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Baltimore state’s attorney candidates make their closing arguments

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby is facing two challengers in the Democratic primary, including a defense attorney who represented one of the officers she charged in Freddie Gray’s death.

The decision to charge six officers in May 2015 made Mosby a national figure and the subject of criticism, particularly after the prosecutions ended with no convictions. A lawsuit filed against her by five of the officers was dismissed by a federal appeals court but the officers have said they plan to seek review in the Supreme Court.

Mosby graduated from Tuskegee University and Boston College Law School. She worked as a prosecutor in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office after graduating from law school and left the office in 2011 before running for State’s Attorney against Gregg L. Bernstein in 2014.

Ivan Bates, who represented Sgt. Alicia White on manslaughter charges stemming from Gray’s death, is also a former Baltimore prosecutor. He started his own firm, Bates & Garcia P.C., in 2006.

An army veteran, Bates attended Howard University following his tour of duty and went on to graduate from William and Mary School of Law.

The second challenger, Thiru Vignarajah, is a partner at DLA Piper in Baltimore. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Vignarajah worked as a federal prosecutor then a Baltimore city prosecutor before being named deputy attorney general for Maryland.

As deputy attorney general, Vignarajah was lead counsel for the state in post-conviction proceedings for Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction gained national attention through the podcase “Serial.” He remained on the case pro bono after joining DLA Piper.

The Daily Record sent questions to the candidates about their goals for the State’s Attorney’s Office and its relationship with the community and police.

Marilyn J. Mosby (File photo)

Marilyn J. Mosby (File photo)

Marilyn J. Mosby

What accomplishment are you most proud of from your first term in office?

My first term in office has been tumultuous but I am proud of the work of my prosecutorial team and the progress that we are making. We have a 92 percent felony conviction rate and we have convicted all 12 Public Enemy Number Ones that has been brought to trial. That shows that we are winning in the courtroom and holding violent repeat offenders accountable.

I am also very proud of the work we are doing to holistically address the root cause of crime of violence. We have hired a youth coordinator who ensures that we are creating and expanding opportunities to engage young people in the classrooms before they get to the courtroom.

We’ve created programs like Jr. State’s Attorney to expose kids to careers in law enforcement at an early age and Project 17, which targets chronically truant youth and connects them with mentoring programs and job opportunities. These are very important initiatives which we need to scale up in the future.

Perhaps I am most proud of the increased resources we are bringing to bear to expand our support to victims and witnesses of crime. We have doubled the size of our Victim/Witness Unit with the support of a record $2.4 million in grant funding and placed a veteran prosecutor in charge of ensuring the unit was carrying out its essential duties efficiently and effectively. This year we secured an additional $360,000 per year of support for victim/witness relocation services from Annapolis. This money will enable us to protect our witnesses who fear returning to their communities after testifying and enable them to live with their families in safety.

What has been the biggest surprise about being state’s attorney?

I was an assistant state’s attorney for six years so I was not surprised by how challenging the work is. I was always keenly aware of the issues of crime and justice in Baltimore so I knew what to expect. I ran for this office because I knew that we needed to reform the criminal justice system in this city and in this country.

If anything has surprised me, it’s the depth of resistance to meaningful, common sense reform that our system so badly needs. The Department of Justice’s report after the 2015 uprising clearly exposes tremendous inequity and unfairness in how the criminal justice system works in Baltimore, but still there is entrenched resistance to reform.

What is encouraging is that Baltimoreans want a system that works. They want equity, fairness, accessibility, transparency and a system that upholds one standard of justice regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ZIP code or occupation. Our community is willing to be an equitable partner with the criminal justice system if we are serious about reform and addressing the areas where we need improvement.

As state’s attorney, I am committed to reform and leading an office that works for the people and is ethical, fair and transparent. That is how we will achieve the progress that we all seek and that our citizens deserve.

Is the relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the community where it should be? What would you change?

I ran for state’s attorney because I knew there was so much more we could do and had to do in order to bridge the divide between the criminal justice system and the communities we are entrusted to serve. Public trust in the criminal justice system is at an all-time low. Situations like the (Gun Trace Task Force) scandal and the constant turnover in leadership at the BPD has only exasperated the breach that has been there for decades. That lack of trust has definite impact on the SAO’s ability to prosecute and win cases in court. Witnesses and victims are hesitant to cooperate in investigations or testify at trial.

