Longtime Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger’s record on handling sexual assault cases is in the spotlight as he seeks a fifth term as the county’s top prosecutor.
A woman confronted Shellenberger at a local Democratic club meeting in mid-May to ask why prosecutors did not bring criminal charges in her 2018 rape case. He faces a federal lawsuit alleging he and others in his office violated a different woman’s constitutional rights when she sought to press charges. And recent attack ads against Shellenberger airing on televisions and mailed to homes have focused on sexual assaults.
Shellenberger, who once led the division that prosecutes sex crimes, described sexual assaults as “probably the most difficult cases” for prosecutors in an interview with The Baltimore Sun about his campaign. He has emphasized positive steps made in response to criticisms, such as increased testing of rape kits.
But he and his prosecutors have faced questions about their decision-making on charging perpetrators, particularly when the victim did not report an assault right away or was intoxicated when it happened.
A county task force formed in 2019 to examine sexual assault investigations identified the topic as an issue for the office, which includes Shellenberger and prosecutors.
His office has adopted some of the group’s recommendations, such as documenting when prosecutors review police investigations, but has disagreed with others. The office has declined to create written guidelines for review and prosecution of sexual offenses or to put in place the national best practices compiled by the task force. [A top prosecutor told the task force in 2021 the office had “faith in our ability to pull on our experiences within the office as to how to handle any particular investigation,” and said prosecutors have a significant amount of experience and knowledge in sex offense prosecution.]
Tracking prosecutorial decisions is difficult due to a lack of public reporting. Shellenberger has said the office doesn’t collect data around the number of criminal prosecutions, convictions or victim and perpetrator demographics — making it challenging for observers to analyze outcomes.
Robbie Leonard, an attorney in private practice who is challenging Shellenberger in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, said that if elected, he would want to improve trauma-informed strategies used by staff and attorneys who communicate with victims, and to collaborate with groups that advocate for survivors.
He has also called for an audit to examine possible racial disparities in charging decisions.
Amanda Rodriguez, the executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group TurnAround Inc., said there “absolutely” has to be a change in how sexual assaults are prosecuted in Baltimore County, regardless of who wins the election. TurnAround, she said, is eager to work with the office on enhancing victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches to working with survivors.
“We’re often hearing from survivors that they want justice,” said Rodriguez. “So often, with the way that these cases are handled, justice is not just denied, but they feel reassaulted by the criminal justice system. That in itself, I think, is horrific.”
She hopes to see more transparency in case data, such as publicly available information to examine any trends around victim demographics or the outcomes of prosecutors’ review, she said.
Rodriguez said a case “should move forward on its own laurels, on its own facts.”
Shellenberger said his office doesn’t collect data on outcomes or demographics due to current staffing levels and the difficulties in tracking cases’ court outcomes, such as if someone charged with a sex crime was ultimately convicted of a lesser or different type of crime.
The woman who confronted Shellenberger about her case told The Sun in an interview she decided to come forward after years of pushing for criminal charges out of “desperation” and pain, both to get justice for herself and to try to protect other women. She also spoke in June at a virtual town hall hosted by 1199SEIU, a health care union that endorsed Leonard, in partnership with the a new group called Legal Justice Alliance of Baltimore County.
“I’m worth fighting for,” she said in the interview. “And it’s not OK for the state’s attorney’s office to turn their back on their sworn oath.”
She said prosecutors she worked with in the years since her assaults made her feel “worthless” and like she wasn’t human, including mocking and blaming her.
The Baltimore Sun typically does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault.
At the May online meeting of the Southwest Baltimore County Democratic Club, Shellenberger confirmed he’d met with the woman and didn’t believe prosecutors could prove her case. He said he wouldn’t discuss details because “I don’t think it’s fair to her,” but alluded to what she told police and “the timing” of the report.
There is no statute of limitation on rape in the state of Maryland.
He addressed her directly at the event.
