Matt Maciarello: Convict the guilty, protect the innocent

Matt Maciarello: "A prosecutor must reflect upon this information but he or she must be guided by the facts and the evidence and then the law as applied thereto." (Tony Weeg Photo)

Matt Maciarello: “A prosecutor must reflect upon this information but he or she must be guided by the facts and the evidence and then the law as applied thereto.” (Tony Weeg Photo)

Somewhere back around 1971, Alfred Truitt came to speak to my Boy Scouts troop, there in the social hall at Bethesda United Methodist off North Division Street. Truitt was about to be named a judge, but that night he was still the Wicomico County State’s Attorney.

Truitt gave a presentation that, being 11 years old, I couldn’t really comprehend.

When he completed his remarks and called for questions, my hand was the first raised.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Truitt,” I practically stammered. “Can you tell us again what your job is?”

Truitt looked at me and said: “Son, I put bad men in jail.”

That was plenty for me to understand.

Since then, my thinking has been that putting bad folks behind bars was pretty much all the prosecutors did. How wrong I was.

When you read the following interview with Matt Maciarello, you’ll see that Wicomico County’s State’s Attorney has a lot more on his plate. Our top prosecutor has to work closely with the police; he must serve as a role model in the community; he must be seen as a trusted figure, able to reach across racial and cultural divisions; he must be a good boss, manage a public budget and run complicated office; he must be compassionate, yet quite stern when it matters.

Maciarello and his colleagues handle about 5,100 criminal cases each year. From petty theft to outright murder, every law case is complex, emotional and must be perfectly handled.

Mistakes allow bad people to escape jail. Overzealousness can trump the actual crime. After a verdict, everyone must walk away with a sense that justice was served and the system worked.

Four years into the job, Maciarello — at age 40 — has faced some difficult cases: He prosecuted Thomas Leggs for the horrific murder of Sarah Foxwell; he has been called upon to find hard answers in to cases in which police officers shot people in self-defense; he’s working right now to aid the family of Edward Adkinson, distraught that their son’s killer, Jody Miles, might be escaping the justice that was served.

Maccairello’s credentials are incredibly local: Wor-Wic Community College and Salisbury University graduate, Maryland Law School, began his legal career with the venerable Hearne & Bailey law firm in Salisbury.

His community involvement is also deep: youth soccer coach, Scouts leader, Rotary member (and former Rotarian of the Year), Wor-Wic Foundation board member, married, with two children.

Q. You’re approaching four years on the job. Is it what you expected?

A. Before taking my oath of office I had the benefit of speaking with several former State’s Attorneys, including Judge (Alfred) Truitt and Judge (Richard) Warren, so I had some idea of what to expect.

I learned quickly that I had to essentially work hard to prepare for the unexpected.

The one challenge that I did not expect when taking the position was the relocation of the office. I was in office for about two weeks when I was told that I had to develop a relocation plan.

The great thing about our office is that we have been through so much together, so we have forged an incredible bond; although we have not seen it all, we certainly know how to address a challenge.

Q. The State’s Attorney’s Office had been through the ringer a bit before your arrival: Questions about your predecessor’s conduct; the death of Sam Vincent. What did you do to restore the office to a good footing?

A. Recruiting and retaining the best prosecutors and administrative staff that we could manage under the confines of the budget was probably the most important step.

We also, over time, have created a mission and a vision that is shared by our team. We often meet to discuss our goals and objectives and to reaffirm who we are, who we work for, what we do and how we do it.

We also regularly assess our performance.  For instance, every year, every law enforcement officer in our county evaluates every prosecutor in areas such as preparation, pleas, and communication. We then use that data as a guide in fine-tuning our operation.

While we are not as data driven as the police agencies, we do attend their crime statistics meetings every so often to get a feel for where we need to focus our prosecutorial resources to best compliment their objectives.

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We keep lines of communication open with law enforcement, the courts, and the community so that we are nimble and we can react when problems arise. Because “buy-in” is important in any organization, we try to develop policy in roundtable style meetings attended by our Senior Assistant State’s Attorneys almost as senior partners in a law firm would hammer things out in a partner’s meetings — this way policy does not come down to line prosecutors like an edict from on high, it is usually developed with their participation.

When members of an organization participate, the acceptance of change comes almost naturally. This partnership model works for us because of our particular size and composition.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Ella Disharoon, the Deputy State’s Attorney.

She is an incredible talent and partner in running the office. She is one of the most experienced trial attorneys on the Eastern Shore and is dedicated in every sense of that word to protecting the public.

