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Howard prosecutor tries for prevention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The trial involved the heroin overdose of a young drug addict - hardly the kind of protagonist to arouse widespread public sympathy, or even notice.

So what was State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon doing, banging her fist on the courtroom's wooden railing? Trying a 22-year-old Columbia man for second-degree murder, an ambitious charge for an overdose case, and one McLendon was unable to prove.

The trial of Scott Sheldon, who was acquitted Sept. 1, was the second case McLendon has litigated since taking office in 1994. While the case might have been too risky a proposition for some state's attorneys, for McLendon it was a natural: She has declared war on juvenile crime and factors that contribute to it, especially drugs and alcohol.

This mission has led McLendon more than once to bypass glamour for the sake of her message. McLendon spent an evening last week amid boisterous sophomores during Wilde Lake High School's back-to-school night, where, to be heard over the dozen girls in pink tutus hawking Krispy Kreme doughnuts, she had to use her forceful courtroom voice as she handed out bright orange fliers about the dangers of drugs.

In her successful 1993 campaign, McLendon sounded a typical Republican theme: I am a criminal's worst nightmare. Since then, however, McLendon's has become known less for iron-fisted prosecution than for the kinds of preventive programs usually associated with Democrats.

Although she has been criticized for a declining conviction rate and a lack of solid statistics that show the effectiveness of her juvenile crime policy, even some of her former opponents concede that McLendon's motives appear pure.

"I think her intentions are very honorable," said Jason Shapiro, a criminal defense lawyer who supported McLendon's 1998 Democratic challenger, Timothy McCrone. "I think she is truly trying to make a difference."

When she came into office, Howard County was experiencing a surge in juvenile crime, which had risen from about 20 percent to a third of the county's arrests.

Working for improvements

In an effort to toughen the county's juvenile justice system, one of McLendon's first moves as state's attorney was to replace the prosecutor in charge of juvenile cases.

"Kids felt that juvenile court was a joke," she said. "A kid would come in on a charge of auto theft and walk out on a conviction of tampering with a motor vehicle."

McLendon said she believed prosecutors were too soft on young offenders, sometimes hugging them in the courtroom. "The prosecution was acting more as a social worker, and that's not what our job is," she said. "It was a lot more touchy-feely."

She added a second prosecutor to the juvenile division that, she said, is among the most important positions in the office, and not simply a steppingstone to more noteworthy cases.

McLendon said her goal is not to lock up more kids. "We just need to be clear that we're consistent, that there's going to be some accountability," she said. Currently, 35 Howard County juveniles are in jail or other restrictive placements; in 1994 that number was 36.

But for all her tough talk, McLendon seems to have put equal energy into trying to keep kids out of courtrooms altogether. And her enthusiastic manner with kids bespeaks her past as a Girl Scout and summer camper.

She initiated the "Not My Kid" drug prevention program in Howard County, which brought her to Wilde Lake last week. ("Just eating a meal together will make a difference," she told the hundreds of parents gathered.)

She sent prosecutors - armed with pamphlets titled, "Hey Kids, The Party's Over" - into sixth-grade classrooms to explain the stricter juvenile policy, and prosecutors regularly meet with school officials to discuss specific cases.

In addition, McLendon serves on more than a half-dozen organizations that address problems ranging from underage drinking to child fatalities to sexual violence.

The difficulty is figuring out whether these programs and policies work. McLendon's statistics show that in 1997 the state adjudicated 727 juvenile cases; there were 514 such cases last year.

The total numbers of Howard County children referred to the state Department of Juvenile Justice has risen steadily since McLendon took over, however - from 1,166 in 1994 to 1,980 in 1998, the most recent year for which the department has statistics.

But McLendon does not have numbers on repeat offenders, information that some people say is necessary for an accurate assessment of policy.

"I think her programs are good ideas," Shapiro said. "But my question is, 'Why run the programs if you don't know if they work?'"

McLendon, too, said she worries about effectiveness; her office recently acquired software to track cases and thus generate more meaningful statistics.

Based on anecdotal evidence, however, she said she thinks the programs are helping. Patricia Lindh-Slack, a social worker at Wilde Lake High School, agrees.

"For one thing, I think she puts a face on a huge system," said Lindh-Slack, who said that over the years she has noticed a change in attitude among her students. "They know to take [court] seriously - that there are going to be consequences."

McLendon has focused on child abuse cases, which typically drive down conviction rates because they are hard to prove. "There was a sense that the prior administration had a real problem with taking some of these cases, especially physical abuse cases," she said.

Since McLendon took over, prosecutors have begun to visit the county's Child Advocacy Center, where they discuss with detectives and social workers how best to prepare particular cases.

Some prosecutors grumbled about the extra, out-of-office assignments: McLendon either fired or lost more than half her staff during her rocky first term. But others have welcomed the new regime.

"We're more conscious and better-educated than we were in the past," said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad, who tried the Sheldon case with McLendon. "Under her leadership, we've been much more aggressive about prosecuting these kinds of cases, and I think that's a good thing."

Aggressiveness does not equal success, though. Since losing the Sheldon case, McLendon now must rethink upcoming cases against two other young men charged in the overdose death.

Critics say the Sheldon case exemplifies a certain overzealousness in McLendon's war on drugs.

"I think there's a dangerous pattern sometimes of the prosecution of people based on moral judgments rather than on criminal responsibility," said defense attorney Joseph Murtha, who defended Sheldon.

McLendon stands by the merits of the Sheldon case, but acknowledges that it communicated an important public policy message about drugs.

Driven by pragmatism

While interviewing the young witnesses who either took drugs or hung out with those who did, "I felt like getting up and shaking them, for their lack of goals, their lack of a future, their lack of self-esteem," she said.

But McLendon said her juvenile crime philosophy is driven by sheer pragmatism: If you can turn around a juvenile delinquent, he or she won't come back to her courtroom as an adult.

McLendon, 49, grew up in Scranton, Pa. An only child, her parents split up when she was 1, and she was raised mostly by her mother and grandmother.

By her own admission, she was a goody-goody. Although not a Catholic, she was a favorite of the nuns at the Catholic schools she attended, regularly donating her pocket money to the missions.

She traces her enthusiasm for law enforcement to neighbors who became her surrogate family. The father was a state trooper, and she still remembers where he kept his hat and gun belt.

She read mystery magazines and dusted for fingerprints on the ironing board, using tape and pencil shavings; a photograph in her office shows her dressed as a miniature Annie Oakley, holding a rifle.

By the time she enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, she knew she wanted to be a police officer. As the second woman on the Howard County force, she became a detective in the "crimes against persons" division; much of her job involved investigating child abuse.

Five years later she earned her law degree from the University of Maryland. She also holds a master's degree in forensic science from George Washington University.

After weathering two elections - the second she won thanks to absentee ballots - McLendon said she is accustomed to swipes at her management style, her conviction rate and her policies.

Regardless, she said, she will continue to prosecute uphill cases like Sheldon's. "I will not ever look at numbers and conviction rates and make decisions based on that," she said. "Do I worry about what people think? I can't. I just have to do what I think is right."

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