Crime looms as major issue in Prince George's state's attorney race

Thomas Dernoga
Thomas Dernoga (Mark Gail - Washington Post)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

Ask Prince George's County residents and politicians what the top issues are this election season, and they are likely to agree on three: economic development, education and crime.

Although down from record levels, crime still bedevils the Washington region's third-largest jurisdiction and one of the nation's wealthiest majority-minority counties, blighting some neighborhoods and creating the perception that doing business in Prince George's is still risky.

Maryland's violent crime total fell last year to levels not recorded since 1979, and overall crime dropped in Prince George's 14.3 percent from December 2008 to December 2009, according to the most recent police statistics.

But Maryland State Police crime data also show that in several areas, the county's 2009 crime rate was worse than that of any other jurisdiction except Baltimore's. The county's homicide rate was 11.4 per 100,000, and there were 95 homicides and 3,324 robberies. Last year, the county had more rapes, burglaries and stolen vehicles than Baltimore, the state's largest city.

Against this backdrop, five candidates are vying for state's attorney, the county's top law enforcement post. No Republicans are running, and because the county is overwhelmingly Democratic, victory in the primary is often a de facto victory in the general election.

The five Democrats seeking to succeed Glenn F. Ivey are Angela D. Alsobrooks, executive director of the county Revenue Authority; County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (Laurel); Peggy Magee, Circuit Court clerk; Mark K. Spencer, inspector general for the county police; and Joseph L. Wright, an assistant state's attorney.

Political observers and candidates say the vote Tuesday appears to be shaping up as a head-to-head contest between Alsobrooks and Dernoga. Alsobrooks, who has amassed the most campaign funds with $141,910, has the backing of several key political players, and Dernoga, who has solid financial support with $122,605, has widespread name recognition.

Candidates and observers also say that Dernoga could win by peeling off white, Latino and Asian voters, while the other candidates, who are black, could split the African American vote. All but Dernoga have worked in the state's attorney's office and prosecuted criminal cases.

Wright, 42, says he is the most experienced trial lawyer in the field and the only one who has won a conviction against a county police officer for misconduct. As co-counsel, Wright helped obtain an involuntary manslaughter verdict in February 2008 against former county police officer and homeland security official Keith Washington for fatally shooting a deliveryman and wounding another.

"Even a lot of people in our office felt he shouldn't be prosecuted, because he's a police officer," Wright said in an interview. "But right is right, and wrong is wrong."

As for criticism that his résumé as a manager is thin, Wright said that as assistant chief of the District Court division, he supervises 15 lawyers and support staff.

Yet his boss, Ivey, endorsed Alsobrooks.

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