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News / Nation & World

Orlando man arrested by DeSantis’ election police works to rebuild his life — again

By Christopher Cann, Orlando Sentinel
Published: May 21, 2023, 6:00am

ORLANDO, Fla. — Peter Washington Jr. had never voted in his life. But, in May 2019, he filled out a voter application so he could join his wife and “do something good.”

“We had just gotten married,” he said. “We were doing a lot of things together.”

Days after submitting his application, he was cleared by the state and received his voter ID in the mail. In October of the following year, the couple walked into the Hiawassee Library, near their home in Pine Hills.

“I was anxious … scared,” Washington, 59, said. “I didn’t know what to expect. My wife, she did it a couple times and she told me, ‘You’re over-exaggerating it.’ I just never did it before.”

Washington, who is a convicted sex offender, still felt hesitant despite the voter registration card and being called for jury duty twice in Orange County since the early 2010s. He asked an administrator at the library if he could vote. Washington said she checked his ID and typed on a computer before telling him, from the looks of things, he was eligible.

He and his wife filled out their ballots and then went out to eat.

In August, less than a year later, he and 19 others in majority Democrat counties across the state were swiftly jailed in the first significant action taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election police unit, the Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Those arrested had voted in the 2020 general election despite being convicted of a sex offense or murder, which makes them illegible to have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4. They were taken into custody on a felony charge punishable by $5,000 and up to 5 years in prison.

In each case, however, the defendants were cleared to vote by the state and received voter registration cards.

Washington said the arrest tore his life apart.

A week after he was jailed and released on bond, he was fired from his job as an irrigation technician. Clients for his own irrigation maintenance business, which he had hoped would eventually become his main source of income, stopped calling. Church leaders planning to make him a minister pulled back.

His wife paused her online classes so she could work double shifts at a nearby convention center. At work, she got comments about Washington from people who saw his name in the newspaper or his mugshot on television. And while searching for a new job, Washington was thrown into a legal battle that was in the national spotlight.

“I went through a mental breakdown,” he said. “I don’t know what it would have been like if I didn’t have my wife by my side. She was my support.”

“My family don’t deserve this, my wife don’t deserve this,” he said. “Sometimes it brings tears … because I said [to my wife] I would never do nothing intentionally to hurt you.”

The aspect most difficult to contend with, Washington said, was that he had spent the decade before his arrest building himself up.

In September 1996, Washington pleaded no contest to attempted sexual battery of a child and, as a result, was forced to register as a sex offender. Four years later, he was arrested on a felony charge for not properly registering as a sex offender, according to court records.

In January 2001, he was adjudicated guilty and received a 10-year prison sentence.

He was released in 2010 and had not been charged with a felony since, until the voter fraud case, according to court records.

“I [had] been trying to work and be a prominent member of society,” he said. “That’s what messed with me emotionally and spiritually about all this.”

The cases stemming from the initial batch of arrests in August are being pursued by the Office of Statewide Prosecution, which is led by Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican who previously supported efforts to overturn the 2020 election. According to its website, the statewide prosecution office focuses “on complex, often large scale, organized criminal activity.”

Washington’s case was one of a handful tossed out on a technicality by circuit judges in Orlando, Tampa and Miami, who determined statewide prosecutors did not have jurisdiction over such cases because the alleged criminality did not involve more than one county.

But these cases are all likely to be appealed or re-filed as DeSantis in February signed legislation expanding statewide prosecutor’s jurisdiction to include charges related to voting.

Washington’s case was dismissed in February. He found out when his lawyer, Roger Weeden, texted him.

“I was happy, celebrating,” Washington said. “Then [Weeden] said they can appeal. I was like, ‘When is this nightmare gonna be over?’”

Weeden, a longtime central Florida defense attorney, is representing Washington and 53-year-old Michelle Stribling, who declined to talk publicly about her case.

Weeden is one of several lawyers offering free representation to the voter fraud defendants, most of whom could not afford a private attorney.

“Mr. Washington is a very strong individual who recognizes the importance of advocating for the voting rights of formerly incarcerated citizens,” Weeden said. “Although this case has created significant and ongoing stress, he is committed to fighting the charges and exposing the wrongful nature of the prosecution.”

Robert Barrar, an attorney representing Ronald Lee Miller, a Miami man whose voter fraud case was dismissed, said he’s working on the case for free because he found the action taken by the state to be “incredibly unfair.”

“I think this is a travesty of justice and a complete waste of taxpayer money,” Barrar said. “Mr. Miller has been a good citizen in the state of Florida for years and his unjustified arrest has turned his life upside down.”

Mark Rankin, a defense attorney in Tampa, represented Romona Oliver, who was able to walk away with no penalties after pleading no contest. Rankin in a statement to the Sentinel said, “These cases are all nothing but political theater.”

The Office of the Attorney General has not responded to a request for comment.

In the months since his arrest, Washington got a new irrigation job through a friend. It’s much more labor-intensive than the job he lost because of his arrest. It’s not as well-paying either.

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“It’s like you have a weight tied to your leg and you’re barely making it up to where you can get some air,” said the father of four children, who are all adults. “We’re just now catching air.”

Washington was born in Eatonville. At 16, he and his adoptive parents moved to the Pine Hills area, where he has stayed ever since.

Currently, he is in the process of becoming a minister so he can work with prisoners. Washington said he wants use his experience to provide those incarcerated with what his wife has given him — hope.

“There’s a lot guys that need help, need that support. They’re going to need to know that, no matter what, you can still make it.” he said. “If my wife wouldn’t have been here for me through this time, I don’t know if I would have made it.”

An appeal of the ruling that dismissed Washington’s case remains pending. As the uncertainty hangs over him, he says he stays busy at work, at church, fishing or with his wife so he doesn’t think about it.

“Those are the questions. Am I clear? Can I live? Or do I always have to be afraid? I just want to live and breathe,” he said. “It’s like I’m driving with my license suspended, always worried I’m gonna be pulled over. That’s how I feel.”

“We all made bad choices in the past, when we were young,” he said. “But, I’m trying to make better ones. Trying to make a better life for me and my family. That’s it.”

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