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After 36 years, Cassilly ready to pass Harford County state's attorney torch

Contact Reporterebutler@theaegis.com

Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly needs to stop remembering.

He needs to forget the face of 8-year-old Marciana Ringo, whose body was found in Joppatowne in 2003, her throat slit.

He needs to be able to drive down Route 7 near Aberdeen and not see in his mind the spot where Deana Polis was murdered.

“That kills me. I can’t drive down Route 7, right where the Auto Auction is, where they murdered Deana Polis,” Cassilly said. “Forty years driving down Route 7, I never fail to remember where she was killed. They ended her life right there on the shoulder, pulled off on a spot on Route 7.”

Every day he goes into work, those are the things he remembers.

“Talk about triggers. This office is a trigger and I have to get out of this office,” the 68-year-old said.

At home, he can’t sleep at night — he thinks of all the things going on at the office. He’s done with working crazy hours.

After Friday, he can begin to put all that behind him.

On Monday, a new state’s attorney — Albert Peisinger — will be sworn in, the first new state’s attorney in Harford County in 36 years.

Peisinger won the general election handily, after a heated four-way primary election in which he captured by about 1,200 votes over a deputy state’s attorney endorsed by Cassilly.

Cassilly was first elected state’s attorney in 1982, after serving as assistant state’s attorney for five years. He was re-elected eight times.

He had said after he was re-elected a seventh time that he wouldn’t run again, but he did and won. In the middle of that term, he announced his retirement at the end of 2016, only to rescind his resignation in mid-December.

This time, it’s really over.

“It was a great run, a lot of fun, but when I come in here, I keep remembering those things. I have to stop remembering,” Cassilly said. “I just feel like I need to let somebody else come in with fire and passion. I’m not saying I don’t have that, but it’s a real effort to do that now. It didn’t used to be that way.”

It’s time for him to move on, to do something else, “find all the other things I want to do,” he said.

One of those things is to spend time with some of the men he served with in Vietnam.

“Really my priority is to take off and find these guys while they’re still there,” Cassilly said.

Nine terms

The transition so far to a new state’s attorney has been “fantastic,” Peisinger said.

“He’s made it such a great, smooth transition. He’s been a tremendous resource, a great source of information,” said Peisinger, who will be sworn in Friday at 4:15 p.m. in the ceremonial courtroom of the Harford County Courthouse. “His example should be followed, not the exception to the rule.

“I look at Mr. Cassilly as a staple in the community with consistent prosecution. It’s immeasurable how many families and lives he’s touched in so many different ways.”

To be elected nine times is an indication that Cassilly was a trusted, reliable prosecutor and that the county never really needed to make a change, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said.

It wasn’t until Cassilly decided not to run again that other candidates stepped forward.

“My gut says he could have been state’s attorney as long as his mind and body held up,” Glassman said. “I don’t think anyone out there could have beat him.”

Their relationship goes back 30 years, to the days when Glassman was on the Harford County Council. It continued when he was in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate.

“He’s always been a steady criminal prosecutor,” Glassman said. “He was a fairly conservative, law and order type of prosecutor.”

That Cassilly overcame his physical impairments — he’s been in a wheelchair for 48 years — to do the job was remarkable, Glassman said, in addition to his service to the country.

“It was not always easy getting to work and getting the job done. He overcome a lot of physical pain to serve,” he said.

Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane worked with Cassilly for years when Bane was with the sheriff’s office.

In their early days, they had cases together in court. When the Narc Task Force was created, with Bane as the project manager, he worked closely with Cassilly.

When the Child Support Enforcement Unit was created, Cassilly gave Bane direct access to “pretty much anything I needed to get the unit running.”

When Bane became sheriff, their professional relationship developed into a friendship.

“Our working relationship was a great one, I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” Bane said.

Injured in Vietnam at 19

Cassilly, one of 12 children, was born and raised in Harford County, on Broadway in Bel Air, where one of his brothers, Maryland Sen. Robert Cassilly, lives with his family. Another brother, Andrew Cassilly, is a Maryland delegate.

Joseph Cassilly lives in Benson with his wife of almost 23 years, Diana. While they have no children together, he has three and she has two from previous marriages, he said.

Cassilly joined the Army on Dec. 16, 1968. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1970 and was injured three months later at age 19. He suffered a spinal cord injury while doing a rope ladder extraction in a helicopter landing zone, he said. He’s been in a wheelchair since.

