Prosecutor marks 21st year in office Aggressive O'Connor pushes death penalty in Baltimore County

January 22, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

After 21 years, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, the county's chief prosecutor, says she's nowhere near calling it quits.

"There are times when you go, 'Oh, gosh.' But never seriously," she says.

This month, Mrs. O'Connor marks 21 years in her elected position. During that time, she has built such a strong prosecutorial reputation that no one will run against her. She created Maryland's first crime victim assistance unit and launched other innovations that have spread throughout the state.

G. Darrell Russell, a Baltimore County District judge who in 1982 was the last to run against her, says: "She's so strongly entrenched and has the respect of the bar association it's difficult getting your teeth into any issues you can publicly challenge her on."

A straight-talking woman with close-cropped red hair, Mrs. O'Connor, 52, pulls no punches. In supervising 41 attorneys and 44 staffers, she prosecutes defendants -- particularly repeat offenders and those eligible for the death penalty -- to the fullest extent.

Her office is much more aggressive in seeking death sentences than prosecutors in Baltimore. For example, Baltimore is not seeking the death penalty in any of its current murder cases, whereas the county is seeking it in four cases.

"If the maximum applies, we ask for it," she says bluntly in her fifth-floor office in the Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson. "It doesn't mean the judge has to give it. I absolutely feel it's the right thing to do."

Not everyone agrees.

"Look, we don't like the death penalty, and wish that she would come to the conclusion that it's neither a deterrent nor an appropriate punishment," says Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

And criminal attorney Richard M. Karceski characterizes her policy as akin to crying wolf.

"If you stand up all the time and say, 'I want [the maximum] penalty' I think you may find the bench stops listening to the prosecution's remarks about sentencing," said Mr. Karceski.

Her policy, he says, slows the wheels of justice by limiting plea bargains. "It's great to be tough but I do believe there are many instances where [her staff] prosecutor's discretion [should be] allowed, and it's not."

Mr. Karceski was supervised -- and impressed -- by Mrs. O'Connor in her previous job as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore. She worked there from 1967 until 1974.

She ran for county state's attorney soon after, and has no plans to leave. "It's a field where every time you think you have seen the absolute worst, most bizarre, craziest scenarios, where it couldn't get any wilder, weirder or worse, it does."

It did, she says, when Benjamin Garris was accused of fatally stabbing a counselor at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in October.

"I think it is highly unusual that we have [the] mimicking of 'A Clockwork Orange' and the horrendous murder that followed," said Mrs. O'Connor.

Since taking office, she has tried about four cases -- more than that would be "like the police chief making arrests," she says, adding that she sometimes misses being in the courtroom.

The last case she prosecuted was the June 1991 murder of Jane Tyson, who was shot in front of her two grandchildren in the parking lot of Westview Mall during a robbery that netted $10.

Mrs. Tyson and Mrs. O'Connor were approximately the same age, lived in southwest Baltimore County and shopped in the same stores -- and the prosecutor was outraged. "When it's so close to everything you've done in your life, it makes you want to be involved," she says.

She put one defendant in the murder on death row; the other got a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Much of her job seems easily adaptable to her family life. She's the mother of two grown children, lives in Catonsville and is married to Harold Rose, a former Baltimore homicide detective. She keeps regular hours, often bringing home job-related reading material.

But at work, she has brought innovations that ease the sometimes grueling court experience.

For example, she created Maryland's first Victim Witness Assistance Unit, now in its 18th year. Staff members serve as advocates to crime victims, providing case information, emotional support and referrals, as well as transportation when cases are moved outside the county.

Fran Hviding is grateful for the help she received after her 21-year-old son, Stephen, was slain in 1981. Jackie Harris was sentenced to death in the slaying in three separate trials, but when the sentence was changed to life in prison, the Hviding family was devastated.

"When your whole life is shattered around you and you're desperate, [Mrs. O'Connor took] care to make sure life got no worse for us," Mrs. Hviding says.

She says Mrs. O'Connor sent people to her Owings Mills home to see if anyone needed anything from aspirin to a court accompaniment. When confusing legal proceedings prompted a call, "there was Sandy, with all the answers," says Mrs. Hviding.

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