Scott D. Shellenberger was a first-year law student, working as a stockboy and clerk at Kmart, when Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor offered him a job as a law clerk 25 years ago.
Yesterday, the former prosecutor and veteran litigator took the oath of office to replace his former boss, who retired last week after 32 years as the county's top prosecutor.
Shellenberger, 47, received a standing ovation from the staff of more than 50 prosecutors who gathered for a swearing-in ceremony at 8 a.m. yesterday at the Circuit Courthouse in Towson. Among those also taking oaths was Stephen Bailey, the veteran prosecutor whom Shellenberger defeated in the November election.
A ceremonial oath, attended by politicians, judges and Shellenberger's friends, family and mentors, followed yesterday afternoon in the historic courtroom of the Old Courthouse.
There, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz recalled a conversation 13 years ago with Shellenberger, who was contemplating leaving the state's attorney's office at the time to accept a job offer from the law firm of Peter G. Angelos.
"Wouldn't it be great to be able to do that job forever?" Levitz recalled Shellenberger saying of being the county state's attorney. "I remember you saying you'd give it all up and come back to be deputy. Well, you're not the deputy. You're the boss. It's your office."
That office has become known for its professional approach to trying criminal cases, seeking lengthy prison terms for violent criminals and pursuing death sentences against convicted killers more often than any other jurisdiction in the state.
O'Connor, 64, a Republican elected to eight consecutive terms, had a policy of seeking the death penalty 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 objected.
During the campaign, Shellenberger said he would instead review each case before deciding what sentence to pursue. A lifelong supporter of capital punishment, he vowed to seek the death penalty "for those who commit the most heinous murders."
He said yesterday that he will apply the new approach only to future cases. In cases for which prosecutors have filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, he said in an interview, "I believe we need to follow through. There are expectations among the victim's family, and I don't think a change in administration should affect those cases."
He said he has not planned other changes, adding, "I first need to get into the office and do a top-to-bottom review."
Although attorneys and courthouse staff expect some of O'Connor's prosecutors to leave, only one, deputy state's attorney Sue A. Schenning, has.
O'Connor threw her support during the election campaign behind Bailey, her other deputy. He is apparently looking for work elsewhere, although he remains in his current job and took the oath as deputy state's attorney yesterday morning.
Bailey, who received a standing ovation from his colleagues, did not return phone messages.
Also as part of the transition, a longtime county prosecutor who left in 2005 to work in Harford County - and who helped manage Shellenberger's campaign - will return to Baltimore County in February. Robin S. Coffin will become the deputy state's attorney for administration - the job now held by Bailey.
Shellenberger won a bitterly fought Democratic primary against personal injury lawyer Stephen L. Miles.
Moving on to the general election contest against Bailey, Shellenberger focused on their work experience. While Bailey, 44, spent his entire 20-year career in the county prosecutor's office, Shellenberger worked there 11 years before joining Angelos' firm in 1993 to handle personal injury and criminal defense cases.
Shellenberger outspent Bailey with television and radio ads and slick campaign mailers, in large part because of $435,000 he received from a political committee funded by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
The county prosecutor, who is paid $185,025 a year, manages a staff of 56 lawyers and more than 60 other employees.
Because every prosecutor in the office must be sworn in every four years, the oaths to Shellenberger, Bailey and the more than 50 assistant state's attorneys had to be administered before court started yesterday.
Later in the day, attorneys, politicians, the county's judges and personal friends of Shellenberger packed the historic courtroom to honor the new state's attorney. Shellenberger thanked the judges, lawyers and others - including Angelos - who helped and taught him, both throughout his career and his campaign.
"He'll be very hard to replace," Angelos said in an interview. "It's obvious this is what he's always wanted to do. It's his life's ambition. I'm pleased he reached it. And I think he'll do an exceptional, exceptional job for the citizens of Baltimore County."