"O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven," King Claudius of Denmark says guiltily about his evil deeds in Act III of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
Carroll countians know about rank smells, and I'm not -- this time -- talking about the sludge spread as fertilizer on farms.
This particular stench has been rising for 16 months, dating backto the 1990 race for the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office. Plenty of fertilizer was spread during one of the most bitter, mud-slinging campaigns in county history.
As you'll recall, veteran Republican incumbent Thomas E. Hickman was facing the political battle of his career from a tough challenger.
Jerry Barnes, who had been Hickman's longtime deputy and friend for 13 years, resigned his post, changed political parties and ran as a Democrat.
He nearly pulled off the upset: Hickman, who had easily won election since his first in 1974, was returned by a narrow, 600-vote margin. In fact, Barnes won in six of the county's 14 election districts.
Even after narrowly pulling his chestnuts out of the fire, Hickman refused to acknowledgeBarnes' showing. Instead, the incumbent attributed his scant victoryto a "combination of factors, including strong anti-incumbency sentiment."
It was a vicious contest, with both men wallowing deeper and deeper in the mud.
Nobody could hogtie them, not even their own political parties' leaders. Charges on both sides flew fast as the Concorde, with two of the worst landing before State Special ProsecutorStephen Montanarelli.
The most vicious case that was investigatedby Montanarelli grew out of an Oct. 23 incident in which Hickman displayed a police report detailing an April drug search of the car belonging to Scott W. Markle, then Barnes' campaign chairman and president of the Carroll County Democratic Club. No charges were ever filed because no drugs were found on Markle, who, by the way, received 15 write-in votes for state's attorney.
For 16 long months, everyone waited and waited for Montanarelli's report.
Finally, a few days before the 1992 primary, the 35-page report was released. Would Hickman be charged with criminal wrongdoing? Would Markle be cleared?
Well, Markle was vindicated. While Hickman broke no laws, he had used thepolice report for "political advantage"; he had caused Markle to be "depicted in his community as a criminal without benefit of a trial,"Montanarelli ruled.
But that's where Montanarelli wimped out. Despite saying "prosecutors are not unaccountable" and their "immunitiesare not absolute," he declined to recommend filing misconduct charges.
"This is a prosecutor's quagmire which we do not choose to enter," he wrote.
Instead, he said "Markle has other forums in which to pursue his grievance," opening the door for a civil suit.
Markleand Hickman say they are considering further action.
Here's my suggestion: Hickman should make -- and Markle should accept -- a sincere apology in the same public manner in which the initial accusation was made.
Let's close the books on this disgraceful episode, one which many voters will never forget.