How Ivan Bates went from a 1.9 high school GPA to become the presumptive next Baltimore state’s attorney

Published on: August 03, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 03, 2022 6:09 PM EDT

Ivan Bates is one of two men running against incumbent State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the Democratic Primary Election.

Ivan Bates took his 6-year-old daughter, London, to Six Flags America soon after the Associated Press declared him the winner of the Democratic primary for Baltimore state’s attorney.

Bates was emerging from a hard-fought, three-way race that included the two-term incumbent, Marilyn Mosby, and a former Maryland Deputy Attorney General, Thiru Vignarajah.

At the theme park in Bowie, Bates said, people stopped him and asked for pictures. That, he said, is when his victory kind of set in.

Bates, 53, of Locust Point, the founder and managing partner of Bates & Garcia, P.C., is poised to take on the role of chief law enforcement officer of Baltimore at a critical time, as the city heads toward exceeding 300 homicides for the eighth straight year. No Republicans are running and an independent candidate, Roya Hanna, recently dropped out.

On the campaign trail, Bates made big promises: He vowed on day one to rescind Mosby’s policy against prosecuting nonviolent, low-level offenses, to increase cooperation with law enforcement, and to seek mandatory minimum sentences for those caught with illegal guns.

He has also said he would drop the controversial case against Keith Davis Jr., who is awaiting a fifth murder trial in the fatal shooting of Pimlico Race Course security guard Kevin Jones in 2015.

In an interview, Bates recounted his path from graduating high school in Virginia with a C-minus GPA to opening his own law firm. He likened his journey at one point to Forrest Gump, the title character of the eponymous 1994 movie who happens to find himself in pivotal moments in U.S. history. “God just blessed me with things,” Bates said, “put me in certain situations.”

Employees, supporters and colleagues described Bates as a hardworking, zealous advocate for his clients who’s respectful and genuine. He said he feels he has something to offer — and wants to improve the city for his daughter.

“I really believe we can change our city around. I really believe that we can have a better quality of life. Like, I really believe in those things,” Bates said. “And I have an opportunity to be a part of that change.”

‘You need to be a lawyer’

Bates’ parents, Henry and Cleora, adopted him in El Paso, Texas.

His father, he said, was a disciplinarian. Meanwhile, his mother stated that she’d personally call the police if she ever found marijuana on him.

In eighth grade, Bates said, he wanted to become a lawyer. But an aptitude test suggested that he should instead be a brick mason.

He said he was smart but tried to act cool to fit in. His father was in the U.S. Air Force, so the family moved all over, eventually settling in Hampton, Virginia.

As part of an effort for racial integration, Bates said, he was bused 20-30 minutes each way to Bethel High School. The environment, though, was not particularly supportive for Black people, he said. Some students displayed Confederate flags in their pickups, he said, and called him the N-word.

He said he knew he wanted to go to college — just not at that time. Bates said he didn’t have any focus in his life and graduated with a 1.9 GPA.

To his surprise, Bates said, his father told him on the day of his high school graduation that he’d have to move out.

When the U.S. Army sent a recruiter who looked like Whitney Houston, Bates said, she was able to talk her way into the home. “All I remember is they said, ‘Oh, you’ll love it. It’s, you get to go out, you get to go camping with your friends,’” he said. “That’s how they sold it to me.”

Later, he said he realized, “This ain’t no camping. This sucks.”

Bates said he served from 1986-88 and received an honorable discharge. He was assigned to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, worked as a light wheel vehicle mechanic and reached the rank of private first class.

The Army, he said, made him a leader.

Next, Bates enrolled at Howard University and earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1992.

He served as president of the Howard University Student Association during his senior year. People, he said, told him, “Man, you need to be a lawyer.” He said he would articulate issues facing the student body — and administrators would listen.

In 1995, Bates received his juris doctor from the William & Mary Law School.

While pursuing his law degree, Bates said, he clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in Los Angeles during the time that O.J. Simpson was awaiting trial for the killing of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

One time, Bates said, he remembers almost bumping into Simpson’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran, in a crosswalk. Bates said he recalls thinking, “Maybe this criminal law thing is it.”

Following his graduation from law school, Bates said he wanted to go back to Los Angeles. But his mother asked him to move to Baltimore to help take care of his aunt, Edna, who lived on West 20th Street near Maryland Avenue in Charles North.

He began his legal career in the city, working as a law clerk for Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell.

