Upon hearing news that Maryland’s highest court had disbarred him, Joe Cassilly said, “Oh, whatever.”
I remember exactly what I was doing when I read that soaring bit of rhetoric from the former Harford County State’s Attorney: sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a copy of The Baltimore Sun on a Saturday morning in October 2021.
To the allegation that he had intentionally withheld evidence that would have been favorable to the defense of a man convicted of murder in the 1980s — and lied about it for years — Cassilly said: “Oh whatever. I’m retired anyway.”
To the court’s conclusion that he had violated both the defendant’s rights and the rules of professional conduct for attorneys, Cassilly made himself the victim. He said he “fell into the whole anti-criminal justice movement, where the cops are the bad guys and the prosecutors are the bad guys.”
Asked how he felt about being disbarred after a long career as a prosecutor, Cassilly said: “I’m disappointed, but the real answer is, ‘Do I care? I don’t give a damn.’ I wouldn’t do anything to engage in the practice of law right now because it’s such a screwed-up obscenity.”
With those scorched-earth comments, Cassilly distanced himself from any sincere expression of regret. He might have been better off had he given no comment, suggesting the possibility of a man too humiliated or subdued by shame to speak again in public. Instead, we got, “Oh, whatever,” and, “I don’t give a damn.”
I remember my first reaction to that: Wow, Dude is bitter.
Second reaction: Good thing for the people of Harford County that Joe Cassilly had finally retired after 36 years.
A prosecutor is supposed to serve justice, and if that means admitting a mistake — that a man might have been wrongly convicted, that the evidence against him might have been tainted in some way — so be it.
Prosecutors have a lot of power. Even if police believe they’ve arrested the right man, the prosecutor has to follow the rules, and the rule about exculpatory evidence in Maryland is explicit: The state must disclose to the defense “all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” And it remains true even long after a conviction.
The state’s high court — at the time, known as the Maryland Court of Appeals, now the Supreme Court of Maryland — disbarred Cassilly following an investigation by the Attorney Grievance Commission into a complaint filed by the defendant in the murder case, John Huffington.
The court agreed that Cassilly “knowingly and intentionally failed to disclose for more than a decade exculpatory evidence that came to light after [Huffington’s] conviction, discarded the evidence, knowingly made false statements of fact to a court and defense counsel concerning the content of the evidence, opposed the defendant’s post conviction petitions and sought to have forensic evidence that was the subject of the defendant’s post-trial request for review destroyed.”
Cassilly was no victim of an “anti-criminal justice movement.” He broke the rules of conduct and criminal procedure — to such an extent that he was disbarred, even after retirement. And he said he didn’t give a damn.
Yet Cassilly’s younger brother, Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly, decided that Joe Cassilly needed to be back in the public sphere. The former state senator was elected county executive in November and took office in December. Last week he nominated his disbarred brother to a seat on Harford County’s Board of Ethics.
I know what you’re saying: Wait. What?
He nominated a disbarred lawyer to be an arbiter of ethics? And the disbarred lawyer is his brother?
Yeah, that was my first reaction, too.
My second reaction: The younger brother must be trying to rehabilitate the older brother’s tarnished reputation.
That seems obvious and natural.
The Harford County Council was scheduled to vote on the matter as I wrote this, but before they could, Joe Cassilly widthdrew his nomination last night. Good. It was a strange nomination for the new executive to make, but understandable in a brotherly-love-is-blind way.
“In the interest of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, I feel that it would be in the best [interest] for everyone involved if I withdrew my name from consideration,” Joe Cassilly said. “I think in the long run, it’s the best thing for all of us.”
Joe Cassilly served the public for a long time — he was an assistant state’s attorney, starting in 1977, before being elected to the top job in 1983 — but the coda on his career was disbarment. The younger brother appeared to want to do a reputational repair job.
It sounded like something right out of the script of “Your Honor,” the Showtime series, now in its second season, starring Bryan Cranston. One mistake, the judge played by Cranston tells his teenage son, “shouldn’t define who you are.”
Maybe that’s what Bob Cassilly had in mind when he told The Aegis: “I appointed my brother Joe to the Board of Ethics because he has demonstrated throughout his life a commitment to ethics far surpassing anyone I have ever known.”
My reaction to that: Wow, Dude needs to meet more people.
Second reaction: I appreciate and understand the brotherly love, but Harford’s new executive showed some poor judgment here, not only nominating kin to a public post but a public post that should be held only by those whose reputations need no rehab.
Call me old school, but I think members of an ethics board should be people of integrity with clean records — never disbarred, never indicted, maybe never even audited — and there must be something like 100,000 other people in Harford County who could meet those criteria.