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Judge acquits Crookston man of illegal voting charge

A judge has acquitted a Crookston man charged with voting illegally.

Ken Mendez, 47, was accused of casting his ballot from jail in 2006 before his civil rights had been fully restored after a felony conviction.

In a decision filed just before the close of business Wednesday, Judge Jeffrey Remick of Minnesota District Court wrote that prosecutors proved Mendez voted when he was ineligible to vote, but they did not prove Mendez knew it was illegal to do so.

The judge's decision says the case was "narrowly decided."

"The Plaintiff and the Defendant have sparred to a virtual draw," the order says.

Attorneys presented their cases March 30 and 31 during a bench trial, in which the judge, not a jury, heard the case.

In May 2006, Mendez pleaded guilty to a burglary charge. He voted while in jail in November 2006, but wasn't told that it was illegal for him to vote until he went to a polling station in 2008, said Mendez's pro-bono lawyer, Ted Dooley of St. Paul.

"You know what this really is is an administrative slip-up," Dooley said. "Nobody on either side was really intending to do anything."

Dooley said it was wrong to charge Mendez. "Not every mistake needs to be treated as a crime," he said. "That was the sadness of this one, and it divided the community."

Mendez, a lifelong Crookston resident, said he received support from friends from school and church, co-workers and neighbors. Some supporters wrote editorials in his defense.

"There were a lot of people that were faithfully there every time I was in court," he said. "As it (the trial) got closer, the number grew."

Mendez, a student at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, said there's not a set date for him to have all his civil rights restored, so he doesn't know when he'll be able to vote legally again. He said he's "very active" in politics and values the right to vote.

"There are people who choose not to vote. To me, that's a travesty," he said.

A message left for Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth, who prosecuted the case, was not immediately returned.