Most of the time, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger does not even draw a general election challenger. But this year, his 16th in office, he has faced the most sustained criticism of his career.
In the Democratic primary, Shellenberger narrowly defeated Robbie Leonard — a former public defender who advocated for a more progressive approach toward criminal justice and criticized how the office had handled low-level offenses, sex crimes and allegations of police misconduct — by a margin of 2.4%, or 2,115 votes, according to election results from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Now, for the first time in 12 years, Shellenberger faces a Republican opponent, Jim Haynes, an attorney and former Maryland assistant attorney general, on Election Day.
As state’s attorney, Shellenberger said, he constantly makes changes. He noted that he hires new assistant state’s attorneys and frequently speaks with his elected counterparts through his involvement with the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.
He said the close primary made him realize that he needs to more frequently publicize some of the reforms that he’s implemented — including putting in place a marijuana diversion program and supporting the adoption of police body cameras.
“I think we have kept things fresh, even though I’ve been here a long time,” Shellenberger said.
Shellenberger, 63, of Towson, said his experience makes him the most qualified candidate. State’s attorney, he said, is not a position to learn on the job.
But Haynes said the incumbent is not doing enough to address violent crime.
“If you say you’re going to ring the bell, ring the bell,” said Haynes, who’s also a retired federal appellate administrative law judge. “If you say you’re going to fight crime, fight crime.”
In response, Shellenberger noted that killings are down, with 22 in 2022 compared to 42 at this time in 2021. He said he believes that a comment that he made at a forum about the homicide rate being relatively stable has been misconstrued.
“I don’t find that acceptable, but that is the reality,” Shellenberger said. “The way that we can prevent it from happening again is to get good sentences, in the area of violent crime. I think that we do that every day.”
For decades, the crime rate has been decreasing in the United States. Some areas, though, recently saw an uptick in homicides at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his tenure, Shellenberger has faced criticism for how his office has handled sex crimes and declined to charge some police officers who have used deadly force.
The Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved the state’s portion of a $100,000 settlement in a lawsuit in which a woman alleged that police and prosecutors violated her constitutional rights after she reported that three baseball players from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sexually assaulted her.
The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office requested that law enforcement ask her not to seek charges against the men after prosecutors declined to proceed with a case.
Shellenberger said he intended to help the woman and did not want the men to sue her for claims such as false arrest. He said his office now requires more documentation about its decisions to approve or decline charges in similar cases.
On the other hand, Shellenberger pointed to his decision to prosecute Baltimore County Police Officer James Laboard on a charge of manslaughter in the death of Christopher Brown, 17, of Randallstown, though a jury came back with a not guilty verdict in 2013.
Shellenberger said he has tried to run his office in a nonpolitical way. People in the community, he said, want to be safe from violent crime.
He said he loves his job and believes that the office contributes a lot toward keeping people safe.
“I really think this is all about experience, and knowing how this office works,” Shellenberger said. “This is not a place to learn on the job.”
“This is a place where I was well prepared when I first came into office and am even more prepared to continue to lead the office now,” he added.
David Folderauer, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, which has endorsed Shellenberger, said its members have worked with him for years and are impressed with how he runs his office.
“From our perspective, we see the state’s attorney as a law-and-order candidate,” Folderauer said “And obviously, that is the oath that we have taken. We’re the law and order portion of the criminal justice system.”
“We have seen their office be fair in how they prosecute cases and defer cases, if necessary, through community service versus a criminal prosecution,” he added. “We just work cooperatively toward that goal.”
Haynes, 72, of Towson, said he has practiced in circuit courts throughout the state as well as briefed and argued cases before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the Maryland Court of Appeals. He said he feels that he has a greater diversity of experience than his opponent.
He said crime — and the fear of crime — does not seem to be getting better.
“We’re going to lose if we play defense,” Haynes said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Well, it’s a stalemate. The criminals haven’t scored any more points,’” he later added.
Crime, he said, is regional. In other cases, such as the drug trade, it’s international. Haynes described Baltimore County as sort of a regional firewall that can improve the safety of people in the city and surrounding counties if it arrests and convicts criminals.
In elected, Haynes said, he’d make every possible effort to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal law enforcement on prosecutions involving gangs, drugs and illegal guns.
Haynes said he would neither solicit campaign donations from staff nor ask them to work the polls. He described that practice as unprofessional, stating that it’s wrong to mix public service with considerations of political loyalty.
He said he’d hire ethics counsel to both keep people out of trouble and help assistant state’s attorneys do their best work. Haynes brought up the allegations in the lawsuit that led to the recent settlement.
“There’s a point at which you get out of the process. When you get into the process, the taxpayers in Maryland and Baltimore County end up paying for your mistakes,” said Haynes, referring to the state’s attorney’s office’s involvement in the case. “Not just paying your salary — paying for your mistakes.”
The state’s attorney’s office is understaffed, he believes. Haynes said he wants to add six to 10 more assistant state’s attorneys and would serve as an advocate for the criminal justice system if it needed additional judges or police officers.
With a larger staff, Haynes said, the office would be able to better cooperate with police in building cases and cut down on postponements. Witnesses and victims of crime do not get paid to come to court, Haynes said.
As state’s attorney, Haynes said, he’d scrutinize plea agreements and make sure that assistant state’s attorneys were not offering them because they were unprepared for trial or lacked resources. He also wants to examine the juvenile justice system.
He said he’d like to post information about the office and its results as a measure of transparency on the website.
Elected officials such as Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., he noted, have endorsed his opponent.
“I believe that my sense of independence will be much greater,” said Haynes, who added that he would run the office in a nonpartisan manner. “I want to raise the level of professionalism in the office.”
Doug Riley, who served on the Baltimore County Council from 1990-1998, said he’s known Haynes for almost 40 years and believes that he has a good perspective about the criminal justice system and how it can be used to help people.
Riley said he helped the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee recruit Haynes to run and agreed to serve as the chairperson of his campaign.
“He is what you’ve seen: He’s a man of great character. He’s very intelligent. He is hardworking and dedicated to his family and to his jobs and to the law,” Riley said. “And I think he has the experience and the background to be a good state’s attorney.”
He said he supports term limits and believes that a change in leadership in these offices is necessary to bring in new ideas and perspectives. Riley said he’s seen firsthand how elected officials can “become stale.”
In Baltimore County, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Shellenberger reported having over $13,000 on hand, while Haynes detailed having more than $1,500 available, according to campaign finance disclosure reports that covered July 4-Aug. 23.
The state’s attorney is elected to a four-year term and earns a salary of $216,749.
Early voting ends Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 8.
Meet the candidates for Baltimore County state’s attorney
Political party: Democratic
Occupation: Baltimore County state’s attorney, 2007-present.
Past experience: Law clerk from 1982-1985 in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, assistant state’s attorney from 1985-1993. Attorney at the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos from 1993-2006.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Loyola College in 1981. Juris doctor from University of Baltimore of School of Law in 1984.
Campaign website: www.scottshellenberger.com
Political party: Republican
Past experience: Felony panel attorney with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, 1984-1987. Assistant attorney general and then trial attorney who handled insurance defense work for the same agency under different names, the State Accident Fund, Injured Workers Insurance Fund, and currently Chesapeake Employers’ Insurance, from 1987-2006. Alternate judge on Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board in the U.S. Department of Labor from 2006-2016. Appellate administrative judge on the Administrative Review Board in the U.S. Department of Labor, 2019-2021.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland in 1973. Juris doctor from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1981.
Campaign website: www.haynesforbaltimorecounty.com