For the first time in decades, the job of Anne Arundel County's top prosecutor is up for grabs, as two hard-charging lawyers vie to become the elected replacement for longtime State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.
Democrat Anne Colt Leitess was appointed as state's attorney last summer when Weathersbee retired after 25 years in office. Leitess is being challenged by Republican Wes Adams, a homicide prosecutor who works in Prince George's County.
Both are career prosecutors and self-described "trial dogs" who relish a courtroom fight. And both are applying their prosecutorial drive to their campaigns.
"It's not just about trying cases. It's about integrity and leadership," Leitess said.
Adams got into this year's race after being passed over for the job last year when Leitess was appointed.
"I have a very broad range of experience prosecuting in two very difficult jurisdictions," he said. "I thought I could help."
As the Nov. 4 general election approaches, the two have sharpened their attacks. Facing off at a forum recently, they even disagreed over who should go first when making closing remarks.
Both have lengthy records as prosecutors — Leitess in Anne Arundel County and Adams in Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
Leitess personally prosecuted murder cases this year as she juggled trials and running the 110-employee state's attorney's office.
"I love this job. I love this work. I love representing the people in court," Leitess said.
In February, a jury convicted Michael Stahlnecker of Crofton in the fatal shooting of John Patrick Ryan of Frederick over a drug dispute. Stahlnecker was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. He is appealing his conviction. And in May, a jury convicted Victor Harper of Glen Burnie of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of his girlfriend's ex-husband, Ray Collignon, during a fight. Harper was sentenced to 30 years.
Adams, too, has tallied many murder convictions and is head of the homicide division for the Prince George's County state's attorney's office. Most recently, he won a murder conviction against Travon Bennett, who fatally shot a high school student during a botched robbery in Capitol Heights in 2012. In another case he prosecuted in the spring, Darrell Lynn Bellard was found guilty in Prince George's of the execution-style killing of two women and two children, apparently related to a drug dispute.
When Adams was an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore, he helped push for a law to increase penalties for witness intimidation, a major obstacle to prosecuting crimes in the city.
"Being a prosecutor is about doing justice every day," Adams said.
Adams and Leitess have pointed out one another's missteps in the past year.
In Anne Arundel, Matthew Pinkerton — a Glen Burnie man who admitted shooting his wife's ex-lover, Kendall Green, last year — was acquitted by a county judge in the middle of his murder trial in June. And a county jury returned a not-guilty verdict in July for Joseph Lamont Walker, an off-duty New Jersey detective who fatally shot fellow motorist Joseph Dale Harvey Jr. during a road-rage dispute last year.
Leitess acknowledged she's come under criticism in these and other cases, sometimes from both sides in the same case, she said. But she said her office can't operate based on the wishes of the public; rather, she pursues all credible cases.
"People aren't always going to be happy, but I have to sleep at night," she said. "You present the facts and the law to a judge and a jury, and they decide."
Leitess' office also came under scrutiny during a murder case this year when the defense attorney alleged that prosecutors didn't turn over all relevant police reports in a timely fashion. A judge ordered the state's attorney's office to pay $1,620 to cover the cost of bringing in jurors for the day.
Leitess said the problem originated with the Montgomery County police, not her office, and has appealed the judge's order.
Adams, likewise, has a recent murder case that's drawn scrutiny. In 2008, police and prosecutors in Prince George's said, a teenager named Tommy Whack lured a man to what the man thought was a sexual encounter in a car behind a school, then robbed and killed him.
Whack was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but succeeded in having his conviction overturned. When the case returned to Adams this year, he negotiated a plea deal that gave Whack 11 years in prison.
Leitess argues Whack might be able to get out soon because he's already served more than half of the 11-year sentence, and said Adams "owes it to society to try the case again."
Adams said he made a difficult choice to go with the plea deal instead of risking another trial, a decision he said was approved by the victim's family.
"I'd rather take the guarantee that he was held accountable," Adams said.
When it comes to running the office — with more than 40 lawyers and a $10 million budget — Leitess and Adams each say they will work with police to build good cases, emphasize fairness, improve training for prosecutors and upgrade technology in the office.
One area of disagreement is how to handle repeat offenders who violate terms of probation. Adams says he'd assign a special prosecutor to those cases; Leitess said it works best if each prosecutor follows the offenders if they return to the court system.
Adams said he's a leader and points to his work mentoring young prosecutors and coaching youth sports. He was a college football and baseball player, and spent one summer playing minor league baseball.
Leitess said she knows the Anne Arundel office inside and out and is the best choice to continue leading the county's prosecutors.
In the legal world, both have earned support from different groups.
Leitess has received endorsements from 18 past presidents of the county's bar association and the state's attorneys from other counties.
Adams, meanwhile, secured the endorsement of the largest police union in the county. Members of FOP Lodge 70, which represents rank-and-file county police officers, don't usually make endorsements for state's attorney, said President O'Brien Atkinson. But at a September meeting, members voted to endorse Adams.
In the last round of campaign finance reports in August, Leitess reported having nearly $85,000 available, while Adams had more than $27,000.
Anne Colt Leitess, Democrat
Job: Anne Arundel County state's attorney
Family: Married, three children
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, West Chester University; law degree, University of Baltimore School of Law
Notable: Advises the mock trial team at Old Mill High School
Wes Adams, Republican
Job: Chief of homicide division, Prince George's County state's attorney's office
Family: Married, three children
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and English, Amherst College; law degree, Catholic University of America
Notable: Played one season of minor league professional baseball