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State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess ready to try latest mass violence case in Ann

Most of the time, Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess only needs one secretary.

Leitess directs a team of nearly 60 prosecutors and a bullpen of case managers, investigators and victim advocates. Together, they work through the thousands of criminal cases processed by the county circuit court every year — anywhere between 2,000 and 3,600, she said.

But when the county’s top prosecutor enters her own appearance in a criminal case, she takes on another assistant.

“The workload for me, it doesn’t just go away when I’m trying a case,” Leitess said. “It doubles.”

Unlike some of Maryland’s elected prosecutors, Leitess continues to pursue criminal cases herself. Her “forte,” she said, is litigating complex, circumstantial homicides, deadly encounters that require attorneys to piece together strands of evidence into a convincing theory.

Her next case involves a triple homicide that took place in front of a crowd of party guests and that followed years of bitterness and litigation between two neighboring families.

Anne Colt Leitess looks at items various victims families have given her over the years. Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess.

On June 11, Charles Robert Smith, 43, killed three people outside his mother’s house in Annapolis and wounded five others, police say. When the case goes to trial, Leitess will try to prove the act was a hate crime.

The shooting turned a residential neighborhood in southeast Annapolis into a crime scene for several days. It was the deadliest event in Maryland’s capital in the nearly five years since a gunman stormed the Capital Gazette’s newsroom and killed five staff members.

After reclaiming the state’s attorney’s office in 2018, one of Leitess’ first actions was signing on to arraign the newsroom killer.

In early hearings, it looked as though the case would go to trial the same as the “dozens and dozens” of homicides Leitess had handled in her career. However, her objective would soon change. Instead of proving mere guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Leitess would have to convince a jury that the gunman was criminally responsible and sane during his attack.

Preparation for the 12-day trial in the summer of 2021 required Leitess to become an expert on mental illness and symptoms, as well as Maryland’s rarely used insanity defense. She studied case law and prepared witnesses for grueling testimony, ensuring they would not be shocked by new details on the stand, all while maintaining her elected responsibilities — “keeping the boat steady,” as she described it.

“I knew that I would be able to put in the work for that case. I trusted myself to do the job,” Leitess said. “Not that I wouldn’t necessarily trust others to do it, but if you’re not directly involved in a case like that, I can imagine myself constantly second-guessing other people, like ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ or whatever.”

Leitess said it was important for her to try cases that “hurt” the community. It was a guiding factor in 2018 and it was again earlier this year, when she and Assistant State’s Attorney Jason Steinhardt entered their appearance in the State of Maryland v. Charles Robert Smith.

Police say Smith killed Nicholas Mireles, his son Mario Mireles, and Christian Segovia, as the Mireles family celebrated a birthday party three doors from Smith’s mother’s house on the 1000 block of Paddington Place. According to charging documents, Smith’s mother called in a parking complaint to the city and a confrontation between the neighbors quickly escalated.

Police wrote Smith shot the younger Mireles and Segovia outside before retreating and firing a rifle from inside a front window, killing Nicholas Mireles. Court records showed that there were many years of disagreements between the two families.

The killings garnered an almost immediate response from high-ranking state officials, and the memories of the three men who were killed have been preserved by the public. A June procession from the Maryland State House to City Dock honored their lives and ignited the families’ calls for justice, and a mural of the three faces was unveiled in August on the walls of a local recording studio.

Flowers are placed next to photos of Mario and his father Nicholas Mireles at Lawyers Mall. Earlier this year, members of the Annapolis community were invited to join in a vigil to honor Mario Mireles, Nicholas Mireles and Christian Segovia, who were killed in a June 11 shooting.

A Hicks waiver hearing is scheduled for Sept. 9 before Anne Arundel Circuit Judge J. Michael Wachs. Under a Maryland statute, often referred to as the “Hicks rule,” a criminal trial in Circuit Court must occur within 180 days of the defendant’s first appearance in court or after an attorney is entered into the case. Though the rule is clear, it may be waived if good cause is shown to schedule a trial date beyond the 180-day allotment. As of Thursday, Smith will have been detained for 88 days.

Little is known about Smith’s defense. Attorney Mark Howes, who has since left the case, suggested Smith has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his military service, though Army officials confirmed he was never deployed.

Like the Capital Gazette shooter, Smith will be represented by a team of public defenders. Initially, he had retained Howes, and Annapolis attorney Peter O’Neill entered his appearance nine days later. Both stepped away from the case in July, however, after a grand jury indicted Smith on 42 counts, including three hate crime charges.

Smith’s current attorneys — Anne Stewart-Hill and Denis O’Connell — declined to comment.

The indictment was a mammoth escalation in the case. Smith faced 10 charges the night he was arrested.

