Appeals court overturns conviction of local Tea Party leader found guilty of blackmail

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OKLAHOMA CITY - It was a victory Wednesday for an outspoken Tea Party leader in Oklahoma after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his felony conviction.

In May 2014, Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart was found guilty of blackmailing a state senator and violating the Computer Crimes Act.

Prosecutors claimed Gerhart sent an email to Oklahoma Sen. Cliff Branan, allegedly promising to make the senator a “laughing stock” unless the Senate Energy and Environment Committee passed a bill that would block a United Nations plan.

In the 2013 e-mail to Senator Cliff Branan, Gerhart allegedly wrote:

Branan,

Get that bill heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it. I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don't hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru (sic) family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it.

This is a promise.

Al Gerhart
Sooner Tea Party

"It was harsh. Let me tell you, these guys don't respond to anything different," Gerhart said.

Though it may have been harsh, Gerhart says it was not blackmail.

Gerhart had to pay a $1,000 dollar fine for the e-mail.

"What I threatened was to investigate the man. Now, every public official is going to be counted upon being investigated some point in their life," Gerhart said.

After his conviction, Gerhart's attorney filed an appeal saying his e-mail to the senator did not meet the elements of the Oklahoma blackmail statute. He also argued that Gerhart could question an elected official because he had the First Amendment on his side.

Court documents released Oct. 7 show that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Gerhart's attorney, and overturned his conviction.

"The speech for which Al Gerhart was threatened with prison may have been crass and combative, but in the United States of America, being impolite is not illegal. The Court of Criminal Appeals made a decision today that ensures protection of the free speech rights of all Oklahomans. When the State of Oklahoma went after Al Gerhart for his political activism, he did so through a legal theory that tried to criminalize an enormous range of constitutionally protected speech. The Court of Criminal Appeals rightly shut down this attempt to suppress free speech within our communities and at our state capitol," said Brady Henderson, legal director with ACLU of Oklahoma.

Gerhart was working in his carpentry shop Oct. 7 when he learned of the appeals court’s decision.

"I was just, like, floored," Gerhart said.

In a 22-page document, the court explains why they disagreed with the conviction.

But a jury disagreed.

"I hate to say this, but I'm actually shocked that the Court of Criminal Appeals did the right thing," Gerhart said.

The Tea Party leader says he applauds the appeals court for bringing him justice and recognizing his first amendment right.

"It's a good day. It's a good day. We have freedom of speech again in the state of Oklahoma and that's the most important thing about this whole story," Gerhart said.

Scott Rowland, the prosecutor in the case, says they will respect the ruling, but disagree.

"A majority of the Court interpreted Oklahoma's blackmail statute such that it does not cover this defendant's conduct. We respect that ruling and will abide by it. All trial lawyers know this is a possibility on any jury verdict, and this case in particular was unusual in that it involves the intersection between the First Amendment and criminal prosecution," Rowland said.

Legal analyst Ed Blau has been following the case. When the appeals court sided with Gerhart, he was a little surprised.

“For them to reverse a felony conviction and ultimately dismiss it, one that 12 jurors decided that he was guilty of, is a pretty big step," Blau said.

However, he understands what led to the decision.

"Because there were no specific threats, because there was not a threat of violence, the court felt that this was speech protected under the first amendment," Blau said.

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