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Schurick’s fate in jury’s hands

A Baltimore jury will continue deliberating Tuesday morning on whether Paul E. Schurick tried to sabotage Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s re-election last fall with Election Day robocalls telling Democrats in the city and Prince George’s County that victory was at hand and they did not have to go to the polls.

The jury began deliberating at 2:30 Monday afternoon, after attorneys for the state and Schurick — who was campaign manager for Republican candidate and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — gave closing arguments on the trial’s sixth day.

Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt told the jury that the automated calls on Nov. 2, 2010, could have had no other purpose than to suppress the vote, in violation of Maryland election law.

Voting “is a sacred right in the United States,” Davitt said during his 40-minute summation. “You don’t mess with that right.”

Defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit countered that Schurick authorized the messages in an ultimately unsuccessful, perhaps “misguided” effort to spur Ehrlich’s black Democratic supporters to race to the polls and snatch victory from impending defeat.

Schurick made “a political misjudgment, a political faux pas” on the last day of an intense campaign, Pettit told the jury.

Schurick, 55, faces up to 16 years in prison if the jury convicts him of the four election law charges against him.

He is accused of attempting to fraudulently influence registered voters not to go to the polls; of sending robocalls without an “authority line” to inform voters the calls were made at the Ehrlich campaign’s behest; and of conspiring with political consultant Julius Henson to accomplish both goals.

Henson, 62, is scheduled to go on trial on similar charges Feb. 6 in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Davitt told the jury Schurick was deeply concerned that the overwhelmingly Democratic black vote would control the election and that Ehrlich’s campaign was unable to gain the support of more than 7 percent of black voters.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Davitt said email messages to and from Schurick in the days leading up to and including Election Day showed a campaign concerned with O’Malley’s heavy support among black voters.

That concern was memorialized in a document Henson distributed that referred to the “Schurick Doctrine,” which said the Ehrlich campaign’s best hope was to try to suppress the black vote, Davitt said.

Pettit, though, told the jury that the Henson established the doctrine and that when Schurick saw the document he “threw” it back at the political consultant.

What’s undisputed is that, late on the afternoon of Election Day, Schurick did authorize the robocalls.

In closing arguments Monday, Davitt replayed the message for the jurors and urged them to use “common sense” regarding whether it was intended to suppress or spur voter turnout.

“Hello. I’m calling to let everyone know that Gov. O’Malley and President Obama have been successful,” the message stated. “Our goals have been met. The polls were correct and we took it back. We’re OK. Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations and thank you.”

Davitt said Schurick is no less guilty because his candidate, Ehrlich, ultimately lost. The election-law crime is the willful attempt to suppress voter turnout, regardless of whether the effort succeeds, Davitt told the jury.

“Let’s not give the defendant a pass because it was ineffective,” he said. “The defendant committed a crime when he authorized this call.”

No ‘Nixon mode’

But Pettit reminded the jurors that Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill had instructed them that Schurick’s guilt must be found “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Pettit called it unreasonable to believe that Schurick would have waited until just hours before the polls closed on Election Day before taking action if he wanted to suppress the vote.

“It doesn’t make sense, folks,” Pettit told the jury. “Reasonable doubt.”

Pettit, citing Schurick’s trial testimony, said his client did not go into “a Nixon mode” of trying to hide his involvement. Rather, Schurick voluntarily spoke with federal and state election-law investigators for two hours about his efforts to persuade, not suppress, voters, said Pettit, a Baltimore solo practitioner.

He also cited trial testimony from Schurick’s business associates and friends attesting to his honesty and integrity. Pettit noted Schurick worked not only for Ehrlich but served as chief of staff to the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democratic lion.

“It comes down to credibility,” Pettit said. “Mr. Schurick is a doggone good man.”

In rebuttal, Davitt’s deputy, Thomas “Mike” McDonough, told the jury that “it’s a sad fact of life, but good people do bad things.”

The jury broke for the day before 5 o’clock, after Fletcher-Hill responded to one note from the panel.

The jurors asked the judge to clarify the distinction between the attempt to influence voter turnout through fraud (count 3 of the indictment), and the conspiracy to do so (count 1).

Fletcher-Hill took the opportunity to clarify the distinction between the other two counts as well.

According to the indictment, the automated calls were made to 112,544 registered Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George’s County before the polls closed last fall.

Schurick and Henson allegedly retained Robodial.org LLC, a Pennsylvania company that provides telephone broadcasting services, to send out the pre-recorded message to a specified list of telephone numbers.

Before and during the trial, Fletcher-Hill had granted the defense’s motion to dismiss charges that Schurick conspired with Henson to violate Maryland’s election law generally and that Schurick withheld documentation sought by a grand jury subpoena.