Ask anyone about Ella and they will tell you that she has the respect of the legal community, law enforcement and the judiciary because of her diligence, her ethics, her humanity, and her style. Sam told his confidants that Ella would be his Deputy, so it was an honor to carry out this part of his vision for the office.

Sam Vincent’s loss hit the office hard. He gave himself to this community.

If you drove by the office on Saturdays and Sundays, you could look into the widow of his office, he was probably there working. It was great to see the city honor him with the “Sam Vincent Way” street sign.

I know that we all see that sign on our walk to the courthouse and we reflect upon the “Sam Vincent Way,” vigorous prosecution with integrity is a part of that way.

We must past Sam’s portrait on the way to court and the way into the office every morning. Inscribed on the portrait are the words requested by his family, which was Sam’s motto: “Evil flourishes when good people do nothing.”

Sam had incredible experience and a work-ethic that was almost mythic. Our approach to try and deal with that loss was to make sure that we consciously developed our talent.

For our big trials, you rarely saw the same two prosecutors trying the case. We always attempted to take a Senior ASA and pair them with a less experienced trial attorney so they could develop as fast as possible.

After four years of this what we have now is an experienced team that is confident and capable in any situation. I have even worked with some of the Senior ASAs on budgeting and the political aspects of the job so that there is the possibility of continuity when there is a changing of the guard.

Q. When you first decided to run in 2010, there was some rough politics going on. You withdrew from the race briefly, but then got back in. Should the prosecutor’s race be more like the judgeship races with an implied expectation of decorum?

A. It would be nice if the political race for State’s Attorney was nonpartisan like a judge. I really strive to not politicize my position. I do think of my job as a public safety job, not a political one.
The State’s Attorney is elected by the people but is a servant of the law. The most dangerous thing in the profession right now is a public perception that prosecutors can prosecute by petition.

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This thought is not shared by just one race, group or social class; I get all kinds of letters and threats at times that I better come down harsh on this person or let this defendant go free.

A prosecutor must reflect upon this information but he or she must be guided by the facts and the evidence and then the law as applied thereto. Before taking office Ella and I had a very serious discussion about our goals and philosophies on the office.

We committed before taking the oath to understand the law and what it requires to the best of our ability and to be guided by that law and to go where it led us regardless of whether it was popular or not. I think part of the anger that is directed toward prosecutors at times is due to fundamental misunderstandings about what the law provides and requires under a given set of facts.

It has been said that we are a nation of laws and not men. I can honestly say that we have seen the protections that this nation’s legal philosophy affords. We must protect the integrity of the legal system at all costs.

When the mob controls the decision to charge or to prosecute we are in deep trouble as a society.

Q. The Sarah Foxwell case was gut wrenching on so many levels. Talk about prosecuting Thomas Leggs.

A. I don’t think I can mention his name without first thinking about all of the police officers, firemen, and citizens who skipped Christmas to bring Sarah home

That is what I like to first focus on in any conversation about that topic.

The community demonstrated that its spirit could not be broken by monsters like Leggs.

I learned a lot about Leggs and men like him from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. They were consulting our team during the case. He is a predator of children, plain and simple, and he has little impulse control which makes him extremely dangerous, so yes, he is monstrous.

I keep a picture of Sarah in my office that was given to me by her family. Her picture captures her smile and her spirit and is a reminder to me that an angel was taken from us; viewing her picture also triggers in me that sense of my responsibility to the community–that I need to do my very best to protect our citizens from many things including the wickedness and evil that can reside in the hearts and minds of some individuals.

Her picture faces my desk so it is the first and last thing that I see in my office every day.

Q. You’re an advocated for Police Body Cameras. Are they really a solution?

A. I have researched body cameras and I think that they can help in our jurisdiction. Are they are panacea? Of course not, but there is little doubt that they have the potential of shedding light on some of the police-citizen interactions that we litigate.

There are pros and cons associated with Body Worn Cameras, most of these have been outlined in a General Assembly task force report.

The cons include yet more government surveillance and cost to be borne by the taxpayer (the greater expense being the data storage costs). BWCs have been proven to modify both the behavior of the citizen and the officer which should, theoretically, de-escalate conflict.

And where there is conflict or a complaint, we could review what is recorded to see if we can get a better understanding of what transpired. But again, this tool is not going to end all conflict and disputes.

As you well know, technology can fail us, and then, even if images are captured, two of us could watch the same the video and walk away with a completely different take depending on our paradigms.

After study and reflection, I personally think that the pros substantially outweigh the cons. Can we afford them (the storage of all that data and the attendant management of the information)? That is the real question.

