Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger hasn’t faced competition from another Democrat since being elected in 2006. Now that he’s seeking a fifth term, his primary challenger wants to put his record from all those years under the microscope.
Robbie Leonard has criticized Shellenberger on a range of topics as he tries to unseat the county’s top prosecutor, from the local homicide rate to the incumbent’s handling of sexual assault and police shooting cases. Whether county Democrats want a new approach is a central question in the July 19 primary.
“People know we need a change,” Leonard said. “Can you say that we’ve had success when in two out of the past three years, we’ve had a murder record in Baltimore County?”
An attorney in private practice and former public defender in Baltimore, 40-year-old Leonard is secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party and previously represented children in lead-poisoning lawsuits.
Shellenberger, 63, is emphasizing his prosecutorial experience and tough-on-crime stance. He began his career as a clerk in the state’s attorney’s office — eventually becoming chief of the child abuse and sexual assault division — before joining the Peter Angelos law firm, where he represented people exposed to asbestos.
“This is not a place to learn on the job,” Shellenberger said of leading the state’s attorney’s office of more than 60 lawyers. “This is a huge responsibility.”
The winner of the Democratic primary will face either Deborah Hill, 60, an attorney in private practice and Cockeysville resident, or James A. Haynes, 72, a former administrative judge for the federal labor department who lives in Rodgers Forge. They are vying for the Republican nomination in the suburban county of more than 800,000 residents.
Differing views of the justice system
In the Democratic contest, Leonard speaks of separate justice systems for white and Black people, the privileged and disadvantaged. He wants to create a conviction integrity unit to investigate defendants’ claims that they were wrongfully convicted and conduct a racial equity audit examining prosecutorial practices.
He points to the county’s record-breaking 55 homicides last year as a sign Shellenberger’s approach is not working, although homicides are down significantly this year compared with 2021. Police department statistics show 13 killings by June 15, compared with 31 at the same point last year.
Leonard wants to divert low-level offenses out of the criminal justice system to preserve resources for violent crimes. He also supports legalizing marijuana, which he says would reduce violence associated with the drug trade. He vowed to not prosecute cases of marijuana possession for personal use if elected.
He says Shellenberger has not held police accountable, pointing to cases in which the state’s attorney did not charge county officers in shootings that led to large civil settlements.
Leonard said he decided to run for the job when, after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Shellenberger and the president of the local police union testified against police reform legislation before the County Council. The state’s attorney later supported a version of the legislation that activists called weak.
The challenger also points to Shellenberger’s opposition to reform legislation at the state level, such as a bill to ban sentences of life without parole for juveniles. And he cites state data showing the county charges more children, most of them Black, as adults than any other jurisdiction.
Leonard has never been a prosecutor, but says he is qualified for the job through his trial experience working criminal cases as a defense attorney and on civil cases.
Shellenberger leads in campaign fundraising, raising more than twice as much as Leonard in the latest reporting period.
He pushes back against the suggestion that he opposes reform, pointing to his support of state laws such as the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, which aimed to decrease the number of people in prison, and a marijuana diversion program his office created a decade ago.
He said his office aggressively prosecutes crimes of violence, especially those involving guns.
Shellenberger believes involvement in the criminal justice system at times gets people help. In low-level drug cases, he said, many people must get treatment as a condition of their probation, “and that drug treatment just may save their lives.”
He said race is not a factor in the way cases are handled.
“When you’re the victim of a crime, we don’t ask you what your race is when we prosecute the person who has victimized you,” he said. “We go after the defendant who did it. We don’t look at what their race is.”
Both men live in Towson and attended the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Focus on sexual assaults
Another area Leonard has emphasized is the office’s handling of sexual assault cases.
Shellenberger is a defendant in a federal lawsuit alleging unfair treatment of female victims of sexual assault. A judge dismissed most of the lawsuit, but let one claim go forward: an allegation that Shellenberger and others in his office violated a woman’s constitutional rights.
The remaining case centers on events that followed a Towson University student’s report she was raped by three men in 2017. After county prosecutors declined to charge the men, the woman tried to file charges on her own through a court commissioner. Shellenberger and others in his office, according to the lawsuit, told police to go to her home to tell her to stop seeking charges.
The judge handling the lawsuit wrote that the case should be heard because a reasonable jury could find that Shellenberger and other defendants had a “retaliatory motive.“ A civil trial is scheduled for September.
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Shellenberger said he acted out of concern that the men would sue the woman or file criminal charges against her.
The incumbent’s treatment of sexual assault victims is among the concerns for members of the health care worker union 1199SEIU, the majority of who are women of color, said Ricarra Jones, the organization’s political director. Shellenberger’s opposition to reform measures and his office’s handling of police shootings and juvenile justice are also reasons the union has endorsed Leonard.
“We want to make sure that [our members] go home to the safest communities possible,” Jones said.
Peta Richkus, a Towson resident and Leonard supporter, said she’s had concern for years about Shellenberger due to positions he has taken on criminal justice legislation in Annapolis, where he’s been an influential voice. Shellenberger was a strong advocate of the death penalty, which Maryland repealed in 2013.
“I could never understand how someone as a Democrat could take the positions that he did,” said Richkus, a former state secretary of general services. “It’s time for a change.”
Shellenberger supporters say the county doesn’t need to change course.
“There’s no reason to replace Scott,” said Warren Brown, a well-known Baltimore defense attorney and county resident. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
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Brown called the office among the best run in Maryland. As a defense attorney, “it’s so much better dealing with a prosecutor that knows what they’re doing,” he said. “People are career prosecutors there.”
Former Democratic County Executive Don Mohler, a Shellenberger supporter, said stability in the office “is very important for public safety,” noting that the state’s attorney’s predecessor, Sandra O’Connor, was in office three decades.
“His experience is important,” Mohler said.
A welcome debate over the issues
Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said name recognition is particularly important in down-ballot races. A longtime official like Shellenberger has a strong advantage in this area.
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At the same time, Leonard is highlighting issues that “appeal to a wide variety of Democrats,” he said.
“In a primary, you’re going to see more progressives,” he said. “Baltimore County is a more diverse county than it used to be, too.”
With funding and political organization, Leonard has the opportunity to get his name out there, Hartley said. Also, his previous runs for office, although unsuccessful — for the House of Delegates in 2014 and the state Senate in 2018 — increased his name recognition.
The most recent finance reports show Shellenberger entered the final campaign stretch with more than $93,000 on hand, compared with Leonard’s $59,630.
Shellenberger has the endorsement of the county police and firefighter unions, as well as the state Fraternal Order of Police. Leonard has the backing of groups that include Progressive Maryland and the county teachers’ union.
A primary competitor who challenges a well-established officeholder has the power to set the conversation within the Democratic Party and shift an incumbent’s agenda, Hartley said.
“Even if [Leonard] loses,” Hartley said, “running on these issues is critically important to the party.”