Austin, June 14 – The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the opinion of Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals in reversing the conviction of Jim Jenkins of The Woodlands. The Court of Criminal Appeals issued its opinion and ruling this morning.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest appellate court in Texas for criminal matters, held that the trial court, which convicted Jenkins, erred by failing to instruct the jury on the statutory defense of mistake of law.
The case arose out of the May 8, 2010, election for the Board of Directors of the Woodlands Road Utility District Number 1 in Montgomery County (the “RUD”). Jenkins voted in the election. The Texas Attorney General prosecuted Jenkins and seven other residents of Montgomery County after Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon declined to do so. Then-state senator Tommy Williams and representatives of The Woodlands Development Company lobbied then-Attorney General Greg Abbott to prosecute Jenkins. Abbott followed the request of the lobbyists.
Adrian Heath, one of the RUD defendants is currently serving a three year prison sentence (a political prisoner) in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Jenkins’ trial occurred in June, 2013. Without a proper set of instructions from the trial judge, the jury convicted Jenkins and sentenced him to three years in prison for illegal voting in the one election.
Section 64.012(a)(1) provides that a person commits an offense of illegal voting “if the person votes…in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote.” The question of “eligibility” to vote, however is far more complex and vague in Texas than in most other states in the United States.
Section 8.03(b)(2) of the Texas Penal Code provides the “mistake of law” defense that “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution the actor reasonably believed the conduct charged did not constitute a crime and that he acted in reasonable reliance…” upon an official statement of law contained in a written order or grant of permission by an administrative agency or a written interpretation of the law contained in an opinion of a court of record or made by a public official charged by law with responsibility for interpreting the law in question.
The trial judge failed to instruct the jury in Jenkins’ case with respect to the foregoing “mistake of law” defense which was a critical issue in Jenkins’ case because Montgomery County Elections Administrator Carol Gaultney had interpreted the law in question and determined, in writing, that Jenkins was “eligible” to vote, while a written Attorney General Opinion and a Secretary of State Opinion had interpreted the law as well and described circumstances that would have given Jenkins the belief that he was eligible to vote in the RUD election.
George McCall Secrest, Jenkins’ appellate attorney, told The Golden Hammer this afternoon,
“The bottom line is the Court of Criminal Appeals obviously did the right thing by leaving the Court of Appeals’ well-reasoned opinion in place. The trial court prevented the jury from considering a defensive issue. This result means that the case will ultimately be returned to the trial court where Jim will be entitled to the new trial. He’ll now be entitled to an affirmative jury instruction on the defense of mistake of law. We believe that could have a profound impact on a jury’s verdict. This jury wasn’t given the tools to consider the entire law.”
Secrest: “This jury wasn’t given the tools to consider the entire law.”
Secrest further explained, “The constitutionality argument has not been addressed yet. My view is that Jenkins is still entitled to have the Court of Appeals rule on the constitutionality first before his case goes back to trial. So I believe this case will go back to the Court of Appeals first. That’s still a live issue. My view is the case goes back to the Court of Appeals. They should now be required to address the second issue, which is whether the law as applied is constitutionally vague.”