Following his exoneration this week, we take a look back at the epic story of Sunset Park attorney and politico John O’Hara’s fall from grace and his long-overdue absolution after 20 years.
1990–1996: A perennial thorn in the side of the Brooklyn Democratic machine, O’Hara makes five unsuccessful runs for office — twice for Council and three times for the Assembly — including a run against former Assemblyman James Brennan (D–Kensington) that he believes earned him an enemy for life.
1992: O’Hara claims to be living in the basement apartment of a Sunset Park building, and registers to vote at that address. He later casts a ballot at PS 92.
1996: Then-District Attorney Charles Hynes hits O’Hara with a seven-count felony voter-fraud indictment — charges that threaten 28 years in prison. Prosecutors claim O’Hara couldn’t have lived in the basement back in 1992 as it wasn’t habitable. O’Hara refuses several plea deals.
1997: O’Hara is found guilty on all counts. He is disbarred and banned from voting, and the judge sentences him to five years probation, $20,000 in fines, and 1,500 hours of community service. Following the conviction, Brennan tells the New York Times, “John O’Hara is a pathological liar and fraud and a danger to the public because of his fraud.”
1998: O’Hara strikes back — an appeals court reverses the conviction.
1999: Hynes requests a second trial, which ends in mistrial as the jury fails to reach a unanimous decision.
2000: An unprecedented third trial results in yet another guilty verdict. O’Hara becomes the first person in Brooklyn to be tried three times on the same crime.
2001: The State Court of Appeals upholds the conviction in a 5–2 decision. Meanwhile, civil court Judge John Phillips announces he is running for district attorney. Hynes had the so-called “Kung Fu Judge” declared incompetent, the Bedford-Stuyvesant resident is locked away in a nursing home, and his $10-million estate is handed over to a series of court-appointed guardians.
2002: O’Hara appeals to a federal court, but the judge throws the case out, arguing it has already been argued exhaustively in state courts.
2003: O’Hara tries to bring his plight to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it refuses to hear his case.
2005: Harpers publishes a 7,500-word feature on the saga, revealing the results of an investigation that said Hynes prosecuted O’Hara as a favor to Brennan. Hynes threatens to sue the magazine, but never follows through.
2007: O’Hara gets his name back on the voter rolls. The author of the Harpers story, Christopher Ketcham, pens a screenplay titled “O’Hara,” described as “‘Prince of the City’ meets ‘Serpico’ meets ‘City Hall.’ ” Chris Noth is rumored to be playing Hynes. (Sadly, the film is yet to be made.)
2008: An appeals court reinstates O’Hara to the bar. Judge Phillips dies at the age of 83 in the notorious Prospect Park Residence old folks’ home (subsequently the subject of its own epic court battle). O’Hara alleges that Phillips froze to death after heat to his room was turned off for two weeks — amid other accusations of mistreatment — and later sues the unlicensed nursing home for wrongful death on behalf of his family. The case is settled for $750,000 in 2015.
2009: A state judicial committee investigates O’Hara’s case and determines that he was indeed a victim of political retribution. “Mr. O’Hara, accurately it appears, claims that the [Hynes’s political] machine went gunning for him and pounced on his change of residency calling it election fraud,” read the report from the Committee on Character and Fitness.
2013: Ken Thompson challenges and beats Hynes in the district attorney race — making him the first New York district attorney to be unseated in more than 100 years. Thompson subsequently creates his Conviction Review Unit to fulfill campaign promises of scrutinizing his predecessor’s suspicious convictions.
2015: The special unit begins investigating O’Hara’s case.
2016: Investigators working for Thompson track down and confront a prosecution witness from O’Hara’s original trial who admits his old apartment was habitable after all.
2017: Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez moves to dismiss O’Hara’s conviction, and he is — at long last — exonerated. He celebrates by eating a chicken quesadilla.