Baltimore County prosecutor ready for campaign trail

Bailey seeking to succeed State's Attorney O'Connor

July 22, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Stephen Bailey cut his legal teeth in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office.

It is where he learned about criminal law firsthand, where he tried his first capital murder case, where he made his way up the ranks - eventually becoming one of two top deputies to State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor.

After 19 years, he said, he was content to toil just beneath the top job in a place where attorneys were known to arrive and nest for years.

"I could have easily served four more years as Sandy's deputy, and life would be fulfilling," he said recently.

With O'Connor's decision to retire at the end of her term next year, though, Bailey, a Republican, has decided to vie for the top spot in an organization that has nurtured him and his prosecutorial beliefs since his last days as a law student at the University of Baltimore.

His announcement July 13 that he is running for state's attorney in 2006 came with a promise of continuity - of the same high standards for prosecutors, of the same tough-on-crime-and-criminals policies that the office has become known for during O'Connor's three decades in office.

For some, more of the same is an attractive idea.

"He certainly is a worthy successor," said Gary S. Bernstein, a Towson defense attorney. "It makes no sense to change."

But for others, the idea that O'Connor's most debated policy - that of seeking the death penalty in all eligible murder cases save those that fit narrowly drawn exceptions - could survive her departure if Bailey is elected was distressing news.

"That's a major disappointment," said Fred Warren Bennett, who represented Steven Oken, the last inmate to be executed in Maryland. "I was hoping her leaving would end that policy."

Still, Bennett said, Bailey is a good attorney and well-respected.

A Wilmington, Mass., native, Bailey, 42, was in law school when he interviewed for a clerkship in the state's attorney's office in 1986.

That clerkship turned into a prosecutor's job the next year, and within months he was sitting as second chair in a death penalty case - that of Kenneth Collins, who was convicted in 1988 in the robbery and fatal shooting of bank executive Wayne L. Breeden.

Despite his youth, Bailey gave one of the arguments in the case.

"I remember thinking, `Gosh, [the senior prosecutor] must have a lot of faith in him because he's so young and green,' " said Maggie Schilder, Breeden's widow. "It was a beautiful argument - what he said and the way he said it."

But the Collins case was not easy for Bailey, and he asked O'Connor not to assign him any more capital cases for the near term.

"It's sort of an awesome responsibility to stand up in front of a jury and make an argument that somebody ... should be punished by a sentence of death," he said.

But after two years of trying serious cases and hearing victims' concerns, he said he changed his mind.

He would go on to try more murder and capital cases and earn a reputation in the process as that of a thorough, studied prosecutor who could make seamless arguments to judges and juries, said S. Ann Brobst, chief of the office's Circuit Court division.

"He's firing all his pistons," she said. "His arguments are not only very well organized, ... but he can just be mesmerizing."

By late 1993, when O'Connor was looking for someone to create a unit to handle the office's domestic violence cases, Bailey was her choice for the job.

He spent the next eight years leading domestic-violence prosecutions, learning the issues, educating officials and training police and others how to strengthen cases to try to keep them from falling apart when the victims decided they no longer wanted to testify against the men who had hurt them.

"It was a place where, if you were willing to invest yourself in these cases, you could make a difference in people's lives," Bailey said.

When O'Connor's longtime deputy, Howard Merker, retired in 2001, she turned to Bailey to fill that role, as well.

"Howard was just so good with the staff. That's what I was truly trying to replace, and Steve has that personality and that patience," she said. "He's somebody I wanted when I wasn't there to be speaking for me to the public."

And when she decided to retire, O'Connor put her faith - and her endorsement - squarely behind Bailey.

Bailey, a father of three and member of Timonium's Grace Fellowship Church, said he knows the next 16 months on the campaign trail will be a challenge for a self-described homebody with no political experience.

But, he said, he believes Baltimore County residents want more of the same from their state's attorney's office. After 19 years under O'Connor's tutelage, he said, he is ready to step into her shoes.

"What a great position to run for," he said. "I get to remind people of all the super things Sandy's done for them, how I played a role, and to promise them to keep doing the same work."

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