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Was Henson's sentence too tough or Schurick's too light?

Baltimore Circuit Judge Emanuel Brown said he wanted to send a message with his sentence of political consultant Julius Henson in the case of the infamous "relax" robocall. He certainly succeeded. It's not often that someone involved in a Maryland political corruption trial is led out of a courtroom in handcuffs, and a 60-day jail sentence is bound to make future political campaigns and consultants think twice before crossing the line.

Despite his protestations that the case against him was political payback for his work for a Republican — former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — what Mr. Henson did was clearly wrong. He authored and coordinated the sending of an automated telephone call to more than 100,000 Democratic voters in Baltimore City and Prince George's County before the polls closed on election night in 2010 advising them to "relax," stay at home and watch the returns on television because Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, had already been successful. It was a clear attempt to use deception to prevent voters from going to the polls, and that is illegal in Maryland. Making matters worse, Mr. Henson left off the authority line on the call identifying it as coming from the Ehrlich campaign.

That last infraction was the only one on which a jury actually found Mr. Henson guilty, though another jury in a previous trial found Mr. Henson's co-conspirator, former Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick, guilty on other counts as well.

And therein lies the difficulty with Mr. Henson's sentence. He is going to jail, but Mr. Schurick was sentenced merely to home detention and community service. The person who carried out the so-called "Schurick doctrine" — a plan to suppress turnout among African-American voters — got a tougher sentence than the man who supposedly devised it. And further fueling inevitable questions about this disparity, Mr. Henson is black and Mr. Schurick is white.

The tougher sentence for Mr. Henson is not proof that racial discrimination was at work. The two men had different trials with different evidence, different defenses and different judges. It is, for better or worse, a feature of our judicial system that one judge might give a harsher sentence than another would for the same (or even a lesser) crime. And for the record, Judge Brown is African-American.

Mr. Henson surely did himself no favors in the sentencing process. Any inclination the prosecutors might have had to request that he receive the same sentence as Mr. Schurick was surely erased by his rants in the media that the case against him was political payback and that State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt was just a pawn of Governor O'Malley. And any sympathy Judge Brown might have had surely vanished when Mr. Henson accused him, before the sentencing, of having favored the prosecution all along.

All that said, it would unquestionably have been more just for both conspirators in this ugly act to have received the same punishment. We did not object to Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill's decision not to give Mr. Schurick jail time on the grounds that Mr. Schurick's fall from grace would still serve as an object lesson to other members of Maryland's political community. And we would not have objected had Judge Brown treated Mr. Henson the same way; he is now so radioactive as a political consultant that no politician will dare hire him, and he also faces a $1 million fine in a separate civil case related to the robocall.

But if we had to choose, we would have given both men the sentence Mr. Henson received. Maryland has been embroiled in such a wave of political corruption — up to the conviction Tuesday of a Prince George's delegate who used state money to pay an employee of her law office — that someone in the judiciary needed to put his foot down. Sending Mr. Henson to jail is a powerful signal, but it's not shocking. He has long been known as a dirty tricks artist. Jailing Mr. Schurick, once the right-hand-man of a Maryland governor, would have been a much stronger message.

Unfortunately, Maryland judges may soon have more chances to strike the right balance in punishing political corruption. We hope they will follow Judge Brown's example.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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