Julius Henson, shown in this November 2010 file photo, is on… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
Political consultant Julius Henson may have written the automated message that encouraged Democrats to stay home from the polls on Election Day 2010, but he didn't force voters to believe it, jury foreman Renee Johnson said Friday, explaining the split verdict in his case.
"We, as a people, because we live in a democratic society, we have the choice of believing or not to believe. You choose to believe it, it's on you," said Johnson of East Baltimore, adding that tactics intended to influence voters are nothing new for political operatives such as Henson.
Jurors acquitted Henson on three of the four charges he faced in connection with the "robocall," made on behalf of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign about two hours before the polls closed.
Henson was found guilty of a single conspiracy count, for failing to include a campaign authority line in the call. He will be sentenced June 13 and could face a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Henson, 63, who wore a three-piece suit with his trademark salt-and-pepper dreadlocks pulled back Friday, dismissed the significance of including a line to note that the robocall was authorized by the Ehrlich campaign.
"Fifty percent of campaign materials don't have an authority line; it's sort of similar to spitting on the sidewalk, jaywalking," said Henson. "It's not enforced."
Henson's lawyer, Edward Smith Jr., said he will seek a retrial on the conviction. Henson had also faced two counts of conspiracy to influence voters' decisions to cast ballots and another count of distributing the message without including an authority line; convictions on all counts could have led to a 12-year sentence.
Henson, a part of Maryland's political landscape for decades, said he will lose millions of dollars in business for the 2012 election cycle, adding that most campaigns are already committed to other consultants. He said that he was targeted by the prosecution because of his efforts to elect "ordinary people" to office and that the trial was intended to "stop a guy from making money."
He was paid $112,000 by Ehrlich's campaign and had been promised a $30,000 bonus if Ehrlich had beaten Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was seeking re-election. O'Malley won handily.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, who argued the case before Judge Emanuel Brown during the two-week trial, said he was pleased that the jury found Henson guilty on one count but wished they would have gone further. Davitt said he hopes the case sends a message.
"The election laws are there to protect the right to vote and the integrity of the system," he said. "Violations are not going to be tolerated."
Prosecutors argued that the robocall was intended to give black voters the impression that O'Malley had already defeated Ehrlich and that they had no need to head to the polls.
Henson said the call was intended to do just the opposite: prompt those voters to cast a ballot for Ehrlich. He argued that the call used reverse psychology.
The call, which went out to 112,000 households, told voters that O'Malley and President Barack Obama had been successful. Obama wasn't on the ballot that year.
"Our goals have been met," the message said. "The polls are correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight."
Ehrlich has said he did not know about the call. An attempt to reach him Friday was unsuccessful.
Johnson said the jury found Henson guilty on only one charge relating to the authority line, because Henson wasn't the one who actually put out the call. Henson testified that he was at a McDonald's when he wrote the brief message on a napkin and called his associate Rhonda Russell to record and place the robocall.
"He knows you can't do anything without an authority line; he did over 100 elections," said Johnson, who led the jury's deliberations for 10 hours over three days.
Henson's trial followed that of Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's campaign manager. Henson testified that Schurick instructed him to produce the call, which was made to Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Henson also said Schurick approved the call's wording and told him to exclude the authority line.
Schurick had also argued at his own trial that the call was intended to encourage voters in the two historically Democratic strongholds to vote for Ehrlich.
In December, Schurick was convicted of four charges related to election fraud. He was sentenced to 30 days of home detention and 500 hours of community service. He is expected to remain on probation for four years.
Schurick's lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, said Friday that the Henson verdict may provide an opportunity for a court to dismiss Schurick's conviction. Schurick had been found guilty on conspiracy charges, but with Henson being acquitted of most charges, Pettit said the verdict disproves any collusion to break the law.