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Baltimore County state's attorney known for stance on death penalty

She took over an office beset by scandal, corruption, political influence and the reputation of being an old boys' club.

After only a dozen years on the job, she had become such a fixture as an elected official that would-be challengers just gave up trying to unseat her.

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And she has stood firmly behind her policy on capital punishment, even as it pushed her office into the national death penalty debate for seeking death sentences more often than any other prosecutor in Maryland.

Now, as Sandra A. O'Connor wraps up her eighth term as Baltimore County state's attorney and prepares to retire, she leaves an office known for professionalism, nonpartisanship and innovative approaches to domestic violence cases, training young attorneys and minimizing the difficulties that crime victims and witnesses experience with the criminal justice system.

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"She helped develop an entire generation of lawyers," said Andrew I. Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney who spent the first seven years of his career in O'Connor's office. "If you look at the alumni list of who worked for Sandy O'Connor over the last 32 years, it's an impressive group. She basically guided a law firm for a really long time. And whether you agree or disagree with her policies, no one disputes that it's an outstanding prosecutor's office."

Taking the reins Tuesday is Scott D. Shellenberger, a former prosecutor who began his career as a law clerk in O'Connor's office. He spent 11 years there, rising through the ranks to division chief of the sexual assault and child abuse unit, before leaving in 1993 to join the law firm of Peter G. Angelos.

Shellenberger, a Democrat, beat O'Connor's hand-picked successor, Republican Stephen Bailey, who has spent his entire 20-year career in the county prosecutor's office and served as one of O'Connor's two top deputies. This year marked the first time there had been a contested election for the prosecutor's job since 1982, when O'Connor handily beat a Democratic challenger who received only 32 percent of the vote.

"Thank God you don't know anything when you first run for office," O'Connor, 64, said in a recent interview about her decades of public service. "I go back and read the clippings now, and everyone predicted it would be impossible for the first woman and the first Republican in a long time - if there ever was one - to win in Baltimore County."

A young lawyer, O'Connor had just seven years of experience as a city prosecutor under her belt when she decided to challenge Democrat Clarence D. Long III, the son of a popular and well-known congressman.

Jervis S. Finney, now counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was running for Baltimore County executive at the time and welcomed O'Connor onto his ticket. Even then, he said, "her stature was obvious."

"Sandy O'Connor had obvious, obvious professional capabilities," Finney said in a recent interview. "She's turned into a superb example of public service."

Finney lost. But O'Connor beat Long with 67 percent of the vote - a remarkable feat, given that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a margin of more than 3 1/2 -to-1.

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O'Connor said her first order of business was to clean up the office left by her predecessor, Samuel A. Green Jr., who was convicted in 1974 of obstruction of justice, misconduct in office and other charges. He served six months of a three-year prison sentence and was pardoned in 1994 by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Although the corruption charges stemmed from Green's attempt to cover up a $750 payment from a man who wanted an arrest record destroyed, the scope of the trial broadened to include lurid testimony about sexual exploits and foul office jokes.

O'Connor set about hiring a staff of professionals and removing politics from the prosecutorial equation. She also quickly developed a unit of staff members - apart from the lawyers - devoted exclusively to the witnesses, crime victims and victims' family members who must come to court through no fault of their own.

"In the city, as a young prosecutor, you found yourself saying to victims, 'If you don't show up, we'll have to send the sheriff out to get you,'" O'Connor recalled. "The lack of time that attorneys had, because of their caseload, with the people we actually represented was appalling. We couldn't do the social-work side of it and legal side of it."

O'Connor's unit was the first of its kind in Maryland, she says, although almost every state's attorney's office now has a staff of people who update victims and witnesses on court dates, help explain the proceedings and provide other services to make their experience as painless and convenient as possible.

Lawyers who have worked for O'Connor and on the opposite side of the courtroom aisle say she has stood up, on occasion, to judges - including one who wanted her to discipline a male prosecutor who had long hair and whom the judge did not want to allow in his courtroom.

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She started an annual calendar contest for middle-school pupils, rewarding children's anti-drug themed drawings with savings bonds bought with money and assets seized from convicted drug dealers. And she has been quick, police say, to adapt her office to the innovations of criminals. About a decade ago, for instance, when auto thefts reached record levels in the county, O'Connor designated a prosecutor to handle only those cases, Baltimore County police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said.

The teamwork of the police investigating the thefts and the assistant state's attorneys prosecuting the thieves prompted drastic reductions in the number of cars being stolen, the chief said.

Critics have sometimes complained that O'Connor's office can be too aggressive as well as too slow to admit mistakes. They point to the wrongful convictions of two men - Bernard Webster, who spent 20 years in prison on a rape conviction, and Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison, including two on death row, after he was convicted of killing of a 9-year-old girl. Both men were exonerated by DNA evidence.

And others criticize O'Connor for her stated policy of seeking death sentences in all eligible murder cases - with the exception of those that would depend on a co-defendant's testimony and those in which the victim's family objects. The policy, which O'Connor defends as the best way to ensure a fair, objective application of capital punishment, has drawn the attention of local and national researchers and earned the county prosecutor's office a mention in national death penalty reports.

"The more zealous you are, the more mistakes you make. Her approach is just too much," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "When you say you seek [the death penalty] across the board, it's not taking full responsibility for the decision to seek it. Considering each case carefully and taking responsibility for that decision is the least we can ask in a society where we decide to seek life or death."

While death penalty opponents say it is that policy that will remain O'Connor's legacy, others view her lasting influence more broadly - as a pioneering woman, a teacher and a professional who persuaded many of her lawyers to view the state's attorney's office as a career rather than just a stepping stone.

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"She has been real stalwart contributor and voice for America's prosecutors on a national level," said Mathias H. Heck Jr., the Montgomery County, Ohio, prosecutor and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

David B. Irwin, a Towson criminal defense attorney who worked as a city, county and federal prosecutor before going into private practice, characterizes his former boss as "an icon of a strong, fair prosecutor."

"She came into Baltimore County when it was an old boys' network and changed it into a professional, superb office that has stood on its own feet."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nick Shields contributed to this article.

Sandra A. O'Connor

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The longtime Republican state's attorney for Baltimore County retires this week after 32 years on the job.

Personal

Grew up in Catonsville and graduated from Catonsville Senior High School in 1960. Attended her mother's alma mater, Indiana University, where she earned both her undergraduate and law degrees in six years.

Lives with her husband, Harold Rose, in Catonsville.

Says that she looks forward in retirement to enjoying more time with her family. She also plans to teach at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County and at Villa Julie College.

Professional

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Worked briefly as a legal manager for McCormick & Co. Inc. in Baltimore before joining the Baltimore City state's attorney's office in 1967. Worked her way up from trial assistant to criminal court team captain, chief of training and finally assistant chief of the trial division.

In 1974, was elected Baltimore County state's attorney. She was re-elected seven times.

Past vice president and director of the National District Attorneys Association and past president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association. Has taught several seminars for the local and national prosecutors associations and has lectured for many years at the National College of District Attorneys.[Jennifer McMenamin]


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