BERLIN — To say that current Wicomico County Assistant State’s Attorney and former Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd has longstanding local roots is a vast understatement. His family can be traced back in Worcester County to 1743, just one year after the county was officially founded.
Yet, Todd, who was involved in trying some of the most headline grabbing and community rattling cases in Worcester County’s history during his tenure from 1995-2011, is soon to be leaving the Eastern Shore and heading west to start a new chapter of his life.
Todd sat down with The Dispatch in his Berlin home to look back on his work in Worcester and Wicomico counties, the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the only home he’s ever known, and revealed some of the cases that he’s worked on over the years that still haunt him to this day.
Q: As you pack up this house here in Berlin and you look forward to the next chapter in your life, has it started to set in that the work that you’ve done over the past few decades will soon become legacy, rather than your everyday?
A: Yes it has. As I pack the boxes, a lot of the things that I’ve been going through in the past weeks have been files and research projects that I’ve done professionally over the years. So, I’ve had an opportunity to go through those and remember some of the things that I’ve done. I’m proud of the career that I’ve had. Come July 1, I’ll have been prosecuting 31 years. That’s a long time to be doing pretty much the same thing, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a great career for me.
Q: As you look over the course of those years, and you realize that you’ve been a part of some of the biggest cases and some of the community changing issues that we’ve seen in the past several decades, what is the one thing that you are most proud of?
A: I’m most proud of the child advocacy center here in Worcester County. We didn’t have one in Worcester, but there was one in Wicomico and in Somerset. For whatever reason, Worcester didn’t have one, so I called the Director of Social Services and said that I wanted to get a child advocacy center in the county. I was told at the time that it would take five or six years to get it going, but we had it up and running in two years. That was thanks in large part, to Atlantic General Hospital, which agreed to give us a location, and it made it a better child advocacy center than we had originally expected because ours had a medical component in ours, which many of the other ones across the nation don’t have. It helped to make the center very effective, and it’s certainly my proudest achievement.
Q: There was a case in 1998 involving the brutal death of 8-year-old Shamir Hudson in his Berlin home. I’ve read in the past that you have called it one of the hardest moments of your long career. Tell me about that case and give people a short synopsis of it if they aren’t familiar with it. How did that case change your career?
A: I’m not sure it changed my career as much as it changed me personally. It had a profound effect on me and it’s a case the memory of which still haunts me after all of these years. It was a cold March morning and I got a call from the police and I was asked to come and meet them in a home in Berlin. A child’s body had been found. So, I went to the house and had to walk through the main part of the house to get to the back room where Shamir’s body lay. In the main part of the house, it was warm as toast, but I walked back to the wing where the children’s bedrooms were and where Shamir’s body was, it was cold enough you could actually see your breath. I stood outside of his bedroom, and his body lay right across the doorway. The police wanted me to come inside the bedroom to see some of the things I couldn’t see from the outside because it was on the wall, so I had to step over his body. His body was in full rigor mortis, and I stepped over him and saw the blood splatters all over the wall. …
I instructed the police which charges to bring, and I had learned while I was there that the boy had been enrolled at a private parochial school in Salisbury. The mother had sent the children to school and they had a lot of wounds and sores on them, and the headmaster supposedly told the mother to take the kids home and don’t bring them back until they healed up, and never reported that to the Department of Social Services. Shamir obviously never got to go back because he was beaten to death that night.
Q: Let’s stop there for a moment, because the mother, Catherine Hudson, was given a 30-year sentence for killing her adopted child. Yet, as I read on about the history of this case, was that you went to look for something to hold the headmaster accountable for his in-action, but you realized there was no law on the books to do that. Tell me what you did next?
A: I instructed the police to charge him with failure to report child abuse. All professionals who deal with children, by law, are supposed to report suspected child abuse to social services and/or the police. I knew there was a law on the books and I told the police to charge. An hour later, I get a call at the office and it was the lead investigator and he told me that there was no criminal penalty for that law. I said, ‘that can’t be right’, and I pulled out the code, which of course, I didn’t have while I was at the crime scene, and looked it up and sure enough, the law says ‘you shall report’ but it had no penalty for not doing it. So, there was nothing I could charge the man with.
