Sandra A. O'Connor, who in her three decades as Baltimore County's top prosecutor gained both support and criticism for her unflinching pursuit of death sentences for killers, said yesterday that she will step down when her term ends next year.
A political force who hasn't faced an Election Day challenge since the early 1980s, O'Connor said yesterday that she would like to be known for such innovations as the establishment of the state's first victim-witness unit. But even as she discussed her reasons for retirement and plans for the future, she addressed criticism of her policy on capital punishment - against the backdrop of a Maryland death row that is disproportionately populated by inmates convicted of crimes in Baltimore County.
"I shouldn't be making the decision because 'I know you,' 'I like you,'" she said, reiterating that her policy to seek death in every eligible murder case - save those that fit narrow, defined exceptions - is designed to remove bias from the process. The decision, she added, should be left to judges or juries.
In 2002, researchers from Columbia, Rutgers and New York universities ranked Baltimore County second among large counties nationwide in the rate at which convicted murderers are sentenced to death.
Fred Warren Bennett, a lawyer who faced off against O'Connor's office in the Steven Oken capital case, said yesterday: "She ran a very professional office. My only complaint is that I thought she went overboard on seeking the death penalty."
He added, "Of course, voters liked her, but Baltimore County is very conservative."
O'Connor, a Republican, has run unopposed in every election since 1986 in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
"Nobody ran against her because she was well-liked and well-known in the county, and she more or less had friends on both the Democratic side and the Republican side," said Joseph T. Ferraracci, chairman of Baltimore County's Democratic Central Committee.
Her decision not to seek a ninth term sets up the possibility of a contested election next year. Already, two names are being mentioned - Democrat Kevin Kamenetz, a Baltimore County councilman who was a Baltimore City prosecutor for six years, and Republican Stephen Bailey, one of O'Connor's two deputies and her choice as successor.
Both men said yesterday that they are considering a run.
O'Connor, 62, said she's itching to dote full time on her retired husband and two young granddaughters.
She came to the Baltimore County job in the aftermath of a sex and corruption scandal that enveloped the prosecutor's office in 1973 and 1974.
In that first election, in 1974, O'Connor, a graduate of the Indiana University law school who had spent several years as a Baltimore City prosecutor, ran against a less experienced prosecutor with a pedigree - Clarence D. Long III, son of the popular congressman - and won by a 2-to-1 margin.
She brought several Baltimore City prosecutors to her new job and set about taking the politics out of the office, observers say.
More than a half-dozen of her assistants have gone on to become state judges. One became a federal magistrate. Another, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, served eight years as Baltimore County executive before becoming a congressman.
Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning has been with her since 1976.
"There's the saying of 'If you love your job, you'll never work a day in your life.' We look forward to coming to work because of the way she runs things," Schenning said of O'Connor.
In the 1970s, O'Connor started the first victim-witness unit in the state. She also started a unit dedicated to sexual assault and child abuse cases and instituted a practice of seeking harsh penalties for career criminals.
The death penalty policy began to take shape in the early 1980s, she said. Faced with two death-eligible cases - one involving a white defendant, the other black - she said she faced more pressure not to pursue death in one.
"I thought, this just is not how a decision should be made," she said.
Since then, she has sought the death penalty for every eligible case, although she has added exceptions - for cases in which the victim's relatives are not willing to go through the lengthy process, and for those in which establishing grounds for the death penalty relies solely on the testimony of a co-defendant.
While the policy has won her praise, it has also brought sharp criticism from opponents of capital punishment.
"When I think of Sandra O'Connor, I think of a person who's an apologist for some of the worst practices regarding the death penalty in the state and nationally," said Michael Stark, spokesman for Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Stark pointed to the prosecution of Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nearly nine years on death row after being convicted of murder but was later exonerated when DNA evidence implicated another man. Bloodsworth received a $300,000 settlement from the state.
A University of Maryland study released in 2003 found racial disparities in the application of the death penalty - and said that Baltimore County homicides "dominate the state's capital punishment data."
Some see O'Connor's policy as her attempt to level the playing field. Having such a policy removed the biases from the process, said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz, who served as a prosecutor in Baltimore County from 1975 to 1985.
"I don't know how anyone can [use] that policy for favoring or disfavoring any particular group," he said.
"I think people will look at the death penalty litigation as her legacy," said Gary Bernstein, a Baltimore County defense attorney. "But what I think it should be is [that] she took an office that, when I was coming through law school, was the subject of scandal, and turned it into a model state's attorney's office."
Sun staff writer Anica Butler contributed to this article.
Sandra A. O'Connor
Graduate of Catonsville High School, Indiana University (1964), Indiana University School of Law (1966)
Assistant state's attorney, Baltimore City, 1967-1975
Elected in 1974 to first of eight terms as Baltimore County state's attorney
Married; two children, two grandchildren