Q. We often hear that too many people sometimes don’t trust law enforcement and therefore don’t cooperate in police investigations and trials.

A. When I took my oath of office, in my mind I committed myself to doing justice. That includes convicting the guilty, protecting the innocent and, at times, giving victims a voice.

But, in my mind, I also committed to bettering the reputation of the justice system because find out when you spend time in some communities that people have different perspectives on the justice system, some clearly do not think that it works for them.

I am a big believer in the principal of “seek first to understand,” and from my time and study I see that part of the problem is that there is a problem with connectivity, some people do not feel connected to their government.

They also do not understand it — I mean there is a lack of understanding of the role of the police officer and the prosecutor, what their rights are, where those rights begin and end.

So all of the law enforcement leaders in our community, collectively, have attempted to establish real relationships in all communities so that citizens feel that, at the very least, we will be accessible to answer their questions or give them information about the case or situation that they are concerned about.

We may not give them the answer that they want, but I think we do a great job of responding if we are able. I have met a number of citizens in my office to go over particular cases or policies with the hope that this sense of connectivity would help in their perceptions of law enforcement and the legal system in general.

Q. You recently advocated a formation of a community oversight panel that would be called upon to investigate/review complaints filed against law enforcement.

A. The Chiefs of law enforcement, recognizing the importance of connectivity, have sat down for several community forums over the past four years.

During these forums, some citizens have definitely expressed their concerns about law enforcement and prosecution. They call out to us for citizen review of complaints — and I think that we could benefit from some citizen participation.

What that looks like would have to be studied and established by the community at large.

The first step is to get the rest of the community to the table because race relations are not just for police to solve, the community needs to become engaged if it is the will of the people to resolve those issues that divide us.

Some of our officials have been engaged, but the time has come where our local governments need to start to study citizen police relations and come up with solutions that work for our particular jurisdiction. I have provided some ideas to the Mayor and the County Executive and I look forward to working with them with the hope of at least establishing a Blue Ribbon Panel on police and citizen relations.

Q. You have worked hard to engage the NAACP and other community groups.

A. From my work with the Rotary Clubs, the churches, the Chamber of Commerce, I know that there are so many great minds in this county that could come together to look at where we are and where we want to go when it comes to crime fighting and community relations.

I only have so much influence, however, and I don’t want to come too far out of my lane. We all have a vested interest, however, in making sure that there is justice for all and I look forward to being of assistance to any office holder, citizen or group looking to enhance public trust in the criminal justice system.

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Q. The results have been somewhat disappointing.

A. I don’t want to discuss the missteps in progress in the media because the way we are going to move race relations forward is with honesty and straight talk at the table, not by trading barbs in a newspaper.

Q. There have been complaints for years and years that the State’s Attorney’s Office is understaffed. You’ve asked the county for additional resources.

A. The staffing levels at the State’s Attorney’s Office when I first started were troubling.

For instance, although we had double the cases of some of our sister jurisdictions, we had half the administrative support. And when we looked at what the administrative assistants were doing, they were not even meeting community, court or law enforcement expectations.

The District Court prosecutors were routinely going to court without knowing their offender’s background, which made no sense.

During my first term, the County Council, the Executive, the Mayor and the City Council adopted a shared vision of crime suppression. I was proud to see, that in addition to concern for the economy, they all understood crime’s effect on the economic well-being of the shore and the spirit of those who live here.

It is my hope that in addition to economic policy-which is terribly important — the newly elected office holders come to understand crime’s economic impact.

I think, for one, our goal should be to put the maximum resources practicable into suppressing crime so that we can get off Neighborhood Scout’s Top 100 Most Dangerous Places list.

When I took office, we were No. 3 in the nation on that list.

Because of law enforcement efforts were are now ranked in the 50s, which is better, but still not acceptable.

We need to do our best to get off of that list because it is hindering Wicomico’s true potential.

Q. Salisbury’s crime rate is down significantly. What can that be owed to?

A. The citizens should first take credit for the success that we have had in crime fighting. The resources to fight crime come from them, that is why I hope that they will take a greater interest in goal setting and in the discussion relating to police and community relations.

But if I had to name a few things that have substantially contributed to the success of law enforcement, I would first say the collaborative nature of all of the police agencies.

I can honestly tell you that the chiefs of law enforcement are incredible leaders who are mission oriented.

Chief Duncan, Sheriff Lewis, Chief Lashley, Chief Phillips, Chief Saylor, Chief Leatherbury and Barrack Commander Pilchard, are all incredibly dedicated and gifted individuals. And then we have their officers, who from my perspective, are devoted to their hometown their community, and are a credit to their profession.

