The Big Unanswered Questions From The Mississippi Courthouse Caper

Regarding the events at the Hinds County courthouse early on Wednesday morning after the Mississippi Senate Republican primary, here’s what we know: Three Chris McDaniel supporters found themselves locked in the building, where the ballots were being kept, at 2 a.m. The last election official says that she left the courthouse more than two hours earlier.

They called the executive chairman of the Hinds County Republicans, a Thad Cochran supporter, for help and were eventually freed from the building by law enforcement. They have not yet been charged with any crimes — and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department says no law were broken.

The sheriff’s department investigated because the explanations for their circumstances offered by the McDaniel allies — Janis Lane, Scott Brewster, and Rob Chambers — have been conflicting. Lane told Pete Perry, the executive chairman, that she was locked in the courthouse with a female friend, while the sheriff’s office has reported the two others with her were men.

The courthouse trio claimed that law enforcement personnel let them into the courthouse. Law enforcement officials denied that. They said that they had come to observe the electoral process, and the McDaniel campaign has said it asked them to go, but nobody had been at the courthouse since 11:30 p.m.

The sheriff department says its investigation is over, but a few major questions are still outstanding in the latest bizarre incident to engulf the Mississippi Senate GOP primary.

Why were they there?

The biggie. Lane told Perry at 2 a.m. that she was just there to observe the electoral process. The McDaniel campaign backed them up on that claim. But it begs the question: What were they hoping to observe if the courthouse had been empty since 11:30 p.m.?

Multiple people have told TPM that it should have been evident to somebody outside of the courthouse that nobody was working inside. It also appears that this element of the story has been changing since the sheriff’s office began its investigation. Perry told TPM that a sheriff’s deputy told him that Lane’s reasons for being at the courthouse had been evolving.

“He said, ‘That doesn’t match with what Janis said this morning, but what she said this morning doesn’t match with what she said this afternoon,” Perry said. “The main thing he said was different was what her purpose for being there was.”

What were their conflicting stories and how did they change?

So perhaps the firmest fact in this case is that the people found inside the courthouse weren’t been consistent in explaining what happened.

“It’s important to note that Janis Lane’s story and the other officials’ stories continue to change through the investigation,” Othor Cain, a sheriff’s department spokesman, told the Clarion-Ledger. “They changed within five minutes, which caused us to be even more deliberate and determined to find out what was going on.”

But we don’t know specifically how they’ve changed. Lane’s claim that she had come with a female friend has been proven empirically untrue. The sheriff deputy who spoke with Perry wasn’t precise about what the trio were saying now, but he did give the impression that almost every element of the story had changed.

“From what he did say … the time frames didn’t seem to match, how (Lane) got in was a little different. That was a moving target,” Perry said. “The main thing he said was different was what her purpose for being there was.”

How much does it matter?

Though the above questions haven’t been resolved, the sheriff’s department concluded Thursday that no criminal activity had occurred and its investigation had closed. Barring any more revelations — perhaps from surveillance footage or another witness — the answers might never be known. And even as the sheriff’s department ends its inquiry, odd facts like a courthouse door possibly being left propped open remain.

Which leaves the political question: Will Mississippi voters care? McDaniel already survived a scandal in which a supporter broke into a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s wife and narrowly topped him in Wednesday’s primary, though a run-off is coming on June 24.

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