Minn. man jailed for voting
GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The way Eric Stephen Willems voted was a crime.
On Election Day, Willems, 25, went to his polling place in Lake Town Hall in Roseau County and cast his ballot in the historic presidential election.
Then, he was arrested and jailed for voting.
The problem was that the Warroad man has been a convicted felon since 2004, making it another felony for him to vote, according to the Roseau County Attorney's office.
"This was a first for me," said Willems' probation officer, Tom Murphy, a 12-year veteran of the state's Department of Corrections' system of supervising released felons.
Willem pleaded guilty this week in a Roseau court to the charge of being an ineligible voter knowingly voting, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
He appeared Monday in court, and state District Judge Donna Dixon ordered a pre-sentence investigation before she sentences Willems.
Willem was a felon on Election Day because of a conviction for third-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2004, for having sex with a girl who was 15 without using force. He spent four years in state prison.
When he voted last fall, he violated the conditions of his "intensive supervised release," according to Deputy Nathan Adams of the Roseau County Sheriff's Office, who wrote the complaint against Willems.
Before he went to vote, in fact, Willems left a telephone message for Murphy, his probation officer, about his plans to do so.
That was typical because he has to notify Murphy or another DOC official of any place he was going, whether to the grocery store or the polling booth, Murphy said.
Murphy got back to Willem later Election Day and told him he had just committed a felony by voting.
"He was surprised," Murphy said Tuesday.
Every convicted felon is told clearly about the civil rights they lose for their crime, including the right to vote, and Murphy said he told Willems about that himself.
"He shouldn't have been surprised," Murphy said.
Once Murphy told deputy Adams that Willems had violated his probation by voting, Adams put Willems in jail Election Day.
The next day, Nov. 5, Willem waived his Miranda rights and made a statement to Adams, admitting he had voted, according to Adams, who went to the county auditor's office and got the voter registration application Willems had signed, as well as the voter sign-in sheet with his signature on it.
Willems bonded out of jail and is awaiting sentencing.
He also faces a hearing before state prison officials over his voting being a violation of probation on the 2004 conviction.
Because his violation wasn't anything dangerous, he wasn't immediately taken into custody Election Day, a DOC spokeswoman said.
Once Willems is sentenced for the voting violation, the DOC will decide how to handle his probation violation. It could involve restructuring the terms of his supervised release rather than sending him back to prison, the DOC spokeswoman said.
Like all but a handful of states, Minnesota quickly restores voting rights and other civil rights to convicted felons as soon as their sentences, including supervised releases, expire.
Willems expiration date on his 2004 felony was 2011.
No doubt he will have to wait longer now to vote legally again.
Willems said Tuesday he wasn't trying to commit a felony by voting in November.
"I was just excited that the presidential election was coming up and I would be able to vote," he said. "I had never voted in my life."
He spent four years in prison and doesn't dispute that on release, he was told he couldn't vote.
"But I must have gapped it out. I really wasn't aware that I couldn't vote."
For what it's worth, Nov. 4 he voted for Sen. John McCain for president and Sen. Norm Coleman in the race for Minnesota's Senate seat that still is a ways from being decided.
But he's knows it won't count.
Investigators "took my registration and all the stuff I filled out, so I'm assuming they probably took my ballot out, too," he said.
His voting was part of his attempt to turn his life around and become a good citizen after the felony conviction at 20 for criminal sexual conduct with a girl who was 15.
"I understand that it was wrong. It was a mistake on my part. But I was dating her and it was a consensual thing," he said. "When I got out of prison, I did have a relationship with her, when she was 19. So, there were no hard feelings between her and me. It wasn't like I sought out someone to hurt them."
While in prison in Moose Lake and Lino Lakes, he got involved in a faith-based program, Willems said.
"I did a lot of Bible study and things like that, that basically just changed my outlook on life, from being a person that didn't care about very many things and kind of grew up in a rough way, to get to the point where I want to pursue a career, and maybe one day have a good job and stuff like that."
He's been working steadily and plans soon to start taking courses online through a Bible college in St. Paul, he said.
"I'm trying to move on with my life since I've been out of prison, working and trying to be a good citizen and staying out of trouble."
The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.