I would also have to mention the Gang Task Force and Narcotics Task Force which has disrupted and dismantled gangs not only in Wicomico County but throughout the state of Maryland thanks to the Maryland State Police and federal collaboration with our City Police and Sheriff’s Office.

And then when we do have violent crime, our investigative agencies, CID and WBI, are relentless in their investigative pursuits. They give us great cases and I think that we have done a good job in the courtroom seeing to it that we hold offenders accountable, especially repeat offenders.

That is where the City’s Safe Streets Grant helps this community. It pays for a dedicated prosecutor who works with law enforcement to prioritize prosecutions. Out of our 5,000-plus cases that we prosecute annually, our Safe Street’s Prosecutor helps us prioritize our cases based upon an offender’s conduct and their criminal history.

Q. You were called upon to investigate a difficult city police shooting case, as well as the strange situation that led to a shooting at the State Police barrack. It’s a lot of responsibility when it comes to measuring police conduct.

A. I take my responsibility to review use of force cases very seriously. In all of the investigations resulting in a death, I probably put hundreds of hours into review of the evidence and the applicable case law.

It was clear after review of both the Fisher and Norris cases that the officers acted appropriately in their use of force. In my personal opinion, both officers are lucky that they survived.

In one case involving a taser, I scheduled a session with the Sheriff’s Office so that I could feel the taser. I thought if I could safely feel what it felt like to have the probes attached and get hit as the suspect did it would give me perspective in writing my report.

I labored to provide the public with a comprehensive report that described the evidence and explained the law that is to be applied in use of force cases in Maryland. I also released my reports with all of the evidence which included both audio, video and written transcripts so that the public could determine the soundness of my legal conclusions for themselves.

Thinking back on the experience, I just remember giving up weeks of time to ensure that the public was given all of the answers and evidence that I could reasonably provide.

What the public has to remember is that an officer can use that degree of force that he or she is confronted with. As a society we value citizen’s lives but we also value law enforcement and their role in enforcing the law and keeping us all safe.

When someone attacks an officer or otherwise puts him or her in a position where a reasonable officer would perceive a threat of death or serious physical injury, the officer is permitted under the law to dispatch that threat.

And it is important to note that the Supreme Court has ruled that we do not review these events with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight; even the justices have recognized that police are often confronted with dangerously unpredictable, rapidly evolving situations.

Q. Talk about the local gang problem. We hear both that it’s exaggerated and real.

A. The gang problem was absolutely real for this area. We have made a big push to disrupt and dismantle gang activity by local, state and Federal law enforcement on the Shore.

The Gang Task Force and the Wicomico County Narcotics Task Force does an incredible job of gang suppression.

Q. What’s the hardest case you’ve ever prosecuted?

A. My most difficult cases seem to be any case without forensics because of the “CSI effect.” Because of that show– which is as fictional as “Star Trek” — the public tends to expect the tools and techniques that they see on some of these crime shows.

When I watch these shows with my wife I wish we had some of the resources that have been imagined by the shows’ creators.

The state has the burden of proof and I gladly accept that burden, so I am not complaining, I am just saying that there seems to be a bit of an unreasonable expectation at times that is created by this genre of television.

My most complex case was probably the Hurricane Sandy homicide. There were so many officers and witnesses involved. The reports for this case filled three of our biggest binders.

I also handled the robbery cases that were associated with the murder, so I had eight cases that were connected and six defendants in total. I felt like I gave up a summer for that group of cases but it was worth it because we achieved justice for our victims.

Q. The talk on the beach is that you’re a pretty good surfer.

A. I have surfed since I was a boy and now I get to enjoy the sport with my sons.

It is a very healthy sport, it keeps your body strong and your soul pure. There really is no sport like it.

I often meet many friends that I grew up with off of 38th in Ocean City early in the morning, sometimes before the sun comes up.

Many people in Ocean City know Bob “Salty” Selt — well he is like a second father to me, so I often meet him out in the lineup for advice and to just recharge.

Prosecution can be stressful and we see some awful things at times, so surfing continues to be my personal release.

I am always happy to teach people the sport, and I have taken quite a few in our community out there to catch their first wave. Bill Reddish who caught his first wave with me pushing him into chest high swells swears that I almost killed him out there, but I dispute that.

I also have a passion for basketball. I am in my third year of coaching the seventh- and eighth-graders boys basketball team at St. Francis de Sales.

Competition and sport will always be a big part of my life.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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