For more than a decade, Gary E. Bair supervised lawyers in the Maryland Attorney General's Office who battled in court to ensure that the death sentence of convicted killer Steven H. Oken would be carried out.
Bair and the lawyers on his staff were matched against Fred Warren Bennett, Oken's attorney, who did everything he could to get his client off death row, filing numerous appeals in state and federal courts.
The legal showdown ended June 17, when Oken was executed for the 1987 murder of a young woman in White Marsh in Baltimore County.
Around that time, Bair said in an interview recently, Bennett asked him whether he would consider moving to the private sector to work with him. By the end of July, Bair had agreed to leave his post as solicitor general in the Attorney General's Office to join the Greenbelt office of Bennett's firm, Bennett & Bair LLP. He started work Sept. 1.
Bair said he was ready for a change after working for the attorney general for 21 years.
"It was time for a new challenge, time for a new phase in my career," said Bair, 53.
He is, in effect, switching sides. In his new job, Bair will primarily work in behalf of clients appealing convictions or sentences or petitioning for post-conviction relief.
Bair said he is pleased to be rejoining forces with Bennett, 62. When Bennett was the chief public defender in Prince George's County in 1979, he hired Bair, who worked in that office for two years.
"Fred is very passionate; he's a fighter," Bair said. "He's the kind of defense attorney you want on your side."
Although Bair has experience as an assistant public defender and as an assistant attorney general, his move to Bennett's firm is his first experience in the private sector.
Bair was named solicitor general in 2002. Before holding that post, he served as chief of the criminal appeals division for 15 years. In those two positions, Bair represented the state, including state's attorney's offices throughout Maryland, in criminal appeals in state and federal appellate courts. Bair argued before the U.S. Supreme Court twice.
In July 1994, Bair won an important case involving a hate crime that went before the Maryland Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the 60-year prison sentence of a white Rockville man who had attacked two black women.
In the attack, one woman was beaten, doused with lighter fluid and threatened with being set on fire. The defense appeal that Bair defeated challenged the way Montgomery County prosecutors had presented evidence of racial motivation.
"This ruling makes it easier for prosecutors to bring in evidence of racially motivated acts," Bair said at the time. "If they had ruled the other way, it would've been harder to bring in prior incidents to show racial motivation in a current case."
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said he is sorry to see Bair leave the Attorney General's Office.
"His departure is a huge loss for the state. He was probably the best appellate litigator that we had," Ivey said. "He did an excellent job representing us in federal courts and in Maryland courts."
Bair's knowledge of criminal law is so deep, Ivey said, that he and his prosecutors sometimes consulted Bair before they began trials, not just on criminal appeals.
"Every dealing our office ever had with Gary Bair was a very positive one. He was always willing to listen to our concerns, which sometimes went beyond the trial transcript. He was willing to push the envelope on our behalf," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.
Bair is an avid runner who has completed four marathons. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Mary Ellen Barbera, a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Bennett said Bair is a valuable addition to the firm.
"He brings statewide name recognition," Bennett said. "He's probably one of the best lawyers in the state in terms of his knowledge of criminal law. He brings a tremendous amount of credibility."