ANALYSIS: Statute allows Weaver to run for coroner, despite guilty plea

OXFORD – Former Lafayette County Coroner Lonnie Weaver is running again for for the job he resigned from last fall before pleading guilty to embezzlement.
At first glance, that seems implausible: Mississippi law prohibits people convicted of a host of crimes, including embezzlement, from voting, and anyone running for office has to be qualified to vote.
Weaver, who was coroner for some 20 years, has never been disenfranchised of his vote, however. His plea is not the end of the case: Circuit Court Judge Andrew Howorth accepted Weaver’s plea but, consistent with a state statute, “deferred entry of a judgment of guilt.”
The action leaves Weaver the chance to successfully serve a year of probation and to have the charge expunged from his record.
Mississippi law provides for such expungement once in a lifetime for crimes that are not against a person and do not constitute embezzlement in a public office. Weaver’s charge stemmed from embezzlement of Mississippi Coroner-Medical Examiner Association funds, not public funds.
Section 19-15-26 of the Mississippi Code, Annotated, states in part that “Upon successful completion of the court-imposed conditions permitted by subdivision (2) of this section, the court shall direct that the cause be dismissed and the case be closed.”
According to a source familiar with the justice system who spoke on condition of anonymity, this practice of “nonadjudication” is typically reserved for defendants who have previously been upstanding citizens but who now face charges.
Often the charges deal with possession of small amounts of drugs or for small – and quickly repaid – private-sector embezzlements.
When other conditions have been met, probation terms that have been imposed are often shortened. Judges often rely on the advice of prosecutors about whether to grant such treatment.
Even if Howorth does not end Weaver’s probation before its scheduled termination of Dec. 15, nonadjudication still means that, technically, no conviction has taken place, so Weaver would be free to run for the office.
Two attorney general’s opinions have established that nonadjudicated charges do not affect a candidate’s legal standing.
In one, a 1999 candidate for supervisor in central Mississippi had pleaded guilty in 1992 to perjury but had his record expunged after meeting probation and other requirements.
The opinion said “the action taken by the circuit court does not constitute a conviction which would disqualify the candidate in question from holding public office.”
The second case involved a south Mississippi school board candidate who in 2002 had a felony charge under nonadjudication at the time of his or her candidacy.
The attorney general’s opinion in that case stated, “We are of the opinion that presently, in the instant case, there has been no conviction. Therefore, if … the individual in question is a qualified elector, has no previous felony convictions and meets all residency and other qualifications to hold the office he seeks, he would be eligible to have his name placed on the ballot.”
Contact reporter Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens / NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau