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Trying cases will benefit Bernstein, say other state’s attorneys

Stuart O. Simms tried murder cases, drug cases and even appeared in juvenile court when he served as Baltimore City state’s attorney in the late 1980s and early 1990s. No matter the cases he selected, his goal was never to make headlines.

“I wanted to pick something of substance and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the staff,” Simms said Wednesday from his office at Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore. “Each experience motivated me to provide high-quality services to victims and the public.”

The city’s current top prosecutor will appear in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Thursday to try his first case. Gregg Bernstein is not commenting as to why he chose to personally handle the state’s case against three police officers accused of kidnapping and abandoning two Baltimore teenagers.

State’s attorneys past and present had different reasons for taking cases but said no matter Bernstein’s motivation, his court appearance will only help him perform his job.

“It’s not obligatory to try cases, but it certainly adds to your credibility,” Simms said.

For Bernstein, it also means fulfilling a campaign promise. He criticized his predecessor, Patricia Jessamy, for not trying cases and told The Daily Record after his election victory in November he was eager to sit at the prosecutor’s table.

“If I had my druthers, I’d like to be in a courtroom the first week, but that’s just not realistic,” he said.

Bernstein said he wouldn’t necessarily “cherry-pick” high profile-cases, although he appears to have found one.

Officers Milton Smith, Tyrone Francis and Gregory Hellen were charged separately in May 2009. The officers, part of a special unit that focuses on violent crime prevention, were charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, second-degree assault and misconduct in office. One victim and his family have filed a civil lawsuit stemming from the alleged incident.

Joseph I. Cassilly, the longtime state’s attorney for Harford County, called Bernstein’s first case “unusual, not run-of-the-mill.”

“Even if he just handed it off to an associate, the media would be tracking it,” Cassilly said.

A. Dwight Pettit, who is representing Michael Brian Johnson Jr. in his civil lawsuit, said the family learned from Bernstein a few weeks ago that he would be trying the case himself.

“I know the family is pleased the case is going forward on the criminal trial,” said Pettit, a Baltimore solo practitioner who said he learned the news through media reports this week. “Personally, I think to put it on this level of priority is a positive thing.”

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Smith’s lawyer, said he learned Friday that Bernstein would be trying the case.

“It makes the case more high-profile,” said Ravenell, of Murphy P.A. in Baltimore. “It won’t change our aggressive representation of our client.”

David B. Irwin, who is representing Hellen, agreed.

“I hope the only impact on the finder of facts is the facts in the case,” said Irwin, of Irwin, Green & Dexter LLP in Towson.

Michael J. Belsky of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A. in Baltimore, Francis’ lawyer, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Cassilly, Harford County’s top prosecutor since 1983, said he is in trial about once a month. He frequently handles vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving cases in part to make a statement about the crimes.

“You choose to try a case that says something about where you’re setting priorities as a prosecutor,” he said.

Just because a state’s attorney is in trial does not mean he or she can neglect their administrative duties. Cassilly said he tries to avoid trial dates when he’s working on his office budget or knows he needs to testify on legislation in Annapolis, for example.

Scott D. Shellenberger was on a lunch break early in his first trial as Baltimore County state’s attorney when he was forced to change gears to make “very important decisions” about other cases his office was pursuing. The 2008 murder trial was the first fetal homicide prosecution in the state.

“I try to find cases that are interesting and have interesting issues,” said Shellenberger, who also tried a 2009 case that was one of the first to use a law allowing phone calls recorded in jail to be used as evidence.

Both Shellenberger and Cassilly said being in court allows them to stay connected with their prosecutors.

“It’s a good statement to your office that you’re willing to understand what the system is like, what the judges are like and what the jurors are like,” Cassilly said.

Shellenberger said he does not feel any pressure trying a case as state’s attorney and does not think Bernstein will either.

“If you’re a good trial attorney, like Gregg is, he just needs to practice law the way he’s practiced for the last 20-plus years,” he said.