Q: When you look at the Shamir Hudson case, or other high profile cases like the Sifrit murder case, how did you juggle handling heartbreaking, tragic, or gruesome cases like those, and come home and put your feet up, read a book and raise your own family?
A: It’s much harder to do that when you are dealing with a child victim. I can tell you that. When I was dealing with the Shamir Hudson case, it was in 1998, my kids were still kids. My boys were 14 and my daughter was 17. So, they weren’t little kids, but it hadn’t been that long since I had been in the middle of raising little kids. It just makes it harder to put the emotional component aside, but a prosecutor can never be controlled by his or her emotions. We have to pursue a case based on the law and the facts and we can’t let emotion interfere with that. But, sometimes, it’s not so easy to just turn that off. However, if a prosecutor finds that he can’t set that emotion aside, then that prosecutor needs to step aside and let someone else handle it, because all cases have to be handled based on the law and the facts.
Q: One of the other big feathers in the cap of your career if you talk to people throughout the town of Berlin, and you say the name ‘Joel Todd’, they’ll often say ‘he helped to clean up the drug problem in Berlin on Flower Street.’ Tell me about that time, describe how bad things had gotten, and talk about the things that worked in cleaning that up?
A: There was, at that time, an open air drug market at the corner of Route 113 and Bay Street. It started small and it just got bigger. I was living where I do now, so we are talking about 10 or 12 years ago, and I would frequently drive by that area. I remember riding in the car with my step-daughter at the time, and we saw a bunch of people hanging out on the corner. I said to her, ‘those people there are probably drug dealers’, and she said, ‘you don’t know that’, so I said, ‘well, let’s find out.’ Now, here I am Worcester County State’s Attorney and I had been in office at that time, between the time I was Deputy State’s Attorney and then State’s Attorney for about 15 or 20 years, so most people knew me. So, we drive up to the corner slowly and I flashed two fingers like this (makes hand gesture similar to a sideways peace sign), which is kind of the universal signal for ‘I want two pieces of crack cocaine,’ which was the big drug at that time. This guy came running over to the car, and I turned to my step-daughter and I said, ‘see, I’m not some kind of dummy’ and we drove off. But, it shouldn’t be that way. We would not have put up with that on the west side of Route 113, but no one seemed to care that it was happening on the east side of Route 113.
I had no real good reason for not providing those who were complaining to me the justice they were looking for, so I started looking into ways that we could fix this problem.
Q: Briefly, talk about your work in Wicomico County in the past few years. Wicomico has had its own problems, particularly in Salisbury, with combating violent crime and trying to bring down its crime numbers in the past several years. There’s also been a very large problem with opioid use throughout the shore, but particularly in Wicomico County.
A: When Matt Maciarello, who is the current State’s Attorney in Wicomico County, took office in 2011, he agreed to hire me as the assistant state’s attorney. That was the same election in which I lost in Worcester County and he won in Wicomico. At that time, Salisbury had just been named the fourth most dangerous city (per capita) in the country. I know firsthand in working alongside Matt, that bringing the violent crime rate down in Wicomico County was job number one. He wanted to restore integrity to the office of the State’s Attorney’s office in Wicomico and bring those numbers down. He has succeeded in doing that, and worked very well with the police organizations there to battle those problems. The rate is still higher than we would like for it to be, but Salisbury isn’t even in the top 50 on that list anymore.
Q: As you wrap up your time on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and you get ready to move across the country, what will you miss about the Eastern Shore and the work that you’ve done here?
A: I have very deep roots on the Eastern Shore, and I love the people of the Eastern Shore and I’m going to miss them. The only reason I’m leaving is that I’ve developed some pretty serious arthritis and when I’m in the southwest, which is where I’m going to be moving, the pain is much less. But, I still have two children that live in this area and all three of my grandchildren live in this area, so I will be coming back a lot. It’s going to be exciting for me to see what life has in store in the new location, but I will always consider myself an Eastern Shoreman.
(To read more of this interview and to listen to the podcast, click over to https://mdcoastdispatch.com/d3-podcasts/qa-with-joel-todd/)