O'Malley defense efforts criticized

Mayoral rivals argue anti-crime candidate assists suspects

August 04, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In the past three years, City Councilman Martin O'Malley has elevated his political career by calling for the city to adopt tougher crime-fighting strategies.

Whether chairing a City Council investigations committee or standing on the chamber floor angrily pointing in the direction of police headquarters, O'Malley has routinely criticized Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier as being soft on crime.

But, by day, the mayoral candidate can be found between campaign stops weaving in and out of area courthouses, working for what some say is counter to his political call: defending suspected criminals.

O'Malley's opponents in the city's mayoral race say his actions are hypocritical.

"There are certainly criminals on the street today that wouldn't be there without his legal acumen," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, which has endorsed an O'Malley rival, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

"I've talked to police officers who say he shows no mercy" in getting clients free, Fugate said.

The former state prosecutor has faced the criticism in previous campaigns. He anticipates more of the same as the Sept. 14 primary nears and wounded mayoral opponents look for a chink in his political armor.

With a polished response that includes references to other politician-attorneys such as Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of West Baltimore, O'Malley is holding up his legal experience as prosecutor and defense attorney as a plus in trying to eradicate open-air drug markets and lock up violent repeat offenders.

"I have prosecuted drug addicts, and I have defended drug addicts," O'Malley told a forum of church leaders last week. "And I can tell you that government's response is woefully inadequate."

O'Malley's defense practice -- with the Towson law firm of Wartzman, Omansky, Blibaum, Simons, Cassin, Sachs and Sagal -- can be described as anything but lucrative. Many of his clients face charges of assault, theft under $300 and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

However, a computer review by The Sun of 102 cases that O'Malley has handled since 1992 shows he has defended 21 drug suspects, six of whom were convicted. O'Malley represented five suspects charged with handgun violations, four of which were dropped; one case is pending. The drug and gun work amounted to about one in every four of the O'Malley cases reviewed.

Critics such as Fugate say most Big-City mayors, including Philadelphia's Ed Rendell and New York's Rudolph W. Giuliani, rise as former prosecutors who built their political reputations by putting criminals in jail. At a rally Monday outside The Sun, Bell supporters handed out copies of a 1997 newspaper article in which unnamed police officials took O'Malley to task for his competing stances.

"Day in, day out, month after month, he has made his living representing defendants in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County criminal courts," an anonymous letter attached to the article stated. "There is nothing wrong with being a private criminal defense lawyer, but it is hypocritical for O'Malley to tell the public that he is a crime fighter."

O'Malley doesn't see his defense work as an issue. He looks at the job more as a chess match, making sure that police and prosecutors follow the law in arresting suspects.

"The question is, can someone who is a defense attorney aspire to public office?" O'Malley said. "And I think the answer is a resounding yes."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor with the Johns Hopkins University, chuckles at the criticism lobbed at O'Malley.

"The man has to make a living somehow," Crenson said. "[The criticism] looks like a bit of a stretch, and it will be interesting whether voters pick it up. I don't think so."

Linneal Henderson, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, agrees. Henderson viewed O'Malley's two years of experience as a prosecutor, combined with his seven years of defense work, as an asset, particularly as the city tries to repair its troubled court system.

"There is nothing wrong with knowing both sides of the system," Henderson said. "If you're going to fight crime, it helps to know both sides."

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