An Oxnard man once accused of running the largest prostitution ring in Ventura County agreed Wednesday to drop a racism charge against prosecutors in exchange for an early release from prison.
Henry Hardy Jr., 38, pleaded guilty to several felony pimping and pandering charges as part of the deal with the Ventura County district attorney's office.
"He's giving up his principles, (but) it's a business decision, more or less," Hardy's attorney, Christian Menard, said.
Hardy was sentenced in 1991 to six years in prison for pimping and pandering after a jury convicted him of 14 felony charges. But the conviction was in jeopardy after the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura ordered the trial court to allow Hardy to pursue his racism claims. As manager of the Stardust Modeling Agency on Saviers Road in Oxnard, Hardy was the only black among several people arrested on suspicion of pimping and pandering during a 1991 sweep of prostitution businesses, according to court documents.
The district attorney's office declined to prosecute the other arrestees, who were all white, but filed felony charges against Hardy.
He contended he was singled out for prosecution because he is black.
Prior to Hardy's trial in 1991, his attorney attempted to bolster the claim of racism by getting the district attorney's office to reveal why the others arrested were not prosecuted.
Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch refused to order prosecutors to turn over the information, but the state Court of Appeal ruled in March that the judge was in error and Hardy is entitled to pursue his claims of racism as part of his defense.
The appeals court did not rule on the merits of Hardy's claim and ordered Storch to hold a hearing on the issue.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael K. Frawley said he personally reviewed the cases against two other escort services, one in Ventura and one in Oxnard, which were investigated at the same time as Hardy's business. The decision not to prosecute the owners of the other businesses was not made on racist grounds, Frawley said.
Hardy's case "was the only one we had a good chance of getting a guilty verdict on," Frawley said. "His was a huge business. He was the big ball of cheese out there."
He said his office agreed to the reduced sentence for Hardy to avoid possible lengthy litigation over the racism claim.
In a written change-of-plea form signed by Hardy and filed with the Superior Court, he said the district attorney's office "fairly prosecuted me" and he pleaded guilty because he was, in fact, guilty of the charges.
"I also admit that the office of the district attorney did not engage in discriminatory or selective prosecution in the filing of these charges against me," the plea agreement states.
The plea form says that the 16 months and five days Hardy has spent in prison will constitute his entire sentence for the guilty plea. Hardy was released from Soledad State Prison after the appeals court issued its ruling.
Despite Hardy's admissions in court that he was fairly prosecuted, outside the courtroom he reiterated his charge of racism and said he was forced to sign the plea agreement.
"They hold this bat over my head and said, 'Sign this paper or you go back to jail,' " Hardy said.
Hardy's attorney said his client is destitute. After his conviction on the pimping charges, Hardy lost his home when the state seized the property as the site of illegal activity.
Hardy said he does not want to remain in Oxnard.
"It's pretty hard to say I have plans, because this has ruined my life," he said outside court after pleading guilty.