State's Attorney Contest Gets Heated: UPDATE

June 8, 2010

   The campaign for Cecil County State’s Attorney could be one of the more interesting, and heated, races to watch this year as incumbent Christopher Eastridge and potential challenger Michael Halter– Eastridge’s former deputy– square off, as they did in separate interviews with The Cecil Times on Monday.

    Halter criticized his former boss for not giving prosecutors in the office more “discretion” in handling felony cases, deciding which cases stand the greatest chance of successful prosecution at trial and which cases should be handled with plea agreements. Eastridge shot back that Halter’s  criticism was unfounded and said of his former deputy:  “The position went to his head.”

   As The Cecil Times reported Sunday,( article linked here: )  Halter filed his candidacy as a Republican last week and a day later, Eastridge filed for re-election as a Democrat. So far, Eastridge is unopposed in the Democratic primary while Halter will face longtime Elkton attorney Ellis Rollins III in the Republican primary. Rollins filed his candidacy last summer but is also seeking a gubernatorial appointment to a vacant Circuit Court judgeship.

  Halter and Eastridge insisted Monday that there was no attempt to orchestrate a challenge to Rollins in the GOP primary as a maneuver to possibly weaken the well-known Rollins for a potential match-up with Eastridge in a general election contest.  And given their comments about one another, it seems clear that Halter and Eastridge are ‘in it to win it.’

  Halter said he did not speak to Eastridge about his plan to run– “That’s just not something you would do with Mr. Eastridge”– but had talked with fellow Republican Rollins twice about his intent to run. “He  urged me not to run,” Halter added.

   Eastridge said it was “well known” that he planned to file for re-election and that it was simply a coincidence that both men filed within a day of each other. “It is not anything I’ve engineered,” Eastridge said.

   Halter said that a key issue in his campaign will be the need for more “discretion” for prosecutors to determine which cases should be brought to trial and which cases should be dealt with through a plea agreement. He said that the “excellent” staff attorneys in the office should be listened to more but now “every case is his,” he said of Eastridge. There were cases that staff felt were too weak to go to trial, but Eastridge insisted on taking them to court “and then these cases fell apart at trial,” Halter said.

    Eastridge countered that “I reserve to myself an appropriate level of authority” to determine which cases should go to trial. He said he consults with staff attorneys and seeks their views in such decisions. “I am not so obsinate as to be unwilling to see the potential pitfalls in certain cases,” he said.

   However, since most of the prosecutors are part-time, “we can’t have a staff meeting every week,” Eastridge noted.

   Halter joined the office as a part-time prosecutor in 2004 and went to full-time status in 2005. He was appointed Deputy State’s Attorney– the number two job in the office– in 2007, to replace the retiring David Parrack. Halter resigned his post in the fall of 2009. He said he decided to leave the office because “Chris controlled everything” and  prosecutors were “forced to try cases I did not think were winnable.”

   Eastridge shot back that Halter “has to accept responsibility” for his own cases and that in one case he reviewed after Halter left, the loss “could have been a question of appropriate instructions to the jury.”

    Both men explained that the heavy caseload requires prosecutors to make difficult decisions on which cases to fight at trial and which cases are best resolved through plea agreements. State speedy trial rules complicate such decisions. Eastridge estimated there are about 400 felony cases a year stemming from grand jury indictments or filing of criminal information documents, and such serious cases are top priority. Another 1,200 cases a year, many of lesser seriousness, are bumped up to Circuit Court when defendants refuse to resolve them in District Court and “pray” a jury trial at the higher court level.

   Eastridge said he “personally reviews” the serious felony cases stemming from indictments before decisions are made whether to take it to trial or seek a plea agreement.

    Halter said another key issue in his campaign would be the nature of plea agreements, which he said should be “binding” in most cases so that a defendant cannot come back a short time later and seek sentence modification from the original judge or subsequent diversion to non-jail programs, such as drug treatment. Halter has been critical of some judges for watering down punishment after a defendant only served a small portion of the original sentence.

    Both men are experienced, knowledgable prosecutors and a November general election campaign would be an interesting education on the law for citizens. But first Halter has to convince voters that he is the better GOP candidate than Rollins, who is an experienced trial attorney but has not been a prosecutor. The Rollins family name is legendary in local legal circles, since both his father and grandfather served as Circuit Court judges.

    Rollins is also still on a list of candidates recommended to the Governor by a judicial nominating commission for a seat on the local Circuit Court bench. One seat is currently vacant and another will be vacated this fall when Judge O. Robert Lidums retires.

    Eastridge applied for a judgeship but was passed over by the nominating panel earlier this year. “I think there was personality politics at work there,” Eastridge said of the panel’s decision. He declined to elaborate.

   Eastridge was elected State’s Attorney in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. He is a graduate of Washington College and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. He also served as deputy State’s Attorney in Kent County from 1999-2002.

    Halter is a graduate of the University of Delaware, with a degree in criminal justice, and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice administration. He received his law degree from Widener University. He and his wife, Megan, have two young children and live in the Fair Hill area.

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