Baltimore County state’s attorney primary a choice about what kind of crime should be prosecuted

Published on: July 11, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 13, 2022 5:24 PM EDT

Robbie Leonard and Scott Shellenberger, candidates for Baltimore County State's Attorney.

For 15 years, Baltimore County has been satisfied with their self-proclaimed tough-on-crime prosecutor, State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

But a former public defender believes the county is ready to embrace the progressive approach toward crime and punishment seen elsewhere in the country, and has launched the first primary challenge against the Democratic incumbent since he was first elected in 2006.

Private attorney and longtime Democratic politico Robbie Leonard, 40, has mounted an aggressive campaign against Shellenberger for his handling of low-level crimes, sex offenses and allegations of police misconduct.

Shellenberger says that criticism is mischaracterized and misunderstood, and that residents don’t want a state’s attorney with a less aggressive outlook on criminal justice. He argues that Leonard has no prosecutorial experience and is too motivated by party politics.

Leonard, secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he was fed up watching Baltimore County Council members debate police reform legislation following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

Shellenberger initially opposed the council’s first bill — siding with the police union — before supporting a later bill reform advocates criticized as watered down.

“I’ve long been opposed to the incumbent ... for his views on criminal justice reform,” Leonard said.

“I just couldn’t take, anymore, that in 15 years [Shellenberger] hasn’t had one Democrat who wanted to run against him,” he said. “I decided to step up and do that.”

Shellenberger, 63, served under former Republican State’s Attorney Sandra A. O’Connor for 11 years, including as head of the office’s sexual assault and child abuse unit. He took a position with the law firm of Peter G. Angelos in 1993 representing sick and dying workers in lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers.

Shellenberger left private practice when elected to succeed O’Connor. His office, which has grown to more than 61 lawyers and 90 staffers, handles about 30,000 cases each year, including about 3,000 felony cases, he said.

Leonard spent five years representing arrestees in Baltimore City trial court as an assistant public defender after earning a law degree in 2007. Both he and Shellenberger graduated from University of Baltimore School of Law and live in Towson.

After Leonard transitioned to private practice in 2012, he won millions for victims of lead paint exposure and tried cases against employers accused of violating fair labor laws. He and his wife opened their Towson-based firm in 2020, and last year he helped represent unemployed Marylanders in a lawsuit against Gov. Larry Hogan over the governor’s decision to end federal pandemic unemployment benefits early.

Shellenberger and Leonard share a political party, but their platforms rarely converge. In Annapolis they represented the interests of often-opposed factions; Leonard served on the government relations team for the Office of the Public Defender in 2012 and Shellenberger represented Maryland’s prosecutors’ positions in Annapolis from 2015 to 2017.

The primary winner will face off against either Republican Deborah Hill, 60, a private practice attorney who lives in Cockeysville, or former federal labor department administrative judge James A. Haynes, 72, of Rodgers Forge.

Shellenberger, win or lose, is expected to stand trial in September for allegations he violated a woman’s First Amendment rights when his office tried to stop her from filing criminal charges against alleged rapists.

On the campaign trail, Leonard has pledged to reduce racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, hold police accountable and make data publicly available. Shellenberger touts his years of experience overseeing criminal cases and his aggressive prosecution of violent crime, especially firearms offenses. He hasn’t provided statistics on how often crimes are successfully tried.

Leonard said those policies aren’t working. In the last three years, Leonard points out, the county has broken its homicide record twice — 54 people were killed last year. Shellenberger says 45 arrests have been made in those cases.

Homicides are down more than 40% compared to this time last year, however, which was marked by multiple mass shootings.

And even though experts say crime rates alone aren’t a reliable indicator of a chief prosecutor’s success, the “general feeling at least that crime is on the rise” will be on voters’ minds as they consider electing their top prosecutor, said David Jaros, director of University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“I don’t think Baltimore County wants to go in a totally different direction. They’re comfortable; they live in a safe county that’s attractive to so many. It’s not a county that likes to go in radically different directions.

