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For State's Attorney: Charles Strong

October 24, 2006

In the first contested election for Washington County State's Attorney in many years, incumbent Charles Strong, appointed to the post when M. Kenneth Long became a judge, is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from local attorney Jerry Joyce, a prosecutor himself in Washington and Carroll counties for 10 years.

In some cases, people run a cordial campaign for office to raise their public profile and to show that they are interested in serving in some public position. That's not the case with Joyce, who is running hard, saying that he believes that Strong "has to go."

Given Strong's experience, it will be an uphill battle. Strong has served continuously in the state's attorney's office since 1988, was named Long's deputy in 1993 and took over the top job when Long became a District Court judge in 2004.

That means that for more than 10 years, Strong was not only a prosecutor, but supervised the office for Long. He was given a vote of confidence by local Judges Donald E. Beachley, W. Kennedy Boone III, John H. McDowell and Fred C. Wright III, who appointed him to fill Long's slot.

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At the time, Long said that "I'll let you in on a secret - the county is going to be in good hands with Charles Strong as the next state's attorney."

The rules of judicial ethics prevent Long and the other judges from commenting on the present contest, but it hasn't stopped Joyce from tossing verbal volleys at Strong and his administration.

In an August interview, after recounting the story of a $10-an-hour truck driver who faced a $3,000 fine for driving a rig he didn't know was overweight, Joyce said that in the state's attorney's office, "There is not a lot of sympathy for the working man."

Recently, he criticized the office for failing to give timely notice that it would seek life without parole in the case of Jack Hammersla Jr., who was convicted of beating a Smithsburg-area woman to death.

Deputy State's Attorney Steve Kessell argued that the notice given at Hammersla's first trial was sufficient, but Joyce said that a 2005 case heard by Maryland's Court of Appeals made it clear that for a new trial, a new notice had to be delivered.

The Herald-Mail's editors are not attorneys, but it would seem prudent to do more than is required rather than to take the chance that a defense attorney would use the lack of a second, timely notice as grounds for an appeal.

That said, Strong's experience and the vote of confidence given him two years ago by the local judges, merits our endorsement.

If he is elected, we would advise Strong to take a look at some of the practices of those in his office. Though Strong has said he never did such a thing himself, local police officers have told The Herald-Mail that they've been threatened with bench warrants if they didn't give up vacation plans to be witnesses at trial.

Strong replied that when a judge announces that a trial will be held and that no continuances will be issued, the witnesses, including officers, must appear. We agree, but there is a right way to deliver such bad news and a wrong way.

Strong must also look closely at the case of an assistant state's attorney's failure to disclose to the defense in a timely manner a statement that would have called an accuser's credibility into question. Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael - not the attorney involved - said last week that "our failure has put the defense at a disadvantage."

The state's attorney is only one person and must trust his or her subordinates to do the best possible job. As Strong said in a June interview, "The bottom line is to do right and be fair. You may be criticized, but that's how you have to do it."

We endorse him with the expectation that he will see that all of those in his office live up to that standard.

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