‘He said he wanted to be the state’s attorney for Baltimore’

Sometimes, Mitchell said, he’d receive dozens of letters from law school graduates interested in clerking for one year.

Mitchell said he was impressed with Bates’ intelligence, leadership and values.

Bates was the second person to serve as president of the Howard University Student Association interested in clerking for Mitchell. The first, he said, was a University of Maryland School of Law student named Elijah Cummings, who’d later represent Maryland’s 7th Congressional District from 1996-2019.

During his clerkship, Bates was not afraid to take on responsibilities and worked well with others, Mitchell said.

While Bates said he sought to become an assistant public defender, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender didn’t want him. Meanwhile, he said, one of the deputy state’s attorneys in Baltimore, Sharon May, recruited him.

Mitchell recalled that the office asked him to release Bates early “because they wanted him that badly.”

“I don’t remember it ever happening on my 17 years on the bench,” said Mitchell, who served full-time from 1984-2001.

They stayed in touch. Though he’s not sure when the conversation happened, Mitchell said he remembers once speaking with Bates about his aspirations. “He said he wanted to be the state’s attorney for Baltimore City,” Mitchell said.

Bates worked in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office from 1996-2002, reaching the homicide division. He left to become a defense attorney at Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow, Gilden, and Ravenell, P.A., and worked on a case called Maryland v. Blake that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2006, Bates started what’s now Bates & Garcia, P.C. He’s represented clients such as Baltimore Police Sgt. Alicia White, one of six police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, 25, a Black man who suffered a spinal injury in the back of a police van and later died on April 19, 2015.

None of the cases resulted in convictions.

On the other hand, Bates also represented several clients victimized by the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, whose members robbed people, lied in court documents and stole overtime.

Bates said he decided to run for state’s attorney in 2018 because he felt that the office was in shambles and believed that he had something to offer.

During that campaign, Bates successfully defended against a lawsuit that challenged his residency. He also faced scrutiny for his claim that he’d never lost a murder case as a prosecutor.

Bates released a campaign ad in which the narrator stated, “As a homicide prosecutor, Ivan never lost a murder case.” He later explained, in part, that he counted cases that the state dropped as wins if law enforcement incorrectly charged people with murder.

His opponents, though, accused of him of exaggerating and misrepresenting his record.

Bates threatened to sue his opponents for defamation.

The biggest misconception about him, he said, is that he’s self-centered and arrogant. Lawyers have to be confident about their case, Bates said.

He came in second in that election, receiving about 28% of the vote.

The loss, he said, hurt.

“When you put yourself out there as a candidate, and you lose, it’s almost as if you bare yourself, and they said, ‘No.’ And that rejection hurts immensely,” Bates said. “And you can either pick yourself up, or you can allow it to just fester.”

Bates said he felt that parts of him needed to grow and mature.

In 2021, Bates experienced more loss. He helped care for his mother for six to eight months in home hospice until her death. His third wife, Lana, filed for divorce.

He said he decided to run one more time for state’s attorney for his daughter.

Crime, he said, is “too bad.” He did not become a lawyer to be a great defense attorney, he said, and again thought he had something to offer.

A ‘passionate advocate’

Bates’ law partner, Tony Garcia, said the two met while serving as assistant state’s attorneys in the 1990s and hit it off.

Garcia said Bates is driven, animated and focused. He bounces ideas off other attorneys. And he’s developed a track record of winning cases on pretrial motions, including those that allege violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Bates rehearses how he’s going to ask questions or argue a point in court, Garcia said.

“A lot of lawyers go by topic. Ivan literally writes his questions out. Every single thing he’s going to say is prepared and planned in advance,” Garcia said. “That gives him a much better presentation, a much more organized appearance.”

That includes deciding what question is No. 3 or No. 36 — he will even write out the question mark at the end of each sentence — so that answers come out in the best way, Garcia said.

Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard, the first woman to serve as chief judge, said she met Bates when he was an assistant state’s attorney. He later appeared in her courtroom as a defense attorney.

From a judge’s perspective, Heard said, being prepared and knowledgeable about the law are the two most important qualities for an attorney to possess. That’s in addition to having courtroom presence.

If any of those traits are missing, she said, then they’re just average.

Bates, she said, was prepared and well-versed in what the law required to get evidence admitted. He also had a presence that built credibility and made people listen to him.

One time, Heard said, an assistant state’s attorney intimated during her closing argument that a white witness could not be trusted because the person moved into a Black neighborhood.

Bates, she said, was the defense attorney and perfectly timed his objection.

