Embattled Jessamy seeks re-election

Baltimore state's attorney builds neighborhood links amid public controversies

May 23, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Standing on stage before a crowd of cheering supporters, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declared her candidacy for re-election last night, promising to make decisions based on what's right -- not popular opinion.

"As state's attorney, I make tough decisions every day. I make them and I can live with them, because I have a moral compass," she told more than 100 supporters at Payne Memorial Outreach Center. "Justice matters to this state's attorney."

Behind her stood a panel of local luminaries, including Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who compared Jessamy's hardships in office to those of Jesus.

"I have never known her to back down from a fight," said McKenzie.

Jessamy, confident of victory, says she'll do "whatever it takes" to get re-elected -- raise from $175,000 to $300,000, knock on doors, commission polls, go on television.

Why she would want to keep her job another four years is not a flip question. The chief prosecutor in a drug-riddled city, she runs an office of about 200 attorneys on a budget she characterizes as "shoestring." She's been the object of acerbic criticism and a well-publicized insult from Mayor Martin O'Malley, and one of her opponents this week called for her resignation -- a sign of bulldog campaign tactics to come.

To the average person, the position might seem a poisonous mixture of daunting and thankless. Not to Jessamy.

"I love my job," she said in an interview, "because every day I feel like I'm helping someone. I don't know of any job that could be more rewarding than this one."

As for detractors such as City Councilwoman Lisa J. Stancil, who is challenging Jessamy in the Sept. 10 primary election, she's confident she can handle them. Anton J.S. Keating, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who has practiced in the city for 35 years, is also running in the Democratic primary.

"I just stand on my faith in my record," she said a bit sternly. "I'm an exceptionally strong individual."

As Jessamy cranks up her campaign, she will be talking a lot about her experience -- a word that could easily become a pitfall for Stancil, who spent two years as a prosecutor in the mid-1990s. For a recent interview, Jessamy brought along a list titled "Accomplishments."

Under Jessamy's watch, the office has expanded its homicide unit, created a firearms investigation unit, an electronic surveillance unit and a half-dozen community outreach initiatives. There are new child abuse programs that combine the efforts of prosecutors and police with medical experts, and the office is fully computerized -- a success she tends to mention before all the others.

"We went from a System 36 IBM mainframe computer and nine terminals to a totally automated system," she said.

Jessamy knows these details intimately, just as she can rattle off the amount of money her office got for a particular grant or the difference between the city's proposed budget increase for the Police Department this year ($14.7 million) and for her office ($397,000).

By her own admission, though, she has sometimes been ineffective at communicating the larger picture. And the media have been more interested in reporting the controversial than the good, she said.

Whatever the reason, some of Jessamy's decisions have become easy targets for her opponents.

Names such as Michael Austin, freed last year after spending 27 years in prison on a faulty murder conviction, and James Quarles III, shot to death by a police officer at Lexington Market in 1997, promise to be raised with regularity during the campaign. (Jessamy argued against granting Austin a new trial, and she declined to prosecute Officer Charles M. Smothers II, who shot Quarles.)

There's a sense among some politics watchers that although she's been in office eight years, she's vulnerable. Appointed to the job in 1995, she ran unopposed in 1998.

Until now, she has never had to campaign. "She stands almost equal with the rest because she's never been tested," said lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who ran unsuccessfully for the office in 1978, along with Keating.

Leading city and state politicians -- even some who once backed her -- have questioned her decisions and criticized her style. In January, state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman publicly lectured Jessamy for "throwing stones" at the city's early-disposition court.

And last year, O'Malley lashed out at her with profanity over her decision not to prosecute police Officer Brian L. Sewell, who was accused of planting drug evidence. The case fell apart after key evidence was stolen from a police office.

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