He was discharged from the Army on Feb. 2, 1971, and moved back home to get on with his life, he said. His time in combat wasn’t long, but his time in the military was significant to him, Cassilly said.

“Just what we went through,” he said.

For a long time after returning from Vietnam, Cassilly didn’t go to any of his reunions — he blocked out that time in his life.

“I was going through a lot … at the time. I was afraid any contact from anything back then was just going to screw me up,” Cassilly said.

But as time has gone by, Cassilly has had a lot of therapy, and he’s better now, he said.

“Now I can reach out to those guys. I don’t have to hold the box closed. I get emotional, I tear up, get hoarse, but they pass over,” he said. “To find these guys, meeting them, it just does something for me. It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. I need to feel like I didn’t let this opportunity slip by.”

Cassilly attended his first reunion in 1991 and went back in 1992 for the 50th reunion of the modern ranger. It got him to thinking about how to find other people he had served with.

He tracked down many of them and they gathered at the next big reunion in 1994.

At 68, Cassilly is younger than many of the men he served with, and he wants to make sure he connects with them before it’s too late. There are a dozen or so scattered across the country.

“I’d like to catch up while I’m still up and around and they are, too,” Cassilly said.

Summer work

Cassilly never set out to be a prosecutor.

When he was in the Army, he had planned on being a police officer, but his military injury put an end to that.

At the end of his first year of law school, University of Baltimore began a new program through which students who worked in a government office or nonprofit for a certain number of hours could get credit.

“I thought that would be a good chance to get the practical side of it,” Cassilly said.

He knew the state’s attorney at the time, Edwin Harlan, and began the internship with him. He spent the summer reviewing police reports in juvenile cases, researching criminal applications.

During his second year of law school, UB had another new program, this one in which a law student could, if working in a government office or nonprofit, appear in court if supervised by an attorney.

On his first day as a law student trying a case, under the supervision of Gwynne Holden, Cassilly tried a drunk driving case — and he won.

“I turned to him and I said, ‘I won.’ Holden says, ‘Yeah, you’re batting 1,000. Quit now because it’s only going to go downhill from here,’ ” Cassilly recalled.

That summer, Cassilly spent 200 hours in court — he’d try cases during the day and go to class at night.

After graduation, in June 1977, he was sworn in at the Court of Appeals. But rather than go to work, Cassilly took a break.

He got back involved with the theater program at Harford Community College and played a role — in his wheelchair — in Edwin Booth Theater’s production of the “Oliver!” musical.

His only defense work

That summer he took off was the only time Cassilly did any criminal defense work.

A friend of Cassilly’s father was printing his own bank notes, backed by gold he had bought, Cassilly said, adding that the notes were beautiful.

The Secret Service, however, was concerned about the activity and wanted to meet with him. Cassilly’s father suggested he take a lawyer with him and suggested his son.

Not about to be bullied by the Secret Service, Cassilly went and asked the Secret Service what law was being broken. Cassilly didn’t see that there was one.

“The Secret Service couldn’t either, so we were done,” Cassilly said.

And just like that he’d won his first and only criminal defense case.

Cassilly was still rehearsing for “Oliver!” and was teaching a business law class at Harford Community College while waiting for a position to open at the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office, where he had interned twice.

The phone call came on a Sunday afternoon and the next day he and another lawyer were meeting with Harlan, the state’s attorney, who had two spots open — one for trial work and one to work with police investigations.

Cassilly got the trial position, was sworn in as an assistant state’s attorney and started trying cases in October 1977.

The following June, Harlan was appointed judge, and Peter Cobb was appointed to the state’s attorney vacancy. Within a few months, four assistant state’s attorneys had resigned and, in December, another left after being injured in a car accident.

“All of a sudden, a guy who’s been there a year and two months is the senior guy in the office,” Cassilly said.

That December, he picked up and later successfully prosecuted one of the first wiretap cases under new Maryland statutes.

“I didn’t know anything, but nobody else did either,” he said, and in winning, became the “state expert” on wiretaps.

In the next five years, he tried five murder cases.

The Bernard and Annette Stebbing case was one of his first big ones. They were charged with killing Polis and dumping her body in Baltimore City.

