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Conviction of Black Mayor Overturned by U.S. Court of Appeals in Case Closely Watched by Civil Rights Activists

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In a 2-1 ruling today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the conviction of former Waterproof mayor Bobby Higginbotham, and vacated his sentence. The case had attracted the attention of civil rights activists around the U.S., as well as Color of Change, a national racial justice activism group, who had gathered 50,000 signatures appealing for freedom for the former mayor.

The ruling gives ammunition to defenders of Higginbotham, who said he was an innocent man being prosecuted for standing up against the white power structure of Tensas Parish and convicted in an unfair trial. However, the ruling by the Court of Appeals did not address the substance of the charges against Higginbotham, but focused on irregularities in the trial. The main reason cited was missing transcripts from the trial, caused by apparent problems with a sound recorder used by the court reporter. According to Higginbotham attorney Rachel Conner, there is no transcript at all for at least two witnesses' testimonies.

The former mayor was released from jail in December because of good behavior, but today's judgment means he is no longer on parole and no longer owes restitution. The DA has the option to appeal this ruling to a higher court.

Waterproof, Louisiana is a rural town near the Mississippi border best known for holding an immigration detention center. The town -- population approximately 800 -- sits in Tensas Parish, a mostly agrarian region of the state. Community members say the civil rights movement came late to Tensas -- it was the last parish in the state where black residents were able to register to vote, and the Klan was active until late in the 20th century.

The current troubles began in September of 2006, when Higginbotham was elected mayor of Waterproof. Soon after, he appointed his associate Miles Jenkins as chief of police. Jenkins, who served in the U.S. military for 30 years and earned a master's degree in public administration from Troy University in Alabama, immediately began the work of professionalizing a small town police department that had previously been mostly inactive. While both Jenkins and Higginbotham are from Waterproof, the men had also spent much of their adult lives working in other places, and brought a professional background to their new positions. Allies of Higginbotham and Jenkins say this threatened Parish Sheriff Ricky Jones and DA James Paxton. Annie Watson, a school board member and former volunteer for the mayor, says officers working for Jones told her, "As soon as you people learn that the sheriff controls Tensas Parish, the better off you'll be."

The charges and counter charges are difficult to untangle. At the center of the case is a state audit of Waterproof that found irregularities in the town's record keeping. The Parish District Attorney says the audit shows mayoral corruption. The mayor says the problems pre-date his term, and he had taken steps to correct the issues. The mayor's opponents claim he stole from the town by illegally increasing his salary. His supporters say he received a raise that was voted on by the town aldermen. The mayor initially faced 44 charges; all but two were dropped before the trial began. Those charges -- malfeasance in office and felony theft -- were related to the disputed raise and use of the town's credit card. Miles Jenkins, the police chief, faced charges related to his enforcement of traffic tickets.

The mayor was quickly convicted of both charges but lawyers have raised challenges to the convictions, bringing a number of legal complaints. For example: in a town that is 55 percent African American, Mayor Higginbotham had only one black juror. Higginbotham's counsel was disqualified by the DA, and the public defender had a conflict of interest, leaving the mayor with no lawyer. Two days before the trial began, the DA gave Higginbotham 10 boxes of files related to his case. Higginbotham's request for an extension to get an attorney and to examine the files was denied.

There's more: during jury selection, when Higginbotham -- forced to act as his own lawyer -- tried to strike one juror who had relationships with several of the witnesses, he was told he could not, even though he had challenges remaining. There was also a problem with a sound recorder that the court reporter was using, and as a result there is no transcript at all for at least two witness' testimonies. Finally, during deliberation, the judge gave the jury polling slips that had "guilty" pre-selected, and then later hid the slips.

When Higginbotham was convicted, the judge refused to set bail in any amount. Although a possible sentence for the crime was probation, and despite the former mayor's obvious ties to the community, Higginbotham has spent the last ten months in jail while his lawyers have worked on his appeal. "He's not a flight risk," says Rachel Conner, Higginbotham's lawyer. "He's tied to Waterproof and he's got a vested interest in clearing his name."