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Harford County's long-serving state's attorney will retire in 2017

Retiring Harford state's attorney will work until the day he leaves office

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, who has spent nearly 40 years prosecuting local criminal cases and is among Harford's longest-serving elected officials, will retire Jan. 1, 2017, he announced Tuesday.

"[I've] put in a lot of years, and now it's time to maybe take some time to do some other things," Cassilly said.

Cassilly, 65, announced his retirement in a letter to local media. He has been a prosecutor since 1977, and he was elected to his first of nine consecutive terms as the top prosecutor in 1982.

He said in the letter that the multiple murder cases that his office has prosecuted over the years, including those in which the victims were children, had been weighing on him, and that he can recall those crimes when he drives through the areas where they happened, such as the abduction and stabbing of 8-year-old Marcianna Ringo in Joppa.

Cassilly recalled "dozens of others whose deaths will not leave my memory. It is time for me to leave."

He said in an interview Tuesday that his office has won convictions in the cases mentioned in his letter, and many of the defendants were sentenced to death. The cases, however, still weigh on him despite the convictions.

"Once you start on something like that, you're in touch with the families for the years that it takes these cases to go through the system, Cassilly said. "The system is still so stacked against the victims' families; they never have the sense of closure and then it's over."

Cassilly, a Bel Air native, was first elected as the county's top prosecutor in 1982. He won his most recent term in 2014.

His successor will be selected by the Harford County Circuit Court judges, in accordance with the Maryland Constitution.

Cassilly's connection with the State's Attorney's Office dates to the summer of 1975, when he worked there as an intern under then State's Attorney Edwin H. W. Harlan Jr.

Harlan let Cassilly return to the office the next summer, when he was still in law school and allowed him to try cases, "which convinced me I wanted to make prosecution my life's work," Cassilly wrote his letter.

Harlan, who died in 2005, served as the elected state's attorney from 1963 to 1978, and he was appointed as a District Court judge by the acting governor, Blair Lee III. He served as a judge until 1989, according to his obituary.

Cassilly started working as a prosecutor Oct. 3, 1977, and he ran for the top job about five years later.

He said he did not start out wanting to run for state's attorney, but "the way things were working out at the time, I ended up doing it."

He has been unopposed in most elections, except in 1998 and 2014.

Cassilly noted his office's multiple accomplishments in his letter, including establishing a domestic violence unit, setting up one of the first Child Advocacy Centers in Maryland to handle crimes against children, and later the Family Justice Center, introducing technology to his agency and being part of the establishment of the Harford County Task Force, which handles drug investigations.

"In fact, in my not so humble opinion, we have the best police and prosecutors in the State," he wrote.

Cassilly also lauded the 40-year-old Family Support Division, which predates his time in office, and oversees paternity and child support enforcement cases, according to the State's Attorney's Office website.

The division "has always been a source of pride," and it has been "a novel crime prevention program," he wrote.

"I think we've done a lot of really proactive and positive things," Cassilly said.

He has also served as president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association and the National District Attorneys' Association, according to his letter.

Cassilly, who lives in Benson, grew up in Bel Air, the oldest of 12 children raised by Nancy and Robert R. Cassilly Jr. His younger brothers, Bob and Andrew, were elected as a state senator and state delegate, respectively, in 2014.

"It's a great county to be from and to work in," he said of Harford.

He served as an Army Ranger during the Vietnam War, where he suffered a broken neck in a fall in 1970. He has been in a wheelchair since then.

Cassilly has five children and "6-and-a-half" grandchildren. He plans to spend more time with his family, most of whom live in the area, although one daughter lives out of state.

"Hopefully, I have a chance to take off and visit [her] too," Cassilly said.

He also plans to remain involved with the criminal justice system, working on legislation in Annapolis.

"I might do some teaching, but no specific plans right now," he said.

Cassilly will spend his remaining weeks in office, working through a number of cases, including John Norman Huffington, who was convicted of murdering two people in 1981 but was released from prison in 2013 after a Frederick County judge approved his petition for writ of actual innocence, based on the outdated scientific evidence used during his trial in the early 1980s.

The judge vacated his convictions and ordered a new trial for Huffington, which is scheduled to start in April of 2017, according to online court records.

Cassilly will also represent Harford County during the ongoing appeal of Bernard Lee Stebbing, who was convicted of murder in 1981 and has also challenged the scientific evidence used in his trial. Those proceedings are happening in Wicomico County.

He also plans to work with the county government to ensure his prosecutors get a pay increase, as a recent salary study shows their salaries are not competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

His office has about 70 employees, including 30 deputy and assistant state's attorneys. A bill to make the Harford state's attorney's salary equal to that of a District Court judge was approved during the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill took effect Sunday, according to the legislation, and the new salary will go to Cassilly's successor, he said.

"I will be very busy for the next couple of months," he said. "I will be working right down to the day I leave."

Cassilly encouraged his successor to "just maintain the standards that I think we've kept over the years and keep the sprit of cooperation with all the other agencies that work on these problems going."

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