Annette Stebbing was the second woman anyone sought the death penalty for in Maryland after the statute was reinstated in 1977. She was the first woman convicted of first-degree rape — she held down Polis while Bernard Stebbing raped her; she killed Polis at the same time.

Bernard Stebbing was not eligible for the death penalty because he hadn’t caused the death.

“Annette was the one who actually caused the death, but he was the evil course behind it,” Cassilly said.

Running for state’s attorney

In spring 1982, politics in Harford were heating up.

Democrat Cobb was having a lot of political problems, Cassilly said, and wasn’t likely to be elected.

Running in the Republican primary was Stuart Allison, an assistant state’s attorney Cobb had fired, Cassilly said.

Cassilly was being encouraged by police and fire personnel to run for state’s attorney, but he didn’t want to get into politics.

Ultimately, he decided to run but before he filed, he went to his boss, Cobb, to let him know.

Cobb, however, threatened to fire Cassilly if he filed, and when Cassilly registered for the election on the last day, Cobb followed through.

That prompted The Aegis’ well-known political cartoon of Cobb pushing Cassilly, in his wheelchair, down the steps of the courthouse.

“That was enormous,” Cassilly said.

Being fired allowed Cassilly to campaign 60 to 80 hours a week and, after winning the primary with 60 percent of the vote over Allison, he beat his former boss in the general election to win his first term as state’s attorney.

When he got into the office, he worked on pulling it together, he said.

“I kept everybody who had been in the office. I wanted people who wanted to be prosecutors,” Cassilly said. “I wanted people who wanted to do the job like I had wanted to do the job.”

During his tenure

Cassilly has earned a nationwide reputation during his 36 years as state’s attorney. After the wiretap case, he became the wiretap expert.

Now, he says, he’s the expert not because he knows so much, but because he’s been around so long he’s had more opportunities to mess things up. He knows what not to do.

He’s also been involved in the National District Attorney’s Association, including a term as president.

Cassilly lobbies in Annapolis on legislation on behalf of prosecutors and writes standards for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

He had a lot of firsts in the office, as well, including the first sobriety checkpoint in Maryland and the first Family Justice Center in Maryland.

But times have changed, too, and Cassilly gets frustrated with some of the cases that drag on for years and years.

There is so much skepticism in the world, he said.

“I don’t think people know how to trust people anymore. They can’t take anyone at their word,” he said. “If there’s no videotape, it didn’t happen.”

Leaving the office

The only thing Cassilly says he will miss about the office is the people.

“But that’s a lot,” he said. “The folks that work here are just so involved and just here to do the right thing — to take care of victims. It’s tough saying goodbye to them and leaving them.”

In the weeks and months leading to his retirement, Cassilly has been trying to pass along to his colleagues “the stuff in my head” that he’s collected over 41 years.

The job has been difficult, but Cassilly also said it’s been rewarding.

“It’s just a great job. Every once in a while you get a family that comes in, they are so appreciative, and you didn’t even think about it,” he said.

Cassilly remembers trying Bernard Stebbing, who was also charged in the Polis murder. After Annette Stebbing was convicted in Harford, he was prosecuting Bernard Stebbing in Salisbury and was threatened by the judge with contempt of court.

Polis was from a big Greek family and her father, seeing Cassilly’s frustration, tried to put him at ease.

“I felt this huge hand on my shoulder and Mr. Polis leans down and says, ‘You’re working too hard, I’m worried about you. You don’t worry. If he gets off, we’ll take care of him.’ Then he walks out of the courtroom,” Cassilly said. “I was never aware the family was aware of the [stuff] I was going through.”

A few years after Marciana Ringo’s case was over, Cassilly was at a death-penalty debate.

“At the end, a man come up to me, Marciana’s grandfather, and he said, ‘I heard you were going to be down here, and I wanted to come down and see you, say hi,’ ” Cassilly said.

“You don’t realize what you mean to these people. You’re so focused on this is my job, what I have to do, what they pay me for and you do it,” he said. “You don’t think to turn around and look behind you in the gallery of the courtroom to see what’s behind you and what they’re taking home from it until later, when they come up to you or you suddenly get this letter.”

That helped get him through some of the horrific images he’s had to deal with.

“It makes you realize the family is going through the same stuff,” he said. “The one positive thing they got out of all this is how you reacted, the things you did, the times you stopped and explained things to them. And that you spent some time with them.”

Forty-one years, to be precise.

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Gwynne Holden's name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story,
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