—  Don Mohler, former Baltimore County Executive

The public’s knee-jerk reaction could revert “to [supporting] the old policies of ‘law and order,’ like longer sentences, that frankly haven’t worked for decades,” Jaros said.

Leonard is among a large crop of reform-minded candidates nationwide running on pledges to divert some low-level offenses from the penal system entirely in order to reduce bloated prison populations, end the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans and free up resources to prosecute cases of violent crime.

Leonard, like many so-called progressive prosecutors, said he was motivated to seek office after seeing police misconduct go unchecked.

“We’ve had too many police officer-involved shootings, so many people shot who are unarmed, or maybe holding a knife, where federal court judges have said that a police officer should not have fired their gun,” Leonard said.

“Baltimore County citizens end up paying millions of dollars to the victims of this police brutality. And it’s my belief this office has no passion to do its job,” he said. If it did, he said, it would apply the law equally.

Shellenberger has prosecuted 18 police officers in the last decade, according to a list provided by his office, including a former police union president whose case Shellenberger forwarded to Harford County.

“Any suggestion that [Shellenberger] is soft on police misbehavior is just simply not accurate,” said former County Executive Don Mohler, who’s backing the incumbent. “He understands the balance of protecting communities while at the same time understanding that we have to do all that we can to hold the police accountable.”

Shellenberger, who’s been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, said forging a cooperative relationship with police is essential to a head prosecutor’s role.

But “I don’t care who you are,” he added: “If you commit a crime, I’m going to prosecute you.”

‘We don’t have the data’

Leonard has been critical, too, of Shellenberger’s reluctance to charge alleged perpetrators of sexual assault.

The chief prosecutor’s handling of such investigations was first scrutinized in 2016 when Buzzfeed News reported Baltimore County law enforcement dismissed a significant percentage of sexual assault cases.

“These are very, very difficult cases,” Shellenberger said. “They usually have complicated circumstances and often involve alcohol, which makes it even more difficult.”

After Maryland changed the law to clarify that physical resistance isn’t necessary to qualify sexual assault, auditors in 2019 found police and prosecutors still considered whether victims physically resisted. That’s despite Shellenberger’s support to update what he called “antiquated” rape statutes that prevented him from trying some cases.

Leonard said he’d “revamp and retrain that office [to] completely reshape our sexual assault [prosecutions].”

The state’s attorney couldn’t provide data on prosecution outcomes, Shellenberger said, because he lacks the resources in the office’s nearly $12 million budget to keep track of cases. Documenting such data is difficult, Shellenberger added, since a defendant may be found guilty of lesser offenses than they were charged. Prosecutors’ data retention and disclosure is shoddy across the country, attorneys say.

If elected, Leonard said he would make the county’s top lawyers more open with the public and use data to change office practices, especially related to sex crime.

Survivor advocates say they need statistics to verify what they suspect: that sexual assault allegations continue to be “casually investigated” in the county, said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of TurnAround Inc., a Baltimore-based nonprofit for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.

“If we don’t have the data to [see] what the system is doing wrong, how do you actually effectuate change?” said Rodriguez, who was a former assistant state’s attorney under Shellenberger from 2007 to 2014.

Shellenberger also faces a September trial over allegations he violated a woman’s constitutional rights when his office ordered police detectives to prevent her from filing charges against men she was accusing of rape.

In 2018, Shellenberger declined to charge three male students from University of Maryland, Baltimore County because the sexual assault allegations against them didn’t meet the “element of force or incapacitation as prescribed by statute,” according to the office.

When the woman tried to apply for criminal charges through a district court commissioner, Shellenberger and his Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever ordered police detectives to go to her home and tell her to stop pursuing charges.

A federal judge in December ruled there was sufficient evidence that Shellenberger’s office quashed the woman’s First Amendment rights for the case to move forward. Even if a jury finds Shellenberger guilty, experts said they were doubtful Maryland’s attorney oversight panel would remove him from office because it rarely happens.