At that time, Smith told police that he “shot the people because they shot at his house,” according to charging documents. Though no witnesses reported seeing anyone else with a gun, four bullet holes were visible on the Smith’s home, including marks on its front door and porch, as well as the side opposite the blown-out window.

In the days after the shooting, a large section of Paddington Place was taped off while federal investigators analyzed the crime scene. Annapolis Police said agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded to the capital city in June.

Court records, however, indicate Smith’s prosecution will involve the kind of complex evidence Leitess sees as her strength.

In an Aug. 29 consent motion, Leitess asked that “sensitive, graphic” evidence be restricted to the attorneys’ possession and used only to prepare their cases. Leitess wrote that the state has compiled 131 video interviews and 347 crime scene photographs. Additionally, the state has several police and fire department reports, 911 call data, as well as audio files of phone conversations from Smith and his mother, according to court records. One recording involves the parking complaint, while the other involves Smith making a “mailbox damage complaint.”

Police referenced the parking complaint by Smith’s mother in June, but said nothing about a mailbox. A department spokesperson said Wednesday they were “not aware of any conversation” regarding a mailbox and referred comment to the state’s attorney’s office, which did not respond to a question about the audio evidence.

Leitess’ reputation for preparing and presenting complicated cases extends to both sides of the courtroom.

“Anne’s one of the best trial attorneys you’ll come across, point blank, end of question,” said Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates. “No one will be more prepared, no one will be more focused.”

Before he was elected last year, Bates worked as a criminal defense attorney in Maryland’s largest city.

In 2014, shortly after Leitess was appointed to finish the term of then-State’s Attorney Frank Weathersbee, Bates faced her and Steinhardt in the murder trial involving his client, Victor Harper.

Bates remembered dreading the case after learning Leitess was one of the prosecutors, saying he knew how much work she was going to require of him. He even tried to push the case forward after learning Leitess was sick. His client, however, was nervous and wanted to wait an extra weekend.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess.

Harper and Bates tried to argue the shooting was self-defense, The Capital reported at the time, but Leitess shattered the theory during cross-examination, Bates said. Harper is now serving a 30-year prison sentence.

“Anne’s very, very skilled, very smart,” Bates said. “Whoever’s on the other side of the table, they will have a battle that they don’t really understand until it’s too late sometimes.”

Leitess may not take on as many trials as she did in the past — between her 2014 appointment and two election victories in 2018 and 2022, she has led five prosecutions, with Smith’s being the sixth — but she remains active “behind the scenes” on her colleagues’ cases.

Trying her best “to keep an open door” for the prosecutors in her office, Leitess said she makes herself available for consultations or to help strategize arguments. She sometimes sits in on trials and offers advice during breaks and she also must approve any plea offer made in a murder case.

“She wears a lot of hats,” Steinhardt said, “but at the same time, the one hat that she will never take off is being a trial attorney.”

Following a guilty verdict against Angelo Harrod, State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess and Assistant State's Attorneys Jason Steinhardt and Carolynn Grammas walk out of the circuit courthouse along with the family of Michelle Cummings, who Harrod was convicted for killing.

Steinhardt first encountered Leitess in 2004 while acting as a law clerk in the Anne Arundel County District Court. It wasn’t until he got a job as a county prosecutor, however, that they began to develop a relationship.

Steinhardt recalled the future state’s attorney sitting in the gallery during one of his earliest cases. It’s about the only detail he can remember from the trial, but after it was over, Leitess celebrated his performance in front of the entire office.

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“Maybe part of it was because it was one of my first trials,” Steinhardt said. “But getting both the positive feedback along with the constructive criticism, coming from her, really did mean a lot to me.”

Steinhardt admired Leitess’ ferocity in the courtroom during the Harper case, saying she’s “at her best” when cross-examining witnesses. When they work together, Steinhardt feels his perspective is valued.

Engaging in that kind of collaboration, seeing how their styles complement each other, is what he is most looking forward to in prosecuting the Smith case.

“I appreciate the confidence she has shown in me,” Steinhardt said, “and I appreciate that while she may be the boss, at the same time, she will work along cases with me as co-counsel.”

Steinhardt is used to preparing his arguments either in his office or in a conference room that doubles as a storage area for the prosecutors’ more convoluted, paper-heavy cases.

In the depths of the circuit court, however, a “war room” on the far side of Leitess’ office holds relics of some of her past cases. Lawyers, she said, aren’t quick to toss out hard copies. Most everything — filings, notes, depositions — fits neatly into boxes along the wall and some of it, including poster boards now replaced by PowerPoint, is only brought out for schoolroom presentations.

But the lack of clutter is not a sign of dormancy. It signals a beginning. An otherwise blank whiteboard on the war room wall has one thing written on it, the name of her next defendant: Charles Robert Smith.