Jessamy, opponents attack each other's credentials at forum

State's attorney candidates face off in stinging debate

July 19, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The three candidates running to become Baltimore's next state's attorney faced off last night in a stinging debate peppered with so many personal attacks, it sometimes resembled a playground confrontation.

Incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy, who has held the office since 1995 and has never been opposed for election, ardently defended her record.

Her challengers - longtime lawyer Anton J.S. Keating and City Councilwoman Lisa Joy Stancil - attacked her office, her reputation and her management skills.

Jessamy threw out a few barbs of her own at the NAACP-sponsored forum, which followed a more tepid debate by the candidates running for Maryland governor.

Voters will decide among the three Democratic candidates for state's attorney in the Sept. 10 primary election.

During the debate, Jessamy belittled Stancil's career, saying the councilwoman left the state's attorney's office before she could handle any serious criminal cases.

"Of my two opponents, one has no felony trial experience, was only in the office for two years and never got out of District Court," Jessamy said.

Then she went on to speak of Keating: "The other hasn't been in the office since the 1970s."

Jessamy said she prides herself on making apolitical decisions and ended her closing statement with a comment quickly seized upon by an opponent.

"I've never had someone come up to me and say, `Mrs. Jessamy, you didn't make the right decision based on the law, the facts and evidence,'" she said.

Keating responded: "Tell that to Michael Austin." He pointed to Austin, a man recently freed from prison, who to the crowd's surprise was sitting in the audience.

Austin raised his hand and answered "Right here, sir," eliciting loud applause.

A judge overturned Austin's conviction on a murder charge last year, ruling that scant evidence had put him in prison for 27 years.

Austin's was a high-profile case, and one that brought criticism for Jessamy when she initially opposed his release.

She later changed her mind, deciding not to prosecute Austin again. But she refused to explain the move to the public, further aggravating her critics.

"What Jessamy did was file a 19-page memorandum to prevent this man from going free," Keating said. "When you know you have an innocent man in jail, you go and get him out. It's that easy."

Keating then moved on to Stancil - who he said should remain on the City Council - as he illuminated his own record of trying more than 100 murder cases.

"Lisa, she's a real good councilperson," he said. "If she stayed in the state's attorney's office, she might have seen a murder case." The crowd, including Jessamy and Stancil, erupted in laughter.

Stancil got in a few jabs of her own, saying the state's attorney's office is ineffective in prosecuting crime.

"There is a climate in Baltimore City that one can get away with just about anything, even murder," Stancil said. "We have a state's attorney who has lost the trust of the citizens of Baltimore. The office is in a state of confusion, lacks accountability and lacks intelligent leadership."

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