We have been creative and proactive in gaining the public’s confidence in our office. We have nine community liaisons working with community associations and neighborhood leaders every day to improve communication and coordination with our office. We have started programs like Great Expectations, Jr. State’s Attorney, Aim to B’more and Project 17 to show the community that we believe in the capacity of our youth to achieve and succeed if we provide expanded opportunities for them to do so.

We have also greatly increased the resources dedicated to victim and witness services. Victims and witnesses often complained of the subpar conditions in the courthouse where they might run into defendants and their friends, so we renovated our Victim/Witness waiting room with therapeutic touches recommended by experts to provide victims and witnesses a measure of comfort while they are at the courthouse. The SAO also launched community court watch – a web-based tool that allows citizens to track case information for crimes occurring in their neighborhoods. These initiatives are helping us get better cooperation from the community and we look to continue and expand our efforts on this front.

How do you view the current relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the Baltimore Police Department?

Being the daughter and granddaughter of police officers, I have great respect for the work that police officers are committed to. Despite near constant turnover in leadership positions at the BPD, including four commissioners in three years, my office has a good working relationship with the BPD and we will always look for opportunities to make it stronger and to do even more together to protect the citizens of Baltimore.

I have officers embedded in my office everyday working collaboratively and effectively with my team to build cases and to make Baltimore safer. The Gun Violence Enforcement Division and our Narcotics unit are two great example of our working relationship. GVED is an investigative and prosecutorial unit made up of thirteen prosecutors and six BPD detectives.

The Narcotics Division, which I re-instituted, has prosecutors working with BPD detectives every day to dismantle drug organizations. My relationship with the BPD is not contradictory to my belief that we need significant reform of the criminal justice system. I will always look for ways to strengthen our necessary relationship with our law enforcement partners and improve the criminal justice process. I will also continue to advocate for reform measures to ensure a more accountable, transparent, and citizen involved system is in place to establish oversight and continue to root out corruption.

With the passage of the Repeat Sexual Predator Prevention Act this year, do you have any other legislative priorities for future General Assembly sessions?

My top legislative priority for 2019 is working to secure the granting of police powers for our criminal investigators. This legislation would give the state’s attorney the authority to appoint investigators with the power to make arrests, carry a firearm, and serve warrants and writs. Four other counties in Maryland, including Prince George’s County — and many urban jurisdictions across the United States, including New York City and Los Angeles — already have similar legislation.

In this vital time when the BPD is addressing staffing shortage and is in the midst of implementing a complex consent decree with the Department of Justice, the state’s attorney’s office should have the right, as a basic premise of the criminal justice process, to appointment fully certified investigators to carry out many of the duties it currently has to rely solely on the BPD to conduct on its behalf. The demands of responding to violence in Baltimore often mean police officers and sheriff’s deputies are not always able to serve warrants associated with pending cases in a timely manner. When body attachments, search warrants, arrest warrants and writs from jail go unserved, prosecutions are harmed. When witnesses are unavailable, criminal justice suffers. Baltimore city needs to ensure the use of every resource available when addressing crime problems and to include the designation of police powers to my investigators.

Ivan J. Bates (File photo)

Ivan J. Bates (File photo)

Ivan J. Bates

If elected, what would you like to accomplish in your first 100 days in office?

My first 100 days, my team will evaluate every case involving a violent repeat offender. I will select the 10 best trial lawyers and they will each be assigned 10 cases with the understanding that they’re going to trial and cannot plea. Once we have won the cases in trials and have held the violent offenders accountable, we will then be able to send a message that the state’s attorney’s office will hold repeat violent offenders accountable. We then can focus on community prosecution – to collaboratively work with the police and community and focus on violent repeat offenders.

What do you anticipate being the biggest challenge of being state’s attorney?

There is a long list of experienced prosecutors who have left the state’s attorney’s office and a number of them have expressed an interest in coming back under my administration. In addition, a number of attorneys at the state and federal level have expressed an interest in working with me. The state’s attorney’s office under my leadership will be a office where prosecutors will have discretion in handling their cases and will have some of the top lawyers and judges to host training sessions. It will be an office where the culture will be one of support, creativity and teamwork.

