He's Not a Real Pol, But He Needs to Be

COMMENT

July 03, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

"I'm a prosecutor, not a politician."

If Frank Weathersbee said it once last Tuesday, the day he announced plans to run for re-election as Anne Arundel County state's attorney, he said it a half-dozen times.

He said it as though he were resigned to the fact. His tone implied that he's accepted the truth that he's not very good at answering questions and connecting with crowds and decided that isn't the most important thing, anyway.

"I don't have any good answers," he said. "All I can say is that I've been a prosecutor for a long time. We have things in place we've established over many years and are continuing to develop based on good prosecutorial standards. It's really boring stuff."

The way Mr. Weathersbee explains it, it is. He lapses unconsciously into legal mumbo-jumbo. He sees volatile issues such as plea bargaining in the most practical terms. His finger doesn't know how to find the pulse of public emotion.

His supporters will tell you this is what they like best about Frank Weathersbee: that he's not political. It's not good for a state's attorney always to keep his ear to the ground, then craft philosophies to reflect popular sentiment, says Del. John Astle, D-Annapolis.

He's right, of course. Just because people want every petty thief locked up forever doesn't make that the just or reasonable thing to do.

Still, the state's attorney is an elected official. He needs to be a bit of a politician.

Not just for the sake of surviving tough campaigns like the one Mr. Weathersbee now faces against Republican John Greiber, but because, tough campaign or not, he's answerable to the people.

He shouldn't be a weather vane, blowing every which way, but he is responsible for understanding the community's fears and explaining his decisions to them.

Mr. Weathersbee's experience and accomplishments aside, he is not particularly adept at either.

Right now Mr. Greiber is having a field day jumping all over him for a variety of decisions: deciding not to pursue murder charges against a suspect in the Joanne Valentine case; charging two college students who literally frightened a homeless man to death with manslaughter instead of second-degree murder; allowing Scotland Williams, accused of killing a Severna Park couple last month, to plea bargain a burglary charge last year.

There were, in fact, defensible legal reasons behind each of these decisions. Mr. Weathersbee's problem has been that he doesn't try to explain why he does what he does, perhaps because he doesn't know how.

Most people (including most reporters) are not legal experts. They don't know the nitty-gritty details of what it takes to secure a conviction on second-degree murder.

If a prosecutor decides not to levy that charge in a case like the one involving the homeless man -- a case which, to the lay person, appears to cry out for the more serious charge -- then he has to explain why. It's not enough to say, "I'm a prosecutor. I know my job. Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

Mr. Weathersbee knows that Mr. Greiber's tactics -- exploiting the public's fear of crime, pushing emotional hot buttons, portraying the incumbent as soft on crime -- could be dangerous to him. "I think it's very popular," he said last week. "Facts are not important, emotion is."

One gets the sense that he wants to take the high road in what already is a nasty campaign. But he can't just throw up his arms, say he's not a politician, rattle off a long list of "really boring stuff" he's accomplished and expect people to be satisfied.

A prosecutor who is also a politician doesn't pander; he communicates.

He imparts a sense of the justice system at work so people feel safe -- which is what they most want, after all. Even when he does not agree with what the people want, he lets them know he empathizes with their fears and feelings.

Last week, after his re-election announcement, Mr. Weathersbee discussed his ideas about plea bargains with several reporters.

He believes the plea bargain is a practical necessity in the justice system as it exists and a valuable tool for ensuring convictions. He also knows the public distrusts and dislikes it.

I kept waiting for Mr. Weathersbee to explain that, on a strictly emotional level, he can relate to the people who feel plea bargains let criminals off too easily, but that as prosecutor he can't be governed strictly by emotion. That was what I wanted him to say. He never did. He kept talking lawyerly talk about the practicalness of it all.

It reminded me of Michael Dukakis' bloodless response to that hypothetical question about whether he'd want the death penalty for the man who raped and killed his wife.

You might have agreed with him on capital punishment, but, still, you wanted to know he felt the outrage you would feel.

From now until November, Mr. Weathersbee doesn't need to indulge in a lot of inflammatory rhetoric on crime. There's already been too much of that.

What he needs to do is a better job of reaching out to people who are legitimately frightened and genuinely uncertain whether the judicial system is protecting them the way it should.

That would be political, but only in the best sense of the word.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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