Jury to hear Md. robo-calls case

November 28, 2011

A jury is scheduled to begin hearing testimony Tuesday in a case that could brighten the line between political tricks and political crimes in the often rough-and-tumble world of Maryland politics.

Paul E. Schurick, 55, a senior aide to former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) faces charges of conspiring to use robo-calls in predominantly black districts in Prince George’s County and Baltimore to dampen turnout among traditionally Democratic African American voters on Election Day 2010.

If Schurick is found guilty, the verdict could give Democrats in Maryland and beyond a rallying cry ahead of the 2012 presidential race, analysts say. With both major parties seeking an advantage to motivate voters, Democrats could cast a conviction as evidence of their claims that Republicans seek to suppress minority turnout, analysts said.

Schurick’s trial, however, promises to be a complicated one from which either side of the political spectrum may find it tough to draw larger conclusions. State prosecutors and Schurick’s defense team are expected to argue not only over the intended effect of the robo-calls but also over the roles of Schurick or an outside political consultant on Ehrlich’s team in arranging them.

That consultant, Julius Henson, who is African American, has already said the robo-calls were his responsibility, and his attorney has argued that even if the calls were not moral or nice, they were still protected free speech.

With the polls still open on the evening of the 2010 election, a woman’s recorded voice told people who picked up the phone to “relax” and not to worry about going to vote because Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the Democratic incumbent, had already been “successful” in his rematch against Ehrlich. State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, an O’Malley appointee, alleged in an indictment in June that the calls were successfully placed to the homes of tens of thousands of African American Democrats.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill said Monday that at least one of the calls was placed to his home, and his wife answered. He also divulged several other connections to the case: He was appointed to the bench by O’Malley in 2009; his name was on the 2010 ballot; and he has had dealings with three of the five attorneys arguing the case. Fletcher-Hill also once worked as chief litigator for the state attorneys general’s office when it was run by O’Malley’s father-in-law, Joseph Curran.

But Fletcher-Hill said he did not see any of the relationships as conflicts that would prevent him from ruling fairly. Davitt and A. Dwight Pettit, Schurick’s lead attorney, agreed.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters originally was assigned to hear Henson’s case, but Peters recused himself earlier this month because he had been appointed by O’Malley last year. Henson’s case has been delayed until next year.

In other developments Monday, an attorney for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) sought to suppress a defense subpoena for documents and testimony from the congressman, whose district includes most of Baltimore. But Fletcher-Hill ruled that Cummings must testify. Pettit said he would ask Cummings about another robo-call placed on Election Day 2010 that he said contained the congressman’s voice and warned voters about the trickery of Henson’s call.

Fletcher-Hill and the two sides also agreed on a jury that is made up of eight women and four men and that includes seven blacks.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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