“Ubi jus,ibi remedium,” a phrase in Latin which means where there is a wrong, there is a remedy. I always believed that which is why I went to law school. But while I was being fingerprinted and photographed decades back, following my arrest by the Brooklyn District Attorney, I knew my path to victory was not going to be found in a Courthouse. It was going to be at the ballot box. Decades later it turned out I was right.
It was thirty years ago this month that I registered to vote and voted. For that simple and solitary act I spent two decades battling criminal charges. The past five years in courts on my malicious prosecution lawsuit.
The charge was count one, “filing a false instrument,” which was the voter registration card, my address the Brooklyn District Attorney determined was also false which was count two, and since I voted in the following five elections and primaries, these were considered illegal votes which meant an additional five felony counts, a total of seven felony counts.
All this sounds odd so let’s get to the real reason why the Brooklyn DA targeted me. I ran for office five times against machine backed candidates and I lost. The winner takes office and the loser goes to jail. But since my case was upheld by New York’s high court, the case of People v O’Hara now had larger implications. Anyone in New York who did not pledge allegiance to one residence indefinitely was now subject to felony prosecution, unless they decline to vote. I felt bad about that because Liberty is not something that gets taken away all at once. It gets chipped away at slowly and slowly.
I was the first person to be prosecuted for illegal voting in New York State since 1873. The defendant in that case was Susan B. Anthony. I also became the first person to be tried in Brooklyn three times on the same charge. At the first trial I was convicted, but it was reversed on appeal. The second trial was a hung jury and at the third trial I was convicted again. The penalty was 5 years of probation, $16,000 in fines, 1,500 hours of community service, and I was disbarred from the practice of law.
There were a dozen appeals, months turned into years and years turned into decades. When you have been wrongly convicted you become consumed with your own vindication. But what I really focused on was running candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney, which happens every four years. Finally in 2013 Charles Hynes became the first District Attorney to be defeated in New York City in over one hundred years. Three years after that, in 2017 the new District Attorney overturned my conviction.
An investigation by the new District Attorney revealed that the State Assemblyman I ran against instigated the prosecution and acted as the DA’s secret investigator. But the political influence didn’t just extend to the District Attorney. Discovery has revealed Judges were spoken to as well. You see nobody ever got wrongfully convicted in a Court Room by accident. That’s just not how it happens. A prosecutor decides who is guilty and then figures out a way to prove it. And when a prosecutor’s misconduct is exposed, they face no consequences. So much for the cliché “nobody is above the law.” There are no checks and balances in place to combat these abuses. Prosecutors control what goes on in the Courts while the Judges just direct the traffic.
My point to this story is not to discourage anyone from voting. There are good things that came out of this. After the District Attorney was ousted the new DA overturned over 30 convictions of people wrongfully convicted, bad prosecutors in the office were fired, and I didn’t have to wait for my funeral to find out who my friends really are. What I want is for people to embrace the political process. Politics can be the great equalizer and if it wasn’t for the fact that we elect our District Attorneys I’d still be a convicted felon today.
John O’Hara is an attorney. He lives in Brooklyn.