“As I have told you, I do not believe we can prove your case,” he said. “I do not believe the facts that you revealed the first time to the police amount to a crime in the state of Maryland.”
The Sun obtained a recording of the May 16 exchange from Leonard, who also spoke in the event.
Rodriguez, who has been working as an advocate for the woman who confronted Shellenberger, said the reasoning for why prosecutors aren’t moving forward has been “inconsistent.” Rodriguez is a former prosecutor in Shellenberger’s office and said she would have brought criminal charges against the woman’s attacker, based on the facts of the case.
She said she doesn’t endorse either candidate in the race and doesn’t live in Baltimore County.
The woman disputed Shellenberger’s suggestion that her story changed and said he told her last year he believed her allegation because she was “consistent.”
In one meeting, according to the woman, who is Black, a prosecutor cited a past sexual assault case where the victim also was a Black woman. In that case, a juror told the prosecutor another member of the jury had convinced the others that “all Black women lie,” according to the woman’s account.
She said in the online meeting that was one of the reasons the prosecutor “was concerned about moving forward in my case.”
The prosecutor, Lisa Dever, told The Sun her intent was to explain you can’t know jurors’ past experiences or what they’ll bring to a case. In this instance, Dever said, the juror was a Black woman who told other jurors the defendant reminded her of her son and indicated she believed “all Black women lie.” The defendant was found not guilty in the trial.
“When you’re trying to explain to someone the reasons why you can’t go forward, you have to give real-life experiences as to what happens in other cases to give it context. That’s what I was trying to do, and I’m sorry she took it to be anything other than what it was,” Dever said.
Shellenberger told The Sun he spoke with Dever and said it was “a wrong thing to say to a victim.”
County prosecutors’ treatment of assault victims is the topic of an ongoing federal lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, a woman accuses Shellenberger of sending police to her home to tell her to stop trying to pursue criminal charges against the men she said assaulted her. Prosecutors had declined to take the case, but the woman tried to pursue charges on her own through the court commissioner.
Shellenberger said he acted out of concern for the woman, because he believed the men might file criminal charges or a lawsuit against her. A civil trial is scheduled for September.
Other controversies in Baltimore County’s sexual assault investigations and prosecutions have ranged from the lack of testing and destruction of rape kits to authorities’ reluctance to bring criminal charges unless there’s evidence a victim physically resisted.
In 2017, Shellenberger opposed mandatory testing of every rape kit. He said at the time that law enforcement has limited resources, and often a rape suspect’s identity is not in question because the victim and perpetrator know each other. He later changed his position, saying he saw the value in testing all kits because doing so can link suspects to other sex offenses.
After the recommendations from the county’s latest task force on sexual assaults, the group did a follow-up audit in 2021 to measure improvements or lingering problems.
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Their analysis of a random sampling of 2020 cases found positive steps on the police end of investigations: Fewer cases were being closed as “unfounded” and nearly all included the testing of rape kits. (A 2019 audit had found rape kits weren’t tested in 78% of cases.)
The 2021 audit also found “more standardized” documentation of prosecutors’ review of police cases.
It noted there were continuing challenges for police and prosecutors interviewing victims with disabilities or mental health issues. And it recommended partnerships with organizations that have expertise and considering including victim advocates in some interviews and charging discussions.
In the 26 cases where prosecutors were consulted, the audit found, there were six that proceeded to criminal cases, 17 where charges were declined, one dismissed case and a request for further investigation of two cases.
The task force’s original report found prosecutors declined to charge in 57% of the audit’s sampling of sexual assault cases reported from 2016 through 2018, and brought charges in 34%. Of the cases where prosecutors brought charges, convictions were secured in 64% of the cases.
Additionally, it found three prosecutors were consulted on the most cases, of the 56 the audit examined that named a prosecutor. Of those, the three unnamed prosecutors brought charges in three out of 33.
The 2021 audit said it couldn’t assess case outcomes at trial because of COVID-19 delays. No additional details on the reasons for declined criminal charges were provided.