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Editorial: Henson’s run

It is a fundamental precept of due process that a criminal is entitled to know his sentence, in no uncertain terms.

Julius Henson’s actions on Election Day 2010 were criminal. His Republican candidate was trailing badly in exit polls, so the political consultant engineered a robocall that urged more than 100,000 registered Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George’s County to stay home.

“Relax,” the anonymous caller said. “We’re OK.” The Democrats were singing the victory song, and there was nothing left to do but “watch it on TV.”

For his efforts, Mr. Henson was tried on election fraud charges but convicted on just one misdemeanor count, conspiracy to violate election laws. He was sentenced in 2012 to a year’s incarceration with all but 60 days suspended. He was also given three years’ probation.

Finally, the court ordered that the longtime political consultant “shall not work in any political campaign paid/volunteer during probation.”

Mr. Henson appealed his conviction in general and the restriction on campaign work in particular. He lost in the appellate court last summer. In the fall, he announced plans to run for the Maryland Senate. And this winter, he finds himself facing a violation of probation charge.

The state’s point seems to be that running for office is work, and it is political, and it is a campaign; ergo, it constitutes “work in any political campaign.”

Think that’s logical? Try substituting “work in any political campaign” for a “run for office” by any other candidate, and see how different the meanings are.

Take Maryland’s gubernatorial primaries. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur are all seeking the Democratic nomination to work in any political campaign. Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Change Maryland Chairman Larry Hogan are leading those who hope to work in any political campaign for the GOP.

Then there’s General William Tecumseh Sherman’s definitive statement of disinterest — often misquoted, but never so badly as this: “If nominated, I will not work in any political campaign.”

Enough.

Even if the state’s interpretation and Mr. Henson’s were equally reasonable, the provision is at best ambiguous and, for a criminal sentence, ambiguity is not sufficient.

Ambiguity is also unnecessary. If the state intended to ban Mr. Henson from running for office while on probation, the state knew how to say so in plain language. Ask former Baltimore Mayor Sheila A. Dixon; ask former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold.

So, yes, Mr. Henson is an unrepentant ex-con. He minimizes the importance of his crime, comparing it to jaywalking. He is guilty of passing the buck; he insists he was just following his client’s orders, a defense that does nothing to inspire confidence in his ethics or his fitness for office. He is guilty of crossing the line. He is guilty of not playing by the rules.

But violating probation?

Not guilty, in no uncertain terms.