Pardon him, governor: Brooklyn victim of political persecution should be exonerated
NY Daily News
December 21, 2009
A top state court has moved to rectify a longstanding miscarriage of justice by restoring the law license of the only New Yorker convicted of a crime simply for voting since suffragist Susan B. Anthony was put on trial in 1873.
The Brooklyn Appellate Division wisely let political activist John O'Hara again serve as an attorney despite his automatic disbarment as a felon. In doing so, the court officially recognized the patently unfair nature of O'Hara's prosecution.
It is beyond doubt that O'Hara was the victim of a criminal justice vendetta ginned up by enemies in the Brooklyn Democratic Party who were fed up with his constant challenges. As a special committee of lawyers reported to the court: "Mr. O'Hara, accurately it appears, claims that the machine went gunning for him."
The weapon of choice was Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, who hauled O'Hara into three trials on seven felony charges that carried the potential for years in jail. What was O'Hara's supposed crime? Follow this:
He lived and had a law office on 61st St. in Brooklyn for years. He was registered to vote there. In 1992, he moved into an apartment 14 blocks away, intending to purchase the building. He registered to vote at the new address and cast ballots in state and local elections. The purchase fell through. In 1993, he returned to his residence on 61st St. and shifted his voter registration back.
Hynes trumped those facts up into an indictment alleging that O'Hara had kept his primary residence on 61st St. throughout - and had thus violated a law that requires voters to register at their primary residences.
Then the DA pursued the case with a vengeance, even though O'Hara had voted only once in each election and even though both addresses were in the same voting district. After one conviction was overturned and a second trial ended with a hung jury, a third panel agreed that O'Hara had run afoul of a hypertechnical reading of the law.
The state's highest court upheld O'Hara's conviction, with the dissent correctly pointing out that, absent fraud, questions of residency in voting are uniformly hashed out by boards of election. The dissent also raised concerns about criminalizing "politically charged disputes such as this" without clear legal standards.
O'Hara was sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service, five years of probation and a $20,000 fine. He has been fighting ever since to clear his name.
The panel of lawyers that recommended his reinstatement to the bar gave him a big boost by expressing "grave doubts that Mr. O'Hara did anything that justified his criminal prosecution."
At heart, the case was an example of selective and overzealous prosecution. For perspective on how selective, consider the fact that Bronx state Sen. Pedro Espada lives openly in Westchester while voting in and representing the Bronx.
Now, O'Hara has set his sights on exoneration. He has petitioned Gov. Paterson for a pardon. 'Tis the season, governor. Grant O'Hara's wish.