law. Calling themselves believers in the democratic process (71 percent are registered as Democrats), some insist they paid the price for their crimes and don't deserve any more punishment.

"Isn't voting the right and responsible thing to do?" asks Terrence Patterson, 31, a onetime tough guy who feels empowered by the ballot. "I thought the whole point was to get us back into society.

"If I did something wrong by voting, and exercising my rights as an American, then I'll be the first person to tear up my card and say I was wrong."

FAULTING THE SYSTEM

Other felons blame the system for allowing them to cast illegal ballots.

"How is it possible?" asks 31-year-old Juan Borges, an accomplice in a 1992 robbery, "that they'd allow me to vote if it's not legal?"

No matter how haphazard or confusing the system is, "ignorance is not an excuse, " says Carolyn Snurkowski, Florida's assistant deputy attorney general for criminal appeals. A conviction is a conviction. "Even if there are special conditions, it's still a conviction, " she adds.

Felons have been voting illegally for years, but the practice didn't get much attention until recent allegations of organized absentee-voter fraud.

Miami-Dade County election supervisor David Leahy says much of the breakdown occurs because his clerks -- while they can remove names from the current voter rolls -- don't keep a list of convictions for future reference.

That shortcoming allowed Patterson, for example, to register two years after his latest conviction. And Borges' grandma says that a couple of years after his legal problems, she innocently persuaded him to vote and get involved in the political process. "It's my fault, " she says. "If I'd known it was a bad thing to do, I wouldn't have done it."

On the voter registration form is a check-off box stating the applicant is not a felon. One felon says he filled it in.

"I don't remember if I even read it, " says another, Julio Morina, 43. He registered in August 1996. "Is that a crime?"

NOBODY ASKED HIM

Michael Cooke, a onetime crack addict now working as a janitor and going to school, credits divine intervention. After a horrific three-month stint in the county jail, Cooke vowed last year to become a productive member of society.

Living in a homeless shelter, he registered to vote in March 1997, then later changed his address to the apartment next door to the one police accused him of burglarizing. He says he left the convicted-felon box blank -- and no one asked him if he was a felon.

A drug rehabilitation counselor asked Cooke, once known as Cool Breed, how he managed to register. "You haven't even been reinstated as a citizen yet, " Cooke quoted him as saying.

"I guess I just did it, " the 46-year-old Cooke replied. "I must be blessed."

More than half of the illegal felon voters registered after their convictions, records show. Dozens of others were able to vote because of criminal-justice snafus.

This is how the system is supposed to work: Every month, Metro-Dade Circuit Court sends a list of convicts to county election clerks, who strip the names from the voter rolls. But the lists are incomplete, to say the least.

CROSSING THE BORDER

For one thing, they don't contain the names of convicts from circuit courts outside Dade -- not even from Broward County. In last November's mayoral race, that glitch allowed at least 10 people convicted in Broward to vote in Dade.

"If someone is on the books to vote, then why not vote?" asks Barbara White, mother of 27-year-old Felix White. A onetime cashier with a bobcat tattoo on his left arm, Felix White was convicted of robbing a couple in a restaurant parking lot in Sunrise. "I don't understand the system, " his mom says. "The election people are going about this the wrong way."

Like the out-of-county felons, those from out ofstate fall through a "huge black hole, " clerk Ruvin says. That's what happened with Kappuzine Avant, 29, a former fugitive. She was convicted in South Carolina of a 1990 cocaine-trafficking conspiracy. Her name never turned up for removal from the registration rolls. Then there's a whole separate set of undetected felons: people convicted in federal courts.

It wasn't until January 1995 that the U.S. attorney's office in Miami began notifying election clerks of federal convicts.

Though he hasn't voted, Abel Holtz, the millionaire convicted banker who had a tennis complex named after him in Miami Beach, is still on the Dade rolls. And Pablo Camacho, the Miami undercover detective convicted in the coverup of a drug dealer's death, cast a ballot in the November mayoral election. For whom, he won't say.

"My case is still under appeal, " Camacho says. "Until it's final, I guess I retain everything."

APPEALS DON'T MATTER

Prosecutors say Camacho is mistaken, noting that if felons could vote while waiting for appeals, the right would go to Death Row inmates. Although a 1977 ruling backs him up, the latest Florida opinion, written in 1995, disqualifies a felon from voting -- upon conviction, not after appeals.

What does Camacho think of that? "It wouldn't be fair, " he says. "I would have heard from the elections department. They would ask you to surrender your card."

Last week, the U.S. attorney's office vowed to look into ways to plug holes in the system. One possibility: a central database of disenfranchised felons. "We're examining what loopholes there may have been, " says Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.

State election officials in Tallahassee say they hope to create such a database within 60 days -- a recommendation seconded by Circuit Court Clerk Ruvin.

On Tuesday, after inquiries by The Herald, Ruvin's clerks discovered more than 7,000 felons whose names were never reported to Dade election officials. Records show that five of them voted in the Miami election last November.

A computer slip-up, Ruvin explains.

ADDRESSES DIFFER

Some felons slipped up twice. Not only did they vote, but they voted from addresses where they don't live.

Donald Spence, 41, a former thief with bleeding ulcers and probation violations dating back to 1975, registered from his mother's senior center apartment complex. He says he uses it as his mailing address. His mom, 77-year-old Leonora Edwards, says she's partly to blame because she encouraged him to register. "He thought he was doing the right thing, " she says.

