Harford prosecutor ready for test Cassilly facing first electoral fight since 1982 race

June 14, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly doesn't hide from a challenge -- not since he was paralyzed in a fall from a helicopter in Vietnam.

Cassilly fought his way through rehabilitation, attended college and law school in a wheelchair, even sued his county over access for the disabled. He won office in a hard-fought campaign against the man who hired him as a prosecutor.

Now, Cassilly is facing a new challenge -- his first electoral battle in 16 years.

This fall, the 47-year-old Republican hopes his record of personal fortitude and crime-fighting zeal will persuade voters to choose him over Democrat Frederick J. Hatem, a Bel Air attorney.

"Of course, I plan on getting out there to say hi and shake hands, but I also hope that people recognize that I have been doing a good job for 16 years," said Cassilly, who keeps a portrait of his personal hero -- tough guy John Wayne -- hanging in his Bel Air office.

"I think I have a good record that reflects the job I have done."

But Hatem says his opponent -- despite a reputation as a vigorous prosecutor -- is vulnerable on the issue of victims' rights. Hatem will campaign on a platform of more help for those who have suffered from crime.

"Mr. Cassilly has been in office for 16 years, and he has gotten a little stale over the years," said Hatem, 42. "My primary concern is to address the needs of the victims here in Harford County, and that has not been a high priority on his list."

For almost two decades, Cassilly has been at the helm of the state's attorney's office in a county that has changed dramatically.

Open space and farms have given way to restaurants and housing developments, and the population has risen to more than 200,000.

The spread of drug use in the suburbs and an increase in population have translated into more crime. The Detention Center has been expanded, and judges have been added, as have prosecutors specializing in cases involving drugs, domestic violence and child sexual abuse.

"When I first came in, we probably had about 400 cases in Circuit Court in a year," said Cassilly, who oversees a $2.3 million budget this year. "As of the end of February, we had about 1,100 cases, and by the end of June we will probably have had about 1,800. That's a big workload."

Sitting in his Bel Air office, surrounded by pictures of his three children, a shadow box filled with his Army medals and stacks of paperwork, Cassilly speaks easily about everything from the counseling he sought to deal with his war memories, to his divorce and remarriage in 1994.

Wartime accident

As a specialist 4th class with the 75th Army Rangers in Vietnam in 1970, the 20-year-old Cassilly fell 45 feet onto his machine gun while climbing a rope ladder into a helicopter.

He vividly remembers being caught in the down draft and the fall that crushed his vertebrae and left him in a wheelchair.

"I was trying to carry too much up," Cassilly said. "As I lay there, I knew I was going to die, and I wasn't afraid."

He survived, and when doctors at a Veterans Administration hospital in Richmond, Va., scoffed at his assertion that he would be able to attend college in the fall, he checked out and returned to his native Harford County.

He attended Harford Community College, went on to the University of Baltimore Law School and completed two internships at the Harford County state's attorney's office.

He joined the office as a prosecutor after he passed the bar in 1977 and was elected state's attorney in 1982, after a hard-fought campaign against the man who hired him, Peter C. Cobb.

Cassilly has gained a reputation as a tough prosecutor who has waged war against offenses such as pornography, and has tried high-profile cases in the county.

Wide influence

But his presence has extended far outside of the county.

At the request of community activists in Southeast Baltimore, he testified in Annapolis two years ago in support of a bill intended to stop more large bars from opening in their area.

The year before, an underage drunken driver had killed two Fallston teen-agers after an alleged drinking binge in Fells Point.

"There just seemed like there was a problem there that had spilled out of the city," Cassilly said. "Someone needed to do something about it."

On a statewide level, he pushed for reinstatement of the death penalty and a bill allowing the seizure of property in drug crimes. He also was one of the most vocal opponents of plea-bargaining for serious crimes.

"Joe is a very solid guy and a no-nonsense prosecutor," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who has known Cassilly for more than 15 years. "I think of his office as a very aggressive one, and when we have appeals of their cases, we usually persevere because of the good work they do. Joe has no handicaps; he's just a good, solid attorney."

Cassilly has critics, however.

Former District Court Administrative Judge John S. Landbeck Jr. faulted Cassilly's pretrial preparation and said he gave too little attention to District Court proceedings.

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