State's attorney race gets heated

First contested election for prosecutor since 1982

Three Democratic candidates

July 21, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

It's been 20 years since a Baltimore state's attorney has been challenged in an election, and now that three tough-talking candidates are vying for the job, the political rhetoric is back with a vengeance.

Incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy and her opponents - longtime lawyer Anton J.S. Keating and City Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil - are facing off in what is shaping up to be a sharply contested race. The public got its first peek at the candidates at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-sponsored forum last week that probably foreshadows what is to come.

The forum, at the War Memorial building, was filled with personal attacks and self-congratulations.

Stancil and Keating repeatedly attacked Jessamy's performance, and each said the public has lost confidence in the office.

Keating spoke of Courtney M. Noakes, a 21-year-old man who beat three murder charges.

In August, acquitting jurors faulted the state for presenting a weak case against Noakes. And one week before that, prosecutors had to drop another case against him because of an evidence foul-up.

"You can't lose three murder cases in a row in my office and stay as my employee, because that makes me look like a jerk and I can do that on my own, thank you very much," Keating said.

Jessamy fervently defended her record, while belittling her opponents' qualifications for the job.

"As I walk the streets of Baltimore, I hear, `Mrs. Jessamy, you're doing a good job,' " Jessamy said. "They say `Mrs. Jessamy, you don't make judgments based on politics.' "

Voters will decide among the three Democratic candidates in the Sept. 10 primary election.

Jessamy, who has held the position for the past 7 1/2 years, was appointed in 1995, and ran unopposed in 1998.

Before Jessamy, Stuart O. Simms was appointed to the office and then ran unopposed. Kurt L. Schmoke was elected to the office in 1982 and then ran unopposed.

Schmoke resigned to become mayor in 1987, and Simms left to become secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice in 1995.

There hasn't been a heated contest for the office since 1982, when Schmoke beat incumbent William A. Swisher.

The $115,000-a-year state's attorney's job is seen by many as daunting and thankless in a city afflicted by drugs and crime. It is not a partisan position, but it requires as much political savvy as it does diplomacy.

The city's top prosecutor runs an office of 204 attorneys on a budget Jessamy has called a "shoestring."

Jessamy has been the object of highly publicized criticism by Mayor Martin O'Malley and others, and has not been able to hide her simmering feuds with the Police Department.

At Thursday's forum, Jessamy said she wants to hold onto the job because she has more work to do and because she's the most qualified one to do it. She described her office as a "bustling, state-of-the art law firm."

Stancil said she wants the job so she can "rebuild relationships with police and judges."

"There's a lack of accountability in that office," Stancil said.

Keating described the relationship between prosecutors and police as a losing team.

"It's like watching a football game, and the offense and the defense are arguing with each other about why they're losing," Keating said.

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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