Scheduling mistake delays sentencing in Appalachia election fraud case

Stephen Igo • Jan 11, 2007 at 8:27 AM

WISE - A scheduling flub put off for another week a sentencing hearing for a retired postal carrier found guilty in October of charges involving the Appalachia election fraud scandal.

Thursday's 1 p.m. sentencing hearing for Don Houston Estridge, a former Appalachia mail carrier, wasn't on the court docket as set at the end of Estridge's jury trial. The jury found Estridge guilty on three counts, basically involving charges he diverted absentee mail ballots into the hands of co-conspirators to assist in the plot to rig and steal the 2004 town elections.

On Thursday, Special Prosecutor Tim McAfee and Assistant Special Prosecutor Greg Stewart encountered baffled court officials under the impression Estridge's sentencing hearing was scheduled for Jan. 18. The court docket for the month reflected the court's impression.

Wise Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea had the official court tape of Estridge's trial replayed Thursday, which confirmed the sentencing hearing was, indeed, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Thursday and not Jan. 18.

McElyea told McAfee that she informed Estridge's attorney, Walt Rivers, earlier Thursday the hearing was not until Jan. 18, explaining Estridge's absence from Thursday's aborted proceedings.

McAfee told the judge the number of sentencing hearings in November and December - there were 14 defendants named in the original indictment, plus four others indicted later - may have confused the Wise County Circuit Court Clerk's Office as to Estridge's sentencing date. Estridge was the only defendant of the original 14 to claim innocence and stand trial. All the rest entered cooperation and plea agreements with the prosecution team, and most were sentenced during a flurry of hearings in November and December.

McAfee also surmised that the new sentencing hearing on Jan. 18 for former Appalachia Mayor Ben Cooper may have played a role in the scheduling miscue.

Cooper's sentencing hearing was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but McAfee indicated in December he preferred that hearing be held after Estridge was sentenced. Cooper's hearing was rescheduled for Jan. 18.

Cooper pleaded guilty to 233 felonies and pleaded under the Alford rule to 10 other counts, which for all practical purposes is viewed and treated by a court the same as a guilty plea.

Estridge's sentencing hearing is now scheduled for 1 p.m. on Jan. 18, followed by Cooper's hearing at 2 p.m.

Sentencing hearings for former Appalachia Parks and Recreation Director Dude Sharrett and his son, Adam Sharrett, are still scheduled for Jan. 25.

However, a sentencing hearing for Andy Sharrett - a former town councilman elected in the tainted 2004 town elections and Dude Sharrett's son - has been rescheduled for Jan. 31. Andy Sharrett was previously scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 25 along with his father and brother, but the delay was needed to accommodate his attorney's schedule.

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