Shellenberger said he doesn’t regret the decision.

“Honestly, it was out of — I know this sounds corny, but it was out of the goodness of my heart, that I wanted to give her a heads up, that something could happen to her from [the alleged rapists] if she kept charging them,” Shellenberger said.

Prosecuting crime

The two candidates also disagree on what should — and should not — be prosecuted.

Leonard wants to divert some low-level offenses from the penal system entirely to reduce prison populations and free resources to tackle violent crime.

He wants to confer with the county’s opioid strategy coordinator to consider safe injection sites — facilities where illicit substances can be used under medical supervision and which offer rehabilitative resources (and which studies have tied to lower overdose mortality, decreased HIV infections and far fewer ambulance calls for overdoses).

“I want to help communities to be safe so that people aren’t throwing needles on the ground in alleys, playgrounds, store fronts,” Leonard said.

But Shellenberger says prosecuting some nonviolent misdemeanors can lead to rehabilitation for an offender who’s ordered to undergo treatment by the courts. Shellenberger began a marijuana diversion program a decade ago and said he doesn’t incarcerate people for simple possession.

“The best way for somebody to get drug treatment is for a judge to say, ‘all right, you’re on probation,’” Shellenberger said. “Not to just let them keep running the streets.”

Pursuing other misdemeanor cases, like prostitution, can lead to arrests against felony offenders like sex traffickers, Shellenberger added; the county has investigated between one and five sex trafficking cases annually since 2018.

Leonard said he’d establish a conviction integrity unit to investigate wrongful conviction claims and a police integrity unit to oversee law enforcement misconduct, which he thinks has long gone unchecked.

‘Political animus’

Shellenberger has criticized Leonard for his lack of experience prosecuting cases and his heavy involvement in politics, which the chief prosecutor says goes beyond the bounds of the office.

Leonard’s campaign website says he “has deep roots” in the Maryland Democratic Party. He’s also a member of the Democratic National Committee, once chaired the Baltimore County Democratic Party and was elected to vote in the Electoral College.

Leonard has never prosecuted a case, but former public defenders have swept in local U.S. elections for top prosecutor positions, and Leonard contends that defending those charged with crimes and civil cases he’s brought forward lend him experience to take the reins.

In 2019, Leonard riled gun rights advocates when he reposted photos of Second Amendment rights demonstrators who rallied in Annapolis, writing on Facebook it was “time to dox some homegrown terrorists.”

The Maryland Democratic Party’s executive director publicly condemned Leonard’s response to the demonstration.

“The State’s Attorney needs to be more of an apolitical position; you need to be above the fray,” Shellenberger said.

Leonard says social issues are tied to criminal justice.

Not “everything begins and ends inside of the courtroom,” Leonard said. “If we can create better lives for people, that’s going to create public safety.”

The question remains whether roughly 309,000 registered Democrat county voters will bank again on Shellenberger or join the support for progressive prosecutors that began in earnest around 2016, said Rory Fleming, an attorney and former legal fellow at Harvard Law School’s Punishment Project, a research and education hub promoting fairness and accountability within the criminal legal system.

The progressive viewpoint on criminal justice was unheard of or politically unpopular “until big money started hitting these races,” Fleming said, with wealthy liberal-minded donors often moving money through political action committees and liberal organizations to influence local elections.

Many district attorneys were “elected because a few famous people, billionaires have deep pockets,” Fleming said.

But in Baltimore County, Mohler said he doesn’t believe residents want “to go in a totally different direction.”

“They’re comfortable; they live in a safe county that’s attractive to so many,” he said.

Leonard has racked up endorsements by Progressive Maryland, The Working Families Party, CASA in Action, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and several labor unions.

Shellenberger is backed by the police union and two former police chiefs, Council Chair Julian Jones, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, and Smith, the former county executive.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski told The Banner he doesn’t plan to endorse in the primary.

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