Facing felony charge, Tenn. man asked to vote first

MEMPHIS -- A young man went to federal court last week to plead guilty to a felony.

He knew he was facing up to 20 years in prison. He knew he was about to lose his freedom.

He didn't realize he was about to lose his right to vote.

"I've been wanting to vote all my life," said Reginald Albright, who turned 20 this year.

When he was a kid, Albright would go with his grandfather to a polling place and wait in the car.

"You're too young to vote now," his grandfather would tell him.

That only made Albright more eager to vote.

Four years ago, he wished he could have gone with his mother to Mt. Zion Baptist Church to vote for President Barack Obama.

He was 16, still too young to vote.

His mother, Gloria Hill, was an election poll worker for the 2012 presidential election.

"I'd be gone from 6 a.m. till 9 p.m., and then I'd come home and he'd say, 'Mama, where have you been all day,'" Hill said. "I'd say, 'I was helping people vote. People got to vote.'"

Albright said he has always felt an obligation to vote.

"I know my history," he said.

He knows his Mississippi ancestors were spat on, slapped, threatened or worse for merely trying to register to vote. He knows they faced laws designed to inhibit or prevent them from voting – taxes they couldn't possibly pay, tests they couldn't possibly pass, whites-only primaries.

He knows how hard and long they struggled to gain the right to vote, and how long and hard they struggled to be allowed the privilege of voting.

"My family takes voting seriously and so do I," he said.

Albright could have voted in last year's city elections, but he wanted to cast his first vote for president. So he waited.

Meanwhile, he said he was trying to figure out how he could afford to go back to school.

Albright graduated from Carver High School in 2014. His mother still has his football and weightlifting trophies on top of the TV.

"He's never given me any trouble," she said. "In fact, he wanted to become a police officer."

Albright started taking classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College, then dropped out when his money ran out.

When he turned 18, he lost his share of his disabled mother's Social Security benefits.

Albright admits that he conspired with two others to rob a CVS drugstore in Memphis last December.

The attempted robbery was botched, but one of the other robbers had a gun. Albright was just sitting outside in a car when it all happened, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself.

"I made a stupid decision and hurt a lot of people who care about me," said Albright, who had no previous criminal record. "I learned a lot of lessons."

Before he went into the courtroom to face the judge last week, Albright sat down with his attorney.

By pleading guilty, the attorney explained, Albright would be rendered infamous.

That meant he would be deprived of some of his rights as a citizen – his rights to have a gun, to sit on a jury, to hold public office.

"What about my right to vote?" Albright asked.

"You'd lose that, too," attorney Alex Wharton replied.

"Can I vote before I plead guilty?" Albright asked.

Wharton, son of former Mayor A C Wharton, couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"People will spend $20 to go to a movie, but they won't take 20 minutes to go vote," Wharton said. "And the cost has already been paid. People fought and shed blood and died for the simple right and privilege just to cast a vote."

Wharton decided to ask the judge for a brief continuance so Albright could go vote.

The U.S. attorney did not object.

“The government had no objection in this case to the court allowing the defendant the opportunity to exercise his constitutional right to vote before pleading guilty," said U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III.

U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. said yes.

"I've been in criminal law in some form or fashion as a lawyer or judge for 30 years, and I've never heard anyone ask that," Fowlkes said afterward. "It's an important right and I was glad to give that young man a chance to exercise it."

Albright left the courtroom with his mother.

He pushed her wheelchair out of the federal building half a block up Front Street, then two blocks down Poplar to the Shelby County Election Commission.

They waited in line about half an hour. She pushed him to vote first.

"I knew he'd been waiting a long time," she said.

After they both voted, Albright pushed his mother's wheelchair back to the federal building and into the courtroom.

"Did you vote?" the judge asked.

"Yes, sir," Albright said, pointing to his Tennessee-shaped "I Voted" sticker.

He thanked the judge for allowing him to vote for the first time in his life.

Then he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony and forfeited his right to vote.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in January. He faces up to 20 years in prison, but probation is an option.

"It made me feel good to vote, to do this one time before it was taken away from me," he said. "Maybe I'll get another chance."


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