Marna McLendon, Howard County's first Republican state's attorney in more than 15 years, took the office by storm last December.
Two weeks before she was sworn in as the county's top law-enforcement official -- and a few days before Christmas -- she fired six of the office's 22 prosecutors and reassigned two others.
She oversaw her staff's successful prosecution of two high-profile murder cases: Curtis Aden Jamison, who killed Columbia teen-ager Tara Allison Gladden; and Daniel Harney, who killed his estranged wife, Shirley Scott Harney.
And in her first jury trial since 1991, the 44-year-old prosecutor won an involuntary manslaughter conviction in the retrial of accountant Melvin Bowers, formerly of Ellicott City, in the chloroform death of his girlfriend.
Her aggressive style has won respect from fellow prosecutors -- and grumbling from some local defense attorneys.
"She has set a standard of being aggressive," said Joseph Murtha, a former prosecutor in the state's attorney office who left in October to practice with a Baltimore law firm.
He said Ms. McLendon's commitment to "pursuing crimes she (( thought needed punishment" was especially evident in her tackling of the Bowers case. "It was a very difficult case -- I know because I tried to get a manslaughter conviction," Mr. Murtha said.
While many local defense lawyers are reluctant to criticize Ms. McLendon publicly, some question her aggressive stance, particularly her stated intention to reduce her office's reliance on plea bargaining.
"I don't know if being more aggressive is the job of the state's attorney's office," said Robert Keehner, an attorney with O'Connor, Keehner, Hogg and McCrone of Ellicott City. "It's to do justice."
Said Joseph Fleischmann, an Ellicott City attorney and a Republican who also ran for the state's attorneyoffice last year: "You won't get any better justice" with going to trial instead of plea-bargaining.
Ms. McLendon makes no apologies for her style or the way she took charge of the office, which had been headed for 16 years by William R. Hymes, a Democrat. She campaigned on a platform of revamping the office and being tough on crime.
"Having one person in the office for 16 years means it was time to move the office forward," said Ms. McLendon, whose 21 years in law enforcement have included stints as a county police officer, prosecutor and solicitor.
She won the general election with 52 percent of the vote, defeating Dario Broccolino, a Democrat and coordinator for the Maryland State's Attorneys Association. He declined to comment on Ms. McLendon's first year.
Once in office, Ms. McLendon said, she pushed her prosecutors to take more cases to trial, especially those involving juveniles.
Although Mr. Hymes' office handled 787 juvenile cases his last year in office -- compared with 687 in Ms. McLendon's first year -- she said she believes his caseload included a high number of plea bargains.
She could not provide numbers to back up that claim, however, saying a tally of the plea bargains accepted by her office is not available. Her office is implementing a computer program to track that information. Plea-bargain data for Mr. Hymes' last year in office also is unavailable, she added.
Nonetheless, Ms. McLendon insisted that her prosecutors are encouraged to try cases that previously might have been subject to plea bargaining.
"We are screening cases to see if we are working hard at prosecuting the people who hurt us the most," she said. "To do something less is not appropriate."
During the campaign, Ms. McLendon also advocated increased services for victims and witnesses, more community involvement reducing crime and prosecution of more child-abuse cases.
Ms. McLendon -- whose office has a budget of $2.8 million -- has worked with her staff to develop community liaison programs. Prosecutors visit middle schools to discourage students from being involved in crime and neighborhoods to talk about ways residents can fight crime.
"The more visible we are in the community is a good thing," Ms. McLendon said. "The biggest problem in the community was people didn't know what was going on in the courthouse. We are their voice in the courtroom."
Although she is aware of the bruised feelings caused by last year's pre-Christmas firings, the shake-up was necessary to establish control of the office, she said.
"It wasn't an 'I'm tough' message as much as 'I'm the boss,' " Ms. McLendon said. "I wanted people who would move forward with my vision. I was voted into office to make decisions and changes that are best for the office."
Matter of timing
Last year's administrative shake-up couldn't have come at a better time, she said. Four days after she was sworn in, Daniel Harney -- who had fled Maryland with his two young sons after being charged in his wife's slaying -- was arrested in North Carolina.
"We were ready," she said of her newly configured staff. "When I took office, I needed to know who in my office would be in place. We have tremendously skilled prosecutors who are willing to take tough cases."
Michael Weal, one of her opponents in the state's attorney race, is one of those prosecutors. He was chief of the District Court division before Ms. McLendon was elected but was reassigned to Circuit Court.
"Things have worked out well with Ms. McLendon," Mr. Weal said. During last year's campaign, they outlined similar visions for the office, he said.
In her remaining three years, Ms. McLendon said, she wants to build on her efforts and seek re-election in 1998 -- and maybe for another term after that.
Every campaign promise has been acted on at some level, she said. "It's not all accomplished. I'm going to run again. I love this job. This is best for me."