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Challenger makes Shellenberger play defense in forum

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and his opponent Robbie Leonard.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and his opponent, attorney Robbie Leonard. Credit: Shellenberger/Leonard

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger has not had a Democratic primary challenger since he was first elected in 2006.

The four-term incumbent has one now.

At their first political forum, challenger Robbie Leonard tried to paint Shellenberger as a prosecutor who goes easy on bad cops, a charge the state’s attorney vigorously denied. The candidates also mixed it up over police reform and the county’s murder rate.

During the November 24 forum sponsored by the Randallstown Branch of the NAACP, Leonard challenged Shellenberger’s handling of the prosecution of former county police officer Anthony Westerman. Last month, Circuit Judge Keith Truffer sentenced Westerman to four years of home detention while he appeals his conviction on multiple counts of raping and sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman in 2017.

Leonard said Westerman should be in prison.

“And it’s the state’s attorney’s office that has really failed in their pursuit of justice, especially against police officers,” Leonard said.

But Shellenberger fired back, saying Leonard forgot to mention that his office prosecuted Westerman and got a conviction.

“We went after him,” Shellenberger said. “We wanted him to get substantial jail time. It wasn’t me who sentenced him to home detention, it was the judge.”

Shellenberger said he was appalled by the home detention sentence the judge gave Westerman.

Leonard also went after Shellenberger for accepting campaign donations from the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police.

“I will not take one dollar from the Fraternal Order of Police,” Leonard said. “We need to sever those ties so that the people of Baltimore County know that we work for the people not a police union.”

But Shellenberger cited a list of nearly two dozen officers his office has prosecuted, including one who at the time of the charge was the president of the FOP.

“So, while I have accepted donations from lots of people, including the FOP, that does not influence us prosecuting criminal cases,” Shellenberger said.

Shellenberger’s most recent finance report shows the county FOP political action committee gave the state’s attorney’s campaign $750 last year.

Leonard hammered Shellenberger over Baltimore County having a record number of 50 murders this year.

“So, we’re going to continue to set these murder records,” Leonard said. “We know we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Shellenberger said any murder is one too many but that the county, with more than 850,000 people, continues to have a low per capita homicide rate.

Leonard questioned Shellenberger’s support for police reform legislation, both at the county and state level. Shellenberger said he did testify against the initial bills. He supported what the county council eventually passed. He said he doesn’t love everything in the state legislation but is working with his staff to implement it.

“I support reasonable police reform, not just willy nilly police reform,” Shellenberger said.

Shellenberger also said he has been pushing police departments statewide to use body cameras.

John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County said Leonard, a Towson attorney, is reaching out to the liberal activists in the Democratic party. Dedie said that could be an advantage for Leonard in the June 2022 primary.

“In primaries, people who are more on the extremes of the ideology are more likely to go out and vote,” Dedie said “Whereas the people in the middle, they stay home and wait until the general election.”

Shellenberger brings to his fifth race for state’s attorney the power of incumbency, which includes name recognition and fundraising. Shellenberger usually keeps a low profile. Professor Dedie said he needs to change that.

“Be out there on the courthouse steps at the end of the day saying, ‘here’s how the prosecution’s going. We’re going to lock this person up and throw away the key.’”

No Republican has entered the race for Baltimore County State’s Attorney.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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