Is the relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the community where it should be? What would you change?

For far too long, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office has hurt community ties and confidence. This was due in part to their failure to hold violent offenders and corrupt actors accountable. In addition, the Office has added to mass incarceration by prioritizing winning cases over justice and choosing incarceration over rehabilitative programs for nonviolent offenders. These policies have led to higher crime rates and a less safe, equitable and just Baltimore. I have worked in the criminal justice system both as a prosecutor and defense attorney for more than two decades, while the current Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, had no experience in criminal law prior to taking public office. The failures of her office are directly tied to a lack of experience. I have a plan called community prosecution, which will include the community, police department and state’s attorney office to prosecute violent offenders.

How do you view the current relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the Baltimore Police Department?

As in any relationship, you must have trust and trust is earned. As a homicide prosecutor, my job wasn’t about trust, but the evidence and the law. I evaluated the evidence and studied the case brought to my office by the department and exercised my professional judgment about whether or not there was probable cause that a crime had occurred. Being an attorney for 23 years, it’s about building a case based on the evidence. There will be good and bad police officers and as with any relationship, it must be based on trust.

Do you have any legislative goals you want to accomplish during your time in office?

I believes in second chances and giving those released from incarceration opportunity through job training and re-entry programs that work. In Maryland, half of those released from incarceration return to prison within three years of release. I am committed to closing the revolving door to prison through programs such as the District Court Re-Entry Project (DCREP) that support the reintegration of offenders back into society. I will lobby the General Assembly about providing adequate funding for these programs and expunging non-violent offenses after five years.

I also recognize past failures of the state’s attorney’s office and pledges to reexamine and review questionable convictions through a renewed and over-sentencing of offenders. Under Mosby, the Conviction Integrity Unit has exonerated only one defendant in its entire duration, an utter failure in a city where police and prosecutorial misconduct has led to many wrongful convictions in past decades. I will lobby the General Assembly for funding to assist me in these efforts.

Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah (File)

Thiru Vignarajah (File photo)

Thiru Vignarajah

If elected, what would you like to accomplish in your first 100 days in office?

My pledge is to cut murders in half in three years; reduce violent crime; close the revolving door of juvenile justice; end failed policies of mass incarceration from mandatory minimums, cash bail and the school-to-prison pipeline.

In our first 100 days, we will reorganize the state’s attorney’s office around community prosecution and reset priorities to stop prosecuting victims of addition for petty offenses like loitering and trespass and rededicate resources on prosecuting carjackings, burglaries, street robberies, shootings, murders and gangs.

In our first week, we will adopt and announce policies to end cash bail, forbid the use of mandatory minimums and stop the prosecution of marijuana possession.

But the work of the incoming state’s attorney must begin even before taking office. With no Republican opponent, there will be a six-month gap period between election day and swearing-in mid January. I will form a transition team starting July 1 to take full advantage of the head start to hit the ground running in 2019. No state’s attorney will be more ready to lead reform and the fight against crime.

Now more than ever, we need experience and a proven prosecutor at the helm of the State’s Attorney Office—not a politician, not a defense attorney.

This is the most important Baltimore state’s attorney’s race in a generation. We are a city in crisis faced with a critical decision for our next state’s attorney. What we do over the next four years will define the future of Baltimore for a decade to come.

What do you anticipate being the biggest challenge of being State’s Attorney?

Successfully executing my signature pledge to cut homicides in half in three years will be my single greatest challenge — not because of the ambition of what I’m proposing, but how I intend to do it.  I will not rely on the same failed zero-tolerance policies that have done little to promote public safety but have come at great cost to our communities. The police department and the criminal justice system require reform. I will use the powers of the Office to achieve what for too long has been thought impossible — to at once reduce crime and sharply reduce arrests and prosecutions for petty offenses from loitering to marijuana possession.

I am a proven prosecutor with the experience and track record to help Baltimore turn the corner on violent crime. After law school at Harvard, I clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court. I then served as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, as head of the Major Investigations Unit in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and, most recently, as deputy attorney general of Maryland. I am the only candidate who has personally tried murder, wiretap and gang cases. And during my tenure in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, we brought murders down to the lowest rates in decades.

