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Brooklyn attorney John O’Hara cleared of trumped-up felony charges after 20 years

Another Hynes-era conviction reversed

January 13, 2017 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn attorney John O’Hara, right, walks with his lawyer Dennis Kelly after his felony conviction was cleared on Thursday. Photo by Mary Frost
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There were tears in the courtroom of state Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik in Downtown Brooklyn on Thursday as Brooklyn attorney John O’Hara was cleared of a felony conviction brought 20 years ago by former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.

“I feel great,” O’Hara said afterward. “If you’re a convicted felon, it’s like you’re a second-class citizen.”

O’Hara’s prosecution and conviction have long been characterized as a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by Hynes for political reasons. Over the years, O’Hara, who got his start in New York City politics at the age of 14 when he volunteered for then-City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, had backed numerous candidates not approved by Brooklyn’s Democratic machine and had run, unsuccessfully, for office himself.

It took three trials for O’Hara, prosecuted for “voting from the wrong address,” to go down. He was fined $20,000, ordered to clean bathrooms and pick up garbage in city parks, and disbarred from practicing law.

The only other person in the state of New York to be persecuted for the same “crime” — one said to be committed by Hynes himself — was Susan B. Anthony, who voted when women were not allow to do so, in 1872.

O’Hara got his law license back in 2009, but the felony conviction remained.

Former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who died in October, had discussed O’Hara’s case while campaigning for his position. Thompson said he believed O’Hara had been the victim of a political hit.

Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU), famous nationwide for freeing people unjustly convicted during Hynes’ tenure, began an in-depth investigation into the case.

On Thursday, the DA’s office, under acting DA Eric Gonzalez, carried the process to its conclusion. Assistant DA Mark Hale cited newly discovered evidence of “false and misleading testimony” without which the verdict “would have been far more favorable to the defendant.”

Twenty years ago, a woman who had previously owned O’Hara’s apartment (which he shared with his girlfriend) on 47th Street in Sunset Park testified during his third trial that the space was “uninhabitable.” This evidence was considered key in O’Hara’s conviction.

However, when the CRU recently contacted this woman, now a widow living in the western U.S., she “offered a much different account,” Hale said.

She said that her husband had finished the apartment, installing dry wall, a ceiling, flooring, a kitchenette and shower. Though she didn’t think of the space as an apartment, it was certainly livable.

She had no explanation as to why her testimony deviated for her current position, Hale said.

If the conviction was obtained using incomplete, false or misleading evidence, Hale told Justice Cyrulnik, “the conviction itself cannot stand.”

In a courtroom filled with beaming friends and attorneys, Justice Cyrulnik agreed, signing papers vacating O’Hara’s conviction and sealing it, so that the case cannot be tried a fourth time.

John O’Hara, immediately following Thursday’s court appearance. Photo by Mary Frost O’Hara’s attorneys (the law offices of Dennis Kelly and Anthony Grandinette) and the CRU did a “thorough review,” she said.

“I want to commend councils for Mr. O’Hara — Mr. Kelly in particular for his assistance in his matter. I also want to commend the District Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit for undertaking such a thorough review and for being willing to address an issue that needed to be rectified,” she said.

Kelly told the court that Gonzalez had followed through “on Ken Thompson’s promise to give John O’Hara justice in this case. He did a nonpartisan and very thorough investigation in this.”

“I’m glad that this has been rectified and you can move forward,” Cyrulnik told O’Hara.

Outside the courtroom afterward, O’Hara told reporters, “In any case, the only decision that counts is the final one. And after three trials and a dozen appeals, it’s finally ended.”

“We’re going to go have a chicken quesadilla,” he added. “That’s it.”

But O’Hara’s attorney Kelly was not quite ready to celebrate.

“One of the things that hasn’t been settled here is why John was prosecuted to begin with. And that goes to Charles Hynes,” he said. “It was a political witch hunt that caused this prosecution of John.”

Kelly said O’Hara intended to file a lawsuit against Hynes “very soon.”

“A civil rights, malicious prosecution case will be filed shortly including Mr. Hynes, O’Mara [the prosecutor in the case] and the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “Because Hynes ran his office and used his power and the power of his office to persecute political opponents.

“And John’s not the only one,” Kelly said. “We know about Judge [John] Phillips [whose multimillion dollar estate was stripped while under the supervision of Hynes’ appointees]. We know of [former Bay Ridge Democratic District Leader] Ralph Perfetto … It was such an abusive process, such an abuse of power.”

Kelly added, “It was unfortunate he’s still sitting in Breezy Point and is not being held accountable, but we’re going to hold him accountable.”

“John’s perseverance in clearing his name of this witch hunt is a joy to behold,” said former client Sandy Reiburn, a participant in a case against the owner of a former senior care facility, Prospect Park Residence (PPR).

“He is person of integrity and those of us who were lucky to be his PPR clients and who became his friends were also the beneficiaries of his unwavering pursuit of justice … where there was little to be had.”



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