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Brobst Described as Tough Prosecutor

Friends said the Baltimore County Circuit Court judge handled some of the toughest cases in the state but was also known for her sense of humor and office pranks.

A lover of the law. A tough prosecutor. An office prankster.

Friends said Judge S. Ann Brobst, a Towson resident who died Monday after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 59, was a combination of those characteristics.

Over the course of 30-years, Brobst earned a reputation as a tough, whip-smart prosecutor that was belied by her diminutive stature and long blond hair.

"She looked like she went to college on a cheerleader scholarship," said District Court Judge Leo Ryan, who worked with Brobst in the county state's attorney's office. "There was this dichotomy because despite the way she looked, she was a tough prosecutor."

State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger worked with Brobst from 1982 until Shellenberger left the office in 1993 and then again when he was elected to the office in 2006.

"I think the thing that made her so good was that she was so smart and so quick," Shellenberger said. "She could read things one time and it would be with her forever. Then she had this uncanny ability to make things so simple for the jury."

Shellenberger said she was able to use that ability to speak directly to jurors and "get them to come to the place they needed to come."

Circuit Court Administrative Judge John Grason Turnbull II called Brobst "an absolute delight as a state's attorney. She was always prepared."

"Frankly, that carried over in her demeanor on the bench," Turnbull said, adding that Brobst "listened to the arguments and knew there were two sides to every story."

Brobst as a prosecutor, and later as a judge, developed a reputation for declining to prosecute or convict people when the case just wasn't there.

Earlier this year she presided over the case of Michael Hester, a Dundalk man accused of killing his 89-year-old neighbor in 2010. A jury deadlocked during deliberations in his first trial.

In the second trial, Brobst found Hester not guilty and urged police to continue to search for the woman's killer. It was a decision that put her at odds with her former prosecutor colleagues.

It wasn't the first time the former prosecutor's discretion put her in conflict with other law enforcement officials.

Brobst was born Nov. 17, 1953 in Norristown, PA to James and Shirley Brobst. She grew up in Frederick County. She later attended Pennsylvania State University where she graduated with a bachelor's degree with honors in 1975. Three years later, Brobst graduated with honors from the University of Maryland School of Law.

Brobst joined the Baltimore County State's Attorney's office in 1979 working first as an assistant state's attorney. In 1983, she became the chief of the office's Circuit Court Division and was responsible for handling some of the highest profile murder cases in the county and state.

Some of her cases included: Steven Oken, who sexually assaulted and killed Dawn Garvin and then two weeks later murdered his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, at his White Marsh townhouse and dumped her body along White Marsh Boulevard. Oken fled to Kittery, Maine, and murdered Lori Ward, a desk clerk at a motel where he was staying. Oken was ultimately executed in Maryland for the Garvin and Hirt murders.

Brobst was also the lead prosecutor in the abuse and starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher in 1997; The 2000 murder of Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero while he worked as a security guard at a Pikesville jewelry store; And Nicholas Browning, a 15-year-old Dulaney High School student who in 2008 shot his father, mother and two brothers in their sleep. Browning then staged the scene to look like a robbery before leaving to go to a friend's home to play video games.

"She was a force of nature in the courtroom," Shellenberger said. "It was amazing to see this petite person explode and take over in the courtroom."

Brobst was also the lead prosecutor in the second trial of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was accused of raping and murdering 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton of Rosedale.

"The evidence was pretty compelling," Ryan said.

Bloodsworth was twice convicted of the crime and spent more than a decade in prison including several on death row.

After his second conviction, Bloodsworth hired a new lawyer and requested access to Hamilton's clothing so that it could be tested for DNA evidence—a science so new there were no laws on the books or case law in the courtroom governing it.

Despite pressure from the police department, Brobst did release the evidence that showed that someone other than Bloodsworth committed the crime.

"She could have said 'no' but she released it," Shellenberger said.

Brobst later refused to mount a third attempt to prosecute Bloodsworth despite pressure from some in law enforcement who sought to have her removed from the case or fired.

"I think it was her finest moment," Ryan said.

A decade later, the same DNA evidence that exonerated Bloodsworth led to the arrest of a man with whom he was incarcerated.

Brobst drove to Cambridge and met with Bloodsworth in a fast food restaurant and apologized.

"A lot of people think that was a failure of the system," Shellenberger said. "It's really a triumph of the system."

Ryan said the Bloodsworth case stuck with Brobst throughout her career.

"She realized that there were years taken from [Bloodsworth] that should not have been taken from him and that pained her," Ryan said. "She wasn't some rabid zealot."

Ryan said Brobst was able to honestly assess cases and know when there was enough to prosecute.

"People didn't get prosecuted because of Ann," Ryan said. "There were a lot of cases that didn't happen because of her."

Despite the serious nature of her job, Brobst also had keen sense of humor—often at the expense of friends and co-workers.

In one instance, Brobst was responsible for the creation of a yearbook-like publication that contained the photos of colleagues in the office.

"She put it together and went around and took the pictures and wrote the humorous captions," Ryan said of the book which was titled in Latin and translated to "It's a Mistake."

Ryan said Brobst also had a habit of writing outlandish yet convincing letters to national columnists in the hopes that they would be published. Her colleagues were often the unwitting foils of the gag as she would use their home addresses as the return address on the letters.

Ryan himself was the victim of one such letter.

In 2009, Brobst was appointed to the Baltimore County Circuit Court by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

She stood for election in 2010.

Brobst was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December of 2011—about the same time that WBAL Radio talk show host Ron Smith lost his battle to the same disease. She sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital even as she continued to preside over cases until a short time before entering Gilchrist Hospice where she died Dec. 17.

Brobst is survived by two adult children, Alice Bowie of Washington DC and Robert Bowie, III of Towson; and a sister, Jane VanCantfort of Grass Valley, CA.

The family will receive friends at Ruck Funeral Home in Towson from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Dec. 20.  A memorial service will be held at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., on 11 a.m. Friday. A private interment service will follow.

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