“As I saw it clearly, he saw it. And he leaped out of his chair. He literally leaped. He left the ground,” said Heard, who was on the bench from 1999-2019. “Before he even landed, I had said, ‘Sustained.’”

His campaign treasurer, Catherine Flynn, a defense attorney in Baltimore, described Bates as “very zealous” and a “passionate advocate.”

“He would leave no stone unturned. I would sometimes roll my eyes like, ‘Gee, that was a ridiculous argument,’” said Flynn, who represented Baltimore Police Officer Garrett Miller, one of the other police officers charged in the Freddie Gray case. “And then he would win.”

‘When he speaks, people listen’

Brandon Mead, a defense attorney in Baltimore, said he tried his first murder case with Bates in 2013.

Bates, he said, taught him how to prepare a proper defense and present evidence, and called him a good orator who knows how to listen.

Mead said that’s a quality that he’s witnessed in court and during the campaign.

“When he speaks,” Mead said, “people listen.”

Andrew Alperstein, a defense attorney in Baltimore, said he once had a client charged in an armed robbery and shooting who did not like a proposed plea agreement.

So the client called Bates. While some attorneys might’ve tried to steal the case, Alperstein said, Bates reached out, explained the situation and asked if he wanted to work on the matter together.

“He’s a gentleman,” Alperstein said. “He’s an honorable guy. He’s a respectable guy. And he’s an honest guy.”

When Bates states that he’s running for state’s attorney to improve Baltimore for his daughter, Alperstein said, “I think he’s genuine.”

‘Day one, you’ll see a change’

Bates said he intends to make several changes on his first day as state’s attorney, such as rescinding his predecessor’s non-prosecution policy for low-level, nonviolent offenses including drug possession, trespassing and prostitution.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” Bates said. “I remember when it happened, my clients were sitting here telling me that Marilyn Mosby allows them to sell drugs. I’m like, ‘No, you’re crazy.’”

“You can’t have a gray area in the criminal law,” he added. “It has to be black or it has to be white.”

Police, he said, need to have every tool in their toolbox to fight crime.

For instance, Bates said, law enforcement might stop a person for loitering or trespassing and discover that individual has a murder warrant.

When he’s sworn in, Bates said, he plans to visit a senior center — he’s put out a five-page plan to protect older adults — and attend a police roll call. He said it’s important to work collaboratively with law enforcement, which could improve the quality of cases.

Though the solution to crime is not to lock everyone up, Bates said — he said he was here during the era of clearing the corners — people who possess illegal guns “got to go to jail.” He has vowed to pursue firearms offenses that carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

“Day one, you’ll see a change. Because you’ll have a change in attitude,” he said. “You’ll have a change in attitude because I’m going to make sure everybody knows in the criminal element that I’m not playing: I’m going to hold them accountable.”

During the campaign, Bates released a 19-page prosecution plan that includes proposals to work with the judiciary to set up a dedicated gun court, to assign two assistant state’s attorneys to every homicide case, and to use grand juries to further and strengthen investigations.

Bates said he also intends to work with the Maryland General Assembly to strengthen laws to protect victims and witnesses, to use diversion programs, and to support expungements for those who’ve been held accountable and changed their lives.

During the 2022 campaign, Bates told The Baltimore Banner that he would drop the charges against Keith Davis Jr., whose case is one of the most controversial in recent memory. Supporters have condemned his continued prosecution, holding protests, taking out billboards and launching a website.

Davis’ wife, Kelly, urged people to vote for Bates.

At the same time, Bates said, upon the request of Jones’ family, he would refer the case to an outside jurisdiction for review.

In the 2018 campaign, Bates said he would drop charges against Adnan Syed, the subject of the popular podcast Serial, who is serving life in prison for the killing of his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School, Hae Min Lee, in 1999.

Now that he’s the Democratic nominee, Bates said, he ethically cannot talk about the Davis or Syed cases. But he said he’s a “big believer of keeping my word.”

The state’s attorney in Baltimore plays an important role in fighting crime, said Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Bates, he said, will have to work with the police and judiciary. At the same time, Weich said, “we don’t want to go back to policies that led to mass incarceration.”

“He needs to find that sweet spot,” Weich said. “He needs to be reform-minded but aggressive in addressing crime in the city.”

Bates said he’d prefer to get started and do the work. Part of him, he said, is still overwhelmed by the attention.

“I just really want to do a good job for people. I really, really want to do a good job,” Bates said. “It means a lot to me to do a good job — because, like, it means a lot that people voted for me.”

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