The attorney for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign manager made his final pitch to a Baltimore jury Monday, arguing that his client, Paul Schurick, simply made a "mistake" when he authorized an Election Day 2010 robocall that prosecutors say was designed to suppress black votes.
"We made a faux pas," Schurick's attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said of the call. "That's not criminal. That's evidence of somebody who made a political misjudgment, a political faux pas, a political mistake."
During closing arguments in the case, tried over the past week, Pettit argued that Schurick never tried to cover up his role in authorizing the call on a desperate, "rough, tough" Election Day. Pettit likened elections to a "political war" and blamed consultant Julius Henson, who has a history of employing controversial campaign tactics, for the call's content.
"Maybe people did take it the wrong way," Pettit said of the call. "Maybe it was stupid. Maybe it was a bad decision." But he urged jurors not to convict an honorable man for a split-second decision made in the heat of a campaign.
"Mr. Schurick is a doggone good man," he said.
Schurick, 55, of Crownsville, is on trial in Baltimore Circuit Court on charges of conspiracy, election fraud and failure to arrange for an Ehrlich campaign authority line on the call. He has argued that the call — which told Democrats in Baltimore City and Prince George's County to "relax" and implied they should stay home from the polls — was meant to bolster voting in African-American neighborhoods, not dissuade it, using reverse psychology.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt told the jury Monday that the primary evidence against Schurick is "the message itself."
"It's not just a dirty trick," he said. "It's not just an unfair tactic. In the state of Maryland, it's illegal."
Davitt highlighted a $600,000 Henson plan in which the consultant proposed voter suppression as well as emails from the Ehrlich campaign that appeared to celebrate low voter turnout. Davitt said the argument from the defense team that the robocall was designed to be "counterintuitive" is nonsensical.
"It's ridiculous and they know it," he added.
On Friday, Schurick took the witness stand in his own defense and admitted he approved the text for the automated phone call, but said it was not intended to suppress black votes. Earlier in the week, a bipartisan group of high-profile politicians, including Ehrlich, a Republican, and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat, took the witness stand to vouch for Schurick's "honesty and integrity."
The automated call said Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been "successful" in that day's election. The calls were made while the polls were still open and the votes uncounted. The robocall told voters that "our goals have been met. The polls are correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight."
During a hearing last week while the jury was not in the courtroom, the presiding judge in the case, Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, told lawyers he believed the call was "plainly fraudulent" and one needed only "common sense" to see that the call was "an attempt to try to get people to stay at home."
The jury — which is made up of five black women, two black men, three white women and two white men — spent about two hours deliberating Monday. They are to resume their discussions Tuesday. Schurick could receive up to five years of prison time on each of the election fraud charges if convicted. Henson is scheduled to be tried next month.