AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A lawyer for a Mexican national sentenced to eight years in prison for voter fraud in Texas said Friday that President Donald Trump's widely debunked claims of election rigging was "the 800-pound gorilla" in the jury box.
Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, was convicted in Fort Worth this week on two felony counts of illegal voting over allegations that she improperly cast a ballot five times between 2005 and 2014. Her attorney, Clark Birdsall, said Ortega was a U.S. permanent resident who mistakenly thought she was eligible to vote.
The sentence was stark — voting fraud convictions many times result in probation. Tarrant County prosecutors say jurors made clear they value voting rights, but Birdsall said he believes Ortega would have fared better in a county with fewer "pro-Trump" attitudes.
Trump carried North Texas' Tarrant County with 52 percent of the vote in November. Birdsall said he wanted to steer the jury of 10 women and two men from any lingering thoughts about Trump's unproven claims that 3 million people illegally voted in 2016 but the judge wouldn't allow him.
"It was the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the jury box," Birdsall said. "I would have said, 'You cannot hold this woman accountable for Donald Trump's fictitious 3 million votes.'"
Birdsall said the Texas attorney general's office had agreed to leniency in exchange for Ortega testifying to lawmakers about illegal voting, but said Tarrant County District Attorney Sharon Wilson quashed those talks. A Wilson spokeswoman acknowledged plea negotiations but would not divulge details. A spokesman for Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not return an email seeking comment.
Birdsall said Ortega has lived in the U.S. since she was a baby and now has four teenage children. He said Ortega had learning disabilities and only a sixth-grade education.
Sam Jordan, a spokeswoman for Wilson, said the decision to prosecute had "absolutely nothing" to do with immigration.
"This is a voter rights case. Does she consider voter rights important? Yes she does," Jordan said of Wilson, the district attorney. "And she thought it was important enough to go forward to a jury and let the jury of citizens decide, and they decided pretty clearly how important they think voting rights are."
Birdsall said Ortega voted Republican. He said that included casting a vote for Paxton, whose office helped prosecute her.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.
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