For the prosecution

July 03, 2005

BALTIMORE COUNTY State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has decided not to seek re-election next year. After serving eight consecutive terms, this is her prerogative, of course. But it's hard to find anyone in Maryland's legal community who isn't saddened by the news. Mrs. O'Connor, 62, has been one of Baltimore County's most popular and enduring leaders, a role model not only to women but to anyone entering the practice of law. She is a first-rate prosecutor, and her office a model of efficiency and professionalism.

We have often disagreed with Mrs. O'Connor's views on the death penalty. She has chosen to seek that verdict in virtually all eligible cases. She believes that makes her decisions evenhanded and free of bias. But it's a policy that also sets her apart from most of her peers. Indeed, her hard-line view on capital punishment is one of the primary reasons why there are significant regional and racial disparities in Maryland's exercise of the death penalty. And it's why the rate at which Baltimore County sentences criminals to death is among the highest of any large county in the nation.

But we can appreciate the fact that Mrs. O'Connor's views on this topic have been consistent. She's never touted capital punishment verdicts as if they were notches on a prosecutor's gunbelt. Her beliefs are probably shared by the majority of county voters. Certainly, her popularity on Election Day has never faltered.

In much of Baltimore County, she is simply known as "Sandy." And people who have never met her think of the Catonsville High School graduate as one of their own. Her staff is fiercely loyal, as she has been to them. The public may never fully appreciate the difficulty of a prosecutor's job, the modest pay, the long hours, the stress and grim nature of the cases. Mrs. O'Connor could have left office at any time and found more-profitable and less-demanding work, but she never did.

Voters under the age of 50 likely don't remember that Mrs. O'Connor was first elected in 1974 at a time when a cloud of scandal hovered over the state's attorney's office and over Baltimore County politics in general. She helped restore integrity and independence to Towson. She may be the county's least-political politician - often to the chagrin of her fellow Republicans, who get no favors or endorsements from her.

Mrs. O'Connor's departure adds another level of intrigue to what is shaping up to be a landmark election for Baltimore County next year. Stephen Bailey, a deputy state's attorney, is expected to be a candidate, as is Councilman Kevin Kamenetz. And no doubt there will be others. The winner would be wise to following Mrs. O'Connor's succinct advice on how best to serve: "Surround yourself with the best people and listen to them."

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