Julius Henson, a legendary Baltimore campaign consultant who's been involved in politics for decades, took his seat Monday morning at the defense table to face trial on accusations that he tried to suppress the black vote with shady robo-calls.
In an unusual case of allegedly deceptive and criminal political strategy, the 63-year-old veteran operative is accused of sending out a political robo-call -- an automated telephone call -- to neighborhoods with predominantly black voters in the Maryland 2010 general election. The call, according to prosecutors, wrongly implied the Democratic candidate for governor had already won.
The calls went out to over 110,000 Democratic voters, and the recorded voice said: "Hello. I'm calling to let everybody know that Governor O'Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We're okay. Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you."
Henson was a political consultant to the campaign of former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich in his race against the Democratic incumbent, Martin O'Malley. Prosecutors say the call's goal was to discourage black Democrats from showing up at the polls by fooling them into thinking there was no need to vote.
When Fox News asked Henson if he had indeed tried to suppress the black vote, he was emphatic: "Absolutely not."
As for the prosecution's allegations that he did, Henson said, "They've been talking for 18 months -- we get a chance to talk now and I think that the jurors and the judge will find the call was made, was a good call."
Henson has claimed that "the speech clause in the Constitution says that political speech is free ... nothing in that call was not true."
Henson also insisted that the goal of the call was to increase voter turnout, and blames his prosecution on "pure politics."
"They just want to sensationalize it, emotionalize it and say, 'Oh Julius Henson didn't want black people to vote.' Okay, I've gotten more black people elected in this state, period, ever. And as a matter of fact, I'm known for getting turnout up. That is why the Ehrlich people hired me in the first place."
As he arrived at court for the start of the trial, Henson's lawyer, Edwards Smith, Jr., told Fox News that his client is "not guilty."
Smith said the purpose of the call was "to bring out votes," and that "the evidence will show that the list had no race attached to it, in fact there were plenty of whites, Chinese and others" who were called.
But prosecutors say the call is criminal, violating the law by fraudulently attempting to interfere with voters' decisions.
"It's not protected by the First Amendment," said Maryland State Prosecutor Emmett Davitt in February, when Ehrlich's campaign aide, Paul Schurick, was sentenced after being convicted for election fraud related to the robo-call scheme.
"This type of behavior is more than just a dirty trick or politics as usual. It is illegal and it will be prosecuted," Davitt has said.
Schurick maintained the call was meant to actually motivate Ehrlich supporters to go to the polls, not to keep them away. After his sentencing in February, he said, "I believed that there were several thousand African American supporters of Bob Ehrlich who had not yet voted that day and that a call or message, as counterintuitive as it seems in hindsight, that a message such as that one would in fact motivate them to go to the polls if they had not already done so."
The call was not successful. O'Malley, the Democrat, went on to win re-election and remains Maryland's governor.
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