MAYS LANDING - Ten people accused of disenfranchising voters during Marty Small's failed mayoral campaign last year opted Monday to go to trial and refused plea deals that could have taken decades off their potential sentences if convicted.
One by one, the Atlantic City councilman and nine others told Superior Court Judge James Isman that they knew the risk they are taking but will fight the charges before a jury. Two remaining defendants, Michele Griffin and Toni Dixon, had their court dates delayed but are expected to choose a trial as well.
Small and 13 others were indicted in September on charges they disenfranchised voters during his 2009 mayoral campaign in the Democratic primary. Two men - Ronald Harris and Ernest Storr - previously pleaded guilty in the case. Isman set Monday as the deadline for the remaining defendants to accept the state's offer - for some with penalties as low as a few months in county jail plus probation.
"Mr. Small is a very intelligent, very well-educated man and has indicated from the onset that this is going to trial," Isman said when Small submitted the papers saying he would not take a deal.
Now, the only question is whether the dozen defendants will be tried together.
Isman said he is checking with Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles - whose officers monitor the courthouse - to see if there would be any security problems in trying them all at once. If there are, then Isman said it would likely be six defendants tried this year, then the remaining six going later next year.
Jury selection is set to begin Oct. 4.
Two years ago, Small was acquitted of similar charges, and he has said he will fight these as well. He was offered five years, which likely would have had him out in a year and a half, Isman estimated, stressing that how much of such a sentence is served varies.
Most of the defendants face nine counts of voter fraud, including charges that they submitted messenger ballots without allowing the voter to choose their candidate. The potential upon conviction would be 63 years in prison - although it would be unlikely their sentences would be that lengthy, Isman said.
Small, Tracy Pijuan and Thomas Quirk are additionally charged with hindering prosecution for allegedly lying to investigators. That brings their potential sentence to 68 years, of which 34 would have to be served.
"It's mostly likely the sentence would be much, much less than that," Isman acknowledged.
Quirk, 58, of Ventnor, turned down a three-year offer, which likely would have him free after serving less than 10 months. Pijuan, 38, of Atlantic City, was offered probation with as many as 90 days in county jail.
Floyd Tally seemed to turn down the best offer - which would have added no time to his current 12-year sentence, which he is serving in connection with an attempt to blackmail then-Atlantic City Councilman Eugene Robinson.
The deal would have been five years, with the judge given the option of making that concurrent or consecutive to the previous sentence. Isman told Tally on Monday that he would have made it to run with the longer sentence, meaning it would add no time to Tally's current incarceration.
"Do you understand that?" Isman asked.
"I didn't understand that," Tally replied. "But I do now."
After some additional discussion, Tally still refused the offer and said he will go to trial.
Isman estimates any trial would likely last three months, not counting jury selection, which has the potential to take more time than the trial, Isman said. He told the lawyers involved to clear their schedules through January and maybe into February.
Isman also said he is seeing about the possibility of convening the trial on Saturdays to help move things along.
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