"Take my rights from me, " Spence adds. "But don't mess with my mother."

In addition to different addresses, some felons use different birth dates, different Social Security numbers and different identities.

Eladio Hernandez, a 59-year-old painter, says he is not the Eladio Hernandez who shot a man in the leg 17 years ago. But his voting application record carries the same Social Security number as the conviction record.

When Hernandez accepted a plea bargain, Judge John Tanksley asked: "Do you understand when the court adjudicates you guilty you will be a convicted felon under the laws of the state and as such you give up certain rights: the right to vote?. . . Do you understand that?"

"Yes, " Hernandez replied.

ABSENTEE VOTES CAST

Nine felons voted absentee, among them Ruth Dunwoody, who says voting "makes a difference. It's the only way to be heard around here."

Prosecutors and election officials admit the law disqualifying felons can lead to serious disparities. A soft judge with a heavy caseload may stop short of entering a formal judgment against a child molester, allowing him to continue to vote. But a pot smoker nailed by a hanging judge might lose his voting rights because of the felony conviction.

What's more, judges in crowded Miami-Dade courts accept plea bargains involving serious crimes that anywhere else in the state might result in convictions and a loss of voting rights.

"There are inequities, " says Janet Keels, coordinator of the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee.

Records show that about half of the ineligible felon-voters were convicted more than a decade ago, some of relatively trivial offenses, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, illegal lottery sales, or acts that they say were part of growing up.

Terrence Patterson's crimes aren't exactly youthful indiscretions. Once, he threatened to kill a former boss, flashed a steak knife at a woman and swiped breakfast from the jail kitchen. But since his last conviction in 1994, he says he "started over fresh and clean."

"If the system has a glitch, " Patterson says, "it's not my fault."

'I DIDN'T KNOW'

Nineteen years after Eduardo Alonso wounded a man with a knife, he turned his life around and thought he had put his felony behind him. "I thought everything was OK, " says the 71-year-old motel owner, a registered Republican. "I didn't know I lost my voting rights because of the sentence. Having known it, I would not have voted. It's not very important to me."

In addition to knifers and muggers, felon-voters include stalkers and confidence men (and women). Nelson Torres, 44, a former corrections officer, cast an ineligible ballot. In 1985, police say, he let two inmates escape in exchange for two grams of coke.

And Irving Perez, an insurance agent, registered to vote in 1976 and never stopped -- even after his conviction in 1995. He got 20 years of probation for swiping tens of thousands of dollars from an elderly church woman.

"I know I'm not allowed to carry a gun, " says Perez, 55. "But voting is not something they made clear to me."

Felons themselves disagree on which voters the state should disqualify. "It depends on what the person did, " says Dunwoody, the woman convicted of welfare fraud. "I mean, I'm not a killer."

Some are. James Joy III, 35, an ex-flasher, got eight years in 1993 for pummeling to death a cellmate on the psychiatric floor of the county jail. He cast a bad ballot.

RECEIVED VOTER CARD

One night in 1989, Jorge Alfredo Gomez, a factory worker, drank too many beers at a party, passed out at the wheel, and ran over a homeless derelict sleeping on a bus bench. He went to jail for seven months. Sitting in a darkened living room, his face covered with stubble, surrounded by pictures of his family, Gomez covers his face and expresses regret.

"I had no idea I was voting illegally, " says Gomez, 44, a native of Guatemala who became a U.S. citizen after his jail term. "I filled out the forms and they gave me the card. . . . I had a voting card, so I voted."

According to state records, about one of four felons successfully completes the clemency process. It's often cumbersome and time-consuming.

Holtz, the former banker, says he filled out the paperwork himself and is waiting for a decision from Tallahassee. Daniel Gunder, 31, a former coke user, couldn't wait. He petitioned for restoration of his civil rights a month before the mayoral election, but he voted without his restoration certificate, according to clemency clerks in Tallahassee.

"I thought that the fact that I went to vote without a problem meant that my right had been automatically restored, " Gunder says.

Two people acquitted of crimes by reason of insanity did receive clemency and certificates restoring their voting rights.

'A PIONEER CITIZEN'

Sitting in his tidy one-bedroom apartment, 81-year-old Leonard Sands holds back tears as he talks about the two men he shot dead. He was convicted of killing one in 1973, then was acquitted, by reason of insanity, of a second death 17 years later.

"I'm a pioneer citizen, " says Sands, who lets the neighborhood kids play with his plastic spider. "I was born and raised here. I served in the war. I've been a taxpayer all my life."

Another person with restored rights is Mary Johnson, 73. After 17 months 10 days in the county jail for a 1975 manslaughter conviction, she waited two years for her rights. Today she keeps a picture of Jesus on the wall, is an activist Democrat who works at the polls, and proudly displays her certificate.

She's not wild about either Miami mayoral candidate. "They're both crooks, " she says.

This article is based on reporting by these Herald staff writers: Karen Branch, Tyler Bridges, Alfonso Chardy, Manny Garcia, Lisa Getter, Rick Jervis, John Lantigua, Marika Lynch, Sandra Marquez Garcia, Patricia Maldonado, Connie Prater, Ken Rodriguez, Joe Tanfani and Andres Viglucci. It was written by Viglucci, Tanfani and Getter. Herald research editor Dan Keating and Getter handled computer analysis and researcher Elisabeth Donovan and Annabelle Degale provided research assistance.

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