Here’s what I will do differently:

  • Match community policing with community prosecution.
  • Develop proactive gang prosecutions focused on the city’s 11 deadliest neighborhoods. Currently, prosecutions in the state’s Attorney’s office are entirely reactive. It wasn’t always that way.
  • Build stronger cases, with a special focus on high-impact prosecutions like gun crimes, burglaries, carjackings, and serial murders.
    Involve prosecutors in developing comprehensive reentry plans for individuals who are at the greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

What we do in Baltimore, if we do it right, could be the blueprint for every great city whose promise remains out of reach because of crime.

Is the relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the community where it should be? What would you change?

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has shattered vital relationships — with police, juvenile services, judges and the community. And she has kept the public completely in the dark: not only did she fire the office’s data analyst as one of her first actions, but she also has shown repeatedly since then that she does not value transparency or partnerships.

Most recently, she has peddled the fiction of a 92 percent conviction rate. What she is not telling the public is that this figure does not include the thousands of cases the state’s attorney’s office has dropped or that it counts as a conviction every plea deal she cuts.

As a public official, the state’s attorney has a duty to ensure that the public has unfettered access to how cases are prosecuted and how reform efforts are carried out. As state’s attorney, I promise to maintain practices of open data and transparency and vow to invite members of the media and community to bear witness to the hard, important work we do.

First, we will release 100-day plans every 100 days. At the end of each 100 days, we will release a report on what we have accomplished and where work remains.

Second, each week, we will make available online a downloadable index of resolved and pending cases so the public can see for itself the status of cases and how cases have been resolved.

Finally, to give the public additional insights about how cases are investigated and prosecuted, for certain cases of public importance (e.g., police-involved fatalities), we will permit, with certain conditions, a member of the media to be embedded in the investigation.

We cannot diagnose what is wrong without data and transparency, we cannot see where we are making progress and where we are falling short without public accountability, and we cannot restore the public’s faith in the criminal justice system unless the public believes we have nothing to hide and that our primary interest is the common good.

How do you view the current relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the Baltimore Police Department?

The relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the Baltimore Police Department has never been worse. To say otherwise is wishful thinking and fails to recognize the depth of the problem.

First and foremost, the relationship between police and prosecutors must be built upon mutual respect and trust. But this respect does not mean turning our backs on them when they do wrong and applauding them when they do right; it is a relationship that is built each and every day. It involves working together constructively to ensure justice is served.

This relationship also involves holding police accountable, whether they are cutting corners or committing crimes. To restore integrity, we need to rebuild how we hold police accountable because the current system is not working. It is too slow, it is too secretive and it has sown injustice. Returning to a community prosecution model, which was dismantled by the current state’s attorney, will help. We will also create a first-ever Civil Rights Division that will root out corruption, curb overtime abuses, ensure community input and assist with police training.

One example of what the office can accomplish is detecting corruption in the form of monitoring overtime pay. When you look at the Gun Trace Task Force cases, we see a massive spike in overtime on Ms. Mosby’s watch. I will set systems in place to track such indicators in order to detect misconduct and rebuild trust and transparency between police, prosecutors, and Baltimore’s communities.

We cannot rebuild trust overnight, but we have to start trying today.

Do you have any legislative goals you want to accomplish during your time in office?

Much of what I set out to accomplish I can and will do without waiting for the legislature to act. But the Baltimore we all dream of is not only more safe, it is also more just and full of hope. Legislators have an important role to play — as lawmakers and as the appropriators of public funds.

In my pursuit of public safety, I will implore lawmakers to consider introducing stiffer penalties for organizations and individuals who exploit minors to advance their enterprise and commit their crimes. We need to send a clear message to gangs that it doesn’t pay to use kids to commit crimes. I will also seek expanded wiretap authorization for interstate gun trafficking and gang violence. When I led the Major Investigations Unit at Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, proactive, RICO-style prosecutions led to dramatic, virtually overnight reductions in gun violence.

To build a more just and hopeful Baltimore, I will continue to make an impassioned case for investment in prevention. Violence is not inevitable: under a public health approach, legislators should consider targeted investments in city schools, employment programs and addiction treatment facilities as integral to public safety. Realizing that our criminal justice system has become the service provider of last resort is not enough. As state’s attorney, I will advocate and establish programs for prevention — but this is where the office’s commitment begins, not where it ends.

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