One of the main jobs of our legal system is to ensure that those convicted of comparable crimes receive equal punishment.
But what if the charge is felony DOH!
As Patrick Cannon returns to Charlotte, he carries two criminal convictions on his record. One has to do with the $50,000 the deposed Charlotte mayor received from undercover agents under Cannon’s expansive definition of constituent services.
The other stems from an illegal vote Cannon cast two weeks before he went off to prison on the public corruption charge. Cannon said he voted out of habit, not realizing that he had lost his right to cast a ballot.
“The light didn’t come on that day,” he famously told the judge.
Remember that quote.
Last February, Charlotte attorney John Fennebresque was arrested at Charlotte Douglas International Airport after security officers discovered a Smith & Wesson .380-caliber “Body Guard model” pistol in his briefcase. He was charged with misdemeanor possession of a firearm on city property.
Afterward, the former chairman of the University of North Carolina’s board of governors told the Observer that he forgot the gun was packed in his carry-on. “I am told this happens a lot – that there are thousands of members of the idiot club around the country,” he said.
The Idiot Club vs. The Dim Bulb – both cases appear to have arisen from careless and very public mistakes.
Yet what happened next is worth revisiting.
In February 2015, three months after he entered federal prison on a corruption conviction, Cannon was indicted by a Mecklenburg grand jury for voter fraud, a felony. Noting that Cannon had admitted voting inadvertently and that the ballot had been thrown out, defense attorney James Ferguson expressed bewilderment that Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray had chosen to prosecute.
In March 2016, and at state expense, inmate Cannon made a 500-mile drive to Charlotte for a 10-minute court hearing in which he pleaded guilty to attempted voter fraud, a misdemeanor. His punishment – one day in jail – was blended in with his federal prison sentence. Afterward Assistant District Attorney Reed Hunt defended the prosecution: “He openly violated the law ... it doesn’t matter if it was accidental,” Hunt said.
Except in Fennebresque’s case, it apparently did.
In May, county prosecutors dropped the gun charge. Fennebresque had to pay a $1,500 fine to the Transportation Safety Administration, and he lost his pistol (suggested retail: $419). But he avoided the inconvenience and public embarrassment of walking into a courtroom as the accused.
In a court document dismissing the case, prosecutor Sheena Gatehouse said “... it’s clear that the defendant did not have any criminal intent.” Based on Hunt’s own words, there was no such judgment made on Cannon’s motives for voting.
Yet District Attorney Andrew Murray disputes the notion that two cases involving prominent Charlotte defendants were handled differently by his office – that because of politics or race or some other factor, Fennebresque got a benefit of the doubt that Cannon did not receive.
Ministers, housewives, pilots and, yes, even prominent attorneys inadvertently carry guns onto airport property, he says. All are treated the same if they pay the fine, give up the gun AND don’t have a criminal record.
A check of public records shows that the previous big mark on Fennebresque’s past involves a citation for not having a fire extinguisher on his boat. It was thrown out of court.
Cannon, on the other hand, is the first mayor in Charlotte’s history sent to prison for corruption.
The fact that a “high profile felon” cast a very public and illegal vote warranted prosecution, Murray said, even as a subsequent investigation led his office to let Cannon to plead guilty to a lesser charge.
Cannon’s voting indictment came against a highly politicized backdrop. Republican leaders running the state were embroiled in a sweeping legal fight over controversial new election rules that the GOP said were designed to protect the sanctity of the vote. (For the record, the confirmed cases of voter fraud are miniscule across North Carolina and the nation.)
Little wonder that some Republicans appeared almost giddy at the news of a prominent Democrat’s indictment. “I thought we didn’t have voter fraud,” state Sen Bob Rucho of Matthews said.
But Murray, also a Republican, says politics was never a factor in how he handled either matter.
“Every case is different – different circumstances, different defendants,” he said. “I try to be fair.”