Henson verdict a disappointment

Our view: The bad-acting campaign consultant was just as much to blame for the cynical 'relax' robocall as Paul Schurick was

he deserved the same treatment

May 11, 2012

Political consultant Julius Henson deserved to be held to account for his role in producing a fraudulent robocall on the night of the 2010 gubernatorial election that was clearly designed to prevent Democrats — and in particular, African-American voters — from going to the polls. It is disappointing, though, that the jury rendered a mixed verdict in the case, convicting him on just one count of conspiracy but finding him not guilty on three other charges. A separate jury last year convicted Paul Schurick, the former aide to Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mr. Henson's employer in that election, on all four counts for the same offense. Their culpability was equal, and they should have been judged accordingly.

The actual issues involved in this case were simple and clear. Maryland law prohibits the knowing and intentional use of fraud to discourage voting. It also requires that campaign communications include an authority line indicating their source. The robocall Mr. Henson says he drafted on the back of a McDonald's napkin on Election Day told voters to "relax" and stay home because Democratic Gov.Martin O'Malleyhad already been successful — even though the calls went out well before the polls closed. The call did not include an authority line.

That last offense should have been easiest for the jury to parse; it required no debate about Mr. Henson's motivations or its possible effect on voters. Either the call had the line or it didn't. Mr. Henson's defense was that Mr. Schurick ordered him not to include it, but that is no excuse. We do not absolve people of guilt for following orders they know to be illegal.

But the fact that Mr. Henson was also found not guilty on one of the conspiracy charges and on an election fraud charge is just as disturbing. Perhaps the jurors in this trial bought Mr. Henson's cockamamie line that the call was meant as a "counterintuitive" strategy to encourage Republicans to vote (even though the call went only to Democrats). But more troublesome is the possibility that they were persuaded by Mr. Henson's attorney's efforts to paint his client as a victim of the Democratic political machine, and his not-so-subtle efforts to inject race into the discussion.

The jury should have been insulted by attorney Edward Smith Jr.'s closing arguments in which he made a mockery of the proceeding through the use of stage props — like a picture of a contorted man, meant to symbolize the prosecution — to argue that the state's Democratic establishment was going after Mr. Henson because he had dared work for a Republican. Comparing the prosecution's case to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and calling it "bull-honky" sounded like an attempt to play the race card for the jury, 10 of whose 12 members were black. Mr. Smith went so far as to wave a stack of fake money in front of the jurors in a claim that prosecutors wanted to "convict his butt" because he had made so much money in the campaign. The only way he could have been clearer would be to say Mr. Henson was being punished for being "uppity."

Mr. Henson's defense was, in short, just as cynical and condescending as the robocall itself. It's sad that it was effective at all.

The judge has the chance to set things right at sentencing. Mr. Schurick got 30 days of home detention, 500 hours of community service and four years of probation for his offenses. Mr. Henson deserves to be treated exactly the same as his co-conspirator.

But the most effective punishment for Mr. Henson — as for Mr. Schurick — would be for his career in politics to end. Mr. Schurick had already moved on — his only campaign work was for the late William Donald Schaefer and for Mr. Ehrlich, who is unlikely to run for office again. But Mr. Henson has continued to field a stable of clients despite a long-cultivated bad-boy image. From this point on, any political candidate who hires him deserves to lose for that reason alone.

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