The Sun

Judges explain silence on crime
Hill Staton, Leasure say fairness precludes discussing the issue

by Caitlin Francke and Shanon D. Murray SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

October 4, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 818 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN474567


As their electoral opponents talk increasingly about the rise of violent crime in Howard County, Circuit Court Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton used a news conference yesterday to explain why they can't.

"One of the things we pledge is to always be fair," Leasure said. "I think it is very important we maintain an open mind, don't prejudge the case, don't go into it thinking what our disposition is going to be before we have even heard the facts of the case."

Hill Staton added: "We are not there to advocate or defend anything than the constitution of the state."

With the Nov. 5 election for two seats on the Circuit Court bench only a month away, the challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, have highlighted hot-button issues of crime and punishment in public appearances, television ads and campaign mailings.

The two tickets face off in a campaign that has been the most heated and expensive race for the Circuit Court bench in the state.

Smith -- separate from his ticket-mate Gelfman -- has outlined his support for the death penalty for "heinous murders," mandatory no-parole prison sentences for repeat offenders and life imprisonment without parole.

Yesterday's news conference appeared to be an effort by the sitting judges to answer their opponents and shift the thrust of the campaign to their possible strength, their 10 months of experience on the Circuit Court bench. They also released a new mailing outlining their pledge "to be scrupulously fair, tough when we need to be and compassionate when dealing with victims, families and children."

"The Gelfman and Smith ticket is trying to make crime the issue," said Neil E. Axel, a Columbia lawyer and co-chair for the sitting judges' campaign. "It's a false issue. The issue is whether in the past year Judge Leasure and Judge Hill Staton have demonstrated that they have the temperament, the integrity, the work ethic and the ability to continue as Circuit Court judges."

The two challengers consider crime not only a legitimate issue, but the core of their campaign to unseat the judges appointed last year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. They stress their backgrounds as prosecutors and experience dealing with criminal matters.

"The public is entitled to know what my positions are," Smith, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I know the ins and outs of the criminal justice system. The public is very concerned with the rise of crime in Howard. They deserve judges who are going to do something about it."

Howard E. Wallin, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and former secretary of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, said judges are not allowed to express their opinions on legal or political issues. Smith, as an attorney running for the seat, is not restrained by the same code as the judges, Wallin said.

"Judges are under strict rules about what they can and can't say," Wallin said. "They've got to keep their mouths shut. I don't think they can say in advance how they would rule."

Gelfman tempers her tough-on-crime stance -- in interviews and her television ad -- with statements on how a judge must deal with cases fairly and not "prejudge."

But in the TV ad, Gelfman also agrees with an off-screen voice that talks about "the frustration of a community threatened by crime, which feels enough is enough." Then, she talks about lengthy prison sentences in certain instances.

And in a telephone interview yesterday, Gelfman said judges cannot remove themselves from issues that their community deems important.

"A judge is the citizen of the community," she said. "Everybody has the right to be concerned about crime. A judge has the right to be concerned about crime. It's important to understand issues in the community."

As for the sitting judges, even as they were trying to divert the campaign away from the crime issue, they both acknowledged yesterday it is a concern of many voters.

Their news conference was scheduled immediately after a county Chamber of Commerce luncheon during which Police Chief James N. Robey and State's Attorney Marna McLendon made presentations on the county's crime situation.

"I would think for some people it {the crime issue} would have a great deal of appeal," said Hill Staton.

Said Leasure, striking her own tough chord: "Neither of one of us has any difficulty in being tough in sentencing if the situation requires it."

Pub Date: 10/04/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company