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District 6 dispute set to continue

In the absence key witnesses, the District 6 election contest has been continued until noon April 30. Testimony was heard Wednesday in Pike County Circuit Court from several of the district’s voters and election officials in the dispute between Oren Fannin and Karen Berry, who won the Nov. 4, 2008,election by six votes.

At the heart of Wednesday’s testimony was the legitimacy of absentee ballots cast on Berry’s behalf. A total of 171 were cast for Berry in the election.

Joel Lee Williams, Fannin’s attorney, called several of the district’s voters who had cast absentee ballots to the stand in hopes of proving at least six of the 1,392 votes for Berry were invalid. Fannin garnered 1,386 votes after the December recount.

“We absolutely presented and proved everything we needed to,” Williams said.

However, the absence of one family of voters prompted the judge to continue the case until noon next Thursday. Karl, Mary and Brandon Kidd, who were excused from Wednesday’s hearing for a medical emergency, all cast votes for Berry in the Nov. 4 election. But where the Kidds resided was unclear, since official documents with three different addresses were presented in court, and not all the addresses were within District 6 voting limits.

Williams said without the testimony of at least one of the Kidds, the court was unable to determine whether the votes were legal.

Among voters brought to the stand was Brent Berry, Karen’s son, who said he lives in Shelby County five days of the week but has a permanent address at his mother’s home in District 6. Brent, his wife and three children all stay in the Birmingham area and have for the last seven years. But, Brent said since they are at Berry’s home nearly every weekend and receive mail at the District 6 residence, Pike County is home. Both he and his wife voted with an absentee ballot, and according to Brent’s testimony, he cast a vote for his mother.

“I just want to vote when she runs, and that’s it,” Brent Berry said.

Brent’s wife did not come to testify in court, thought subpoenaed, but her husband said she is originally from Bullock County and has never lived in Pike County except a brief time she attended Troy University. One of the witnesses Williams called to the stand, who was shown to live outside the district, admitted to the plaintiff’s surprise to voting for Fannin.

“This may cause some hard feelings, but my vote was for Mr. Fannin,” said Tiffany Paige Gray, who lives across the street from Berry and admitted also to assisting with her campaign. Frank Ralph, Berry’s attorney, said Gray’s testimony was one of Berry’s best defenses. “They put 14 people on the stand who all stated Karen and the notary were there and that they signed (their own affidavits),” Ralph said. “They made a big to-do over that but people testified they signed it. Then there were people who they didn’t know actually voted the other way.” Williams presented absentee ballot affidavits from different people who allegedly had matching signatures, but each of the witnesses admitted to having signed their own envelopes in the presence of a notary except two. Misty Shelton, who said she voted absentee for convenience, said she handed her ballot to Berry without a notary present. “At some point, it’s a matter of credibility,” Williams said. “One of those things is where once one of the voters was not witnessed, that questions all of them.” Berry’s notary, Kathy Griffin said she confirmed it was Shelton’s signature over the phone.

Another voter, Rodger Blair, told the court he signed his ballot envelope without the notary witness, but Berry and Griffin both said he simply did not see Griffin, who was allegedly waiting in the car. “I was in the back of Karen’s car. She had lots of boxes and campaign signs,” Griffin said. “I saw him give over his ID to Karen to copy, and I saw him sign the affidavit through the window.”

After hearing the evidence and reviewing several absentee ballot affidavits on his own, retired Lanett Judge Joel Holley had some questions of his own. “Does it not make you feel a little strange going to homes, assisting with affidavits and notarizing signatures?” Holley asked Griffin, who said she oftentimes fills out the personal information requested from the voter on the affidavits herself. While she said she only does this when voters request it, Holley said it is beyond the duty of a notary.

“To my knowledge, the only job a notary does is they are authorized to notarize signatures,” Holley said. “I’m not saying that’s illegal, but looking at those, it was apparent … the majority were filled out by the same person.”

The judge offered no ruling on the validity of the ballots presented in Wednesday’s hearing.