WISE - Retired mail carrier Don Estridge was sentenced to 18 months in jail by Wise County Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea on Thursday for Estridge's role in an Appalachia election fraud plot.
The judge, however, balked at a recommended two-year jail sentence for former Appalachia Mayor Ben Cooper, considered the "kingpin" of a conspiracy to steal the 2004 town elections.
A jury found Estridge guilty on Oct. 12 on three of four counts, including conspiracy to prevent others from exercising their right to vote, conspiracy to steal absentee mail ballots, and aiding and abetting violations of Virginia's absentee ballot procedures.
Estridge, the only one of 14 original defendants to proclaim his innocence throughout what has been nearly a yearlong legal ordeal, did so before the court again on Thursday. All the other defendants - including Cooper - forged cooperation and plea agreements with the special prosecution team of Tim McAfee and Greg Stewart.
Estridge's daughter, 29-year-old Jennifer Estridge, provided emotional mitigating testimony in asking the court for leniency for her father, a man by all accounts - including the most sterling pre-sentencing report ever placed before the court, according to the judge - who lived an unblemished life until he became ensnared in the aftermath of the 2004 town election.
Jennifer Estridge implored the court not to send her father to jail "for a crime we know he did not commit." She said her family members "believe wholeheartedly that our dad has been set up to take a fall" for the real, self-confessed co-conspirators who in most respects, got away scot free.
Even though her faith in the justice system has been shaken, she said her father accepts the jury's verdicts as an inescapable fact. Still, she said her father "can lay down each night and sleep in peace knowing he had no part in the crime he is being sentenced for. I know my dad didn't do this. I know he didn't."
Estridge told the judge he didn't want to go to jail because he has a 15-year-old daughter still to raise and he would like to "watch her play ball," and he wanted to finish building the house he has been constructing for his family.
"I want to stay home for one other reason," he told McElyea, "and have a recording angel from heaven record it. And that is to say that I am innocent of all charges." However, he told the judge that America's system of justice "is the finest humanity ever came up with" and he respects that system.
McAfee said the sentencing hearing was difficult for all involved, but justice must be served.
"All of us in the courtroom today can feel the sincerity" of Jennifer Estridge's testimony, he said, "a very commendable and beautiful act on her part." However, McAfee said a sentencing decision cannot be based on sympathy, bias or guesswork, but based on fact.
"Mr. Estridge, in fact, did some things that were completely sinister. Admittedly, out-of-character," McAfee said. "The jury, despite the fact the man has lived an exemplary life (found he) without sympathy and dispassion did, in fact, commit the crimes."
Stewart said the court must send a message to society that violating the near-sacred right to vote will not be tolerated.
Estridge's attorney, Walt Rivers, said his client was the least eligible person for jail in the history of incarceration. He said Estridge has already been punished by enduring the shame of being found guilty by a jury. "If ever there was a gentleman deserving of, and worthy of, staying in the community, it would certainly be Don Estridge," Rivers said.
The judge said she has "really been torn over this - torn between my respect for the jury verdict and my personal opinion." However, she said she must have faith in the system. "I have to believe in it, or I could not sit here," she said. The right to vote is sacrosanct, she said, purchased with the blood of patriots, and subversions of the democratic process cannot be lightly ignored.
"Deterrence, I suppose, is the issue," she said, because Estridge needs no rehabilitation behind bars. Rather than deviate from the jury's recommended sentences of six months in jail and a $2,500 fine on each of the three counts, McElyea sentenced Estridge to a total of 18 months in jail and fines totaling $7,500.
The judge set 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 for Estridge to report to authorities, and even then seemed to be reconsidering the sentence, saying she wanted to give it more thought until then.
Cooper's sentencing hearing followed Estridge, and the judge will think about the former mayor's sentence until 2 p.m. on Jan. 26. McElyea was not comfortable with the two-year jail sentence recommended by McAfee and Stewart.
Cooper pleaded guilty to 233 felony counts, and took the Alford plea on 10 other counts, which the court treats as guilty pleas. After dealing with the struggle of sentencing Estridge to 18 months, McElyea was not convinced that the mastermind of the entire plot should serve just six months longer than a man who stood trial on just four counts.
The prosecutors were asking the judge to deviate from sentencing guidelines that place a minimum of six years-plus in prison for Cooper, to a maximum of more than 21 years. The judge noted that the maximum prison term for all 243 counts amounted to 2,175 years. She said using Estridge's sentence of six months for each of his three counts as a barometer, Cooper was still theoretically facing 81 years, and that was if she dropped one-third of the guilty pleas because Cooper cooperated.
Cooper's attorney, Patti Church, argued for no jail time whatsoever, and primarily based her arguments on Cooper's 89-year-old mother, Mary Ruth Cooper, featured in a video to the court proclaiming her reliance on her son to care for her. However, if the special prosecutors' two-year recommendation had bentured into stormy seas, Church's no-jail recommendation plummeted straight to the bottom.
The late President Ford pardoned the late President Nixon, Church said, and while Ford was criticized for that at the time, now it is praised as "the right thing to do, that was the courageous thing to do." Appalachia and Wise County wouldn't be harmed by having Cooper receiving no jail time, and even a six-month sentence "would be a death sentence" for her client, who she said suffers from health problems.
Church also said her client was not the mastermind of the plot. Instead, she fingered Betty Chloe Sharrett Bolling and other members of the Sharrett family as being the ones savvy enough to pull off a raid of the absentee ballot system, pointing out Betty Chloe Sharrett Bolling had 40 years experience as a local Democratic activist and knew the ins and outs of the mail ballot process.
McAfee said prosecutors wanted to keep both Estridge and Cooper out of the state prison system with their two-years-or-less sentences, and they felt Cooper, because he saved the state the hassle and expense of a trial, should get no more than six months longer than Estridge.
However, McElyea was skeptical of the recommended sentence for Cooper, implying that of all the defendants, Estridge got the rawest deal. McElyea said jurors might have been even more lenient if they knew how easy all the other defendants would be treated.
McAfee said Estridge "rolled the dice" with a jury trial and lost, and everyone must live with the jury's decision.
"I really did not expect this," the judge said of the two-year jail sentence, followed by two years on home electronic monitoring. "As much as I would like to conclude this today, I would like to think about this a bit." She recessed the hearing for 2 p.m. Jan. 26.