Embattled Marilyn Mosby tries to fend off familiar rivals for third term as Baltimore state’s attorney

Published on: July 05, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 11, 2022 3:53 PM EDT

The Democratic primary candidates for State's Attorney: From left, Ivan Bates, Baltimore defense attorney; incumbent Marilyn Mosby; and Thiru Vignarajah, CEO of Capital Plus Financial.

In the last Democratic primary election, Baltimore voters cast more ballots for a state’s attorney than a governor.

Almost everyone had an opinion about State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby; they still do. The lightning-rod incumbent swept to victory with 17,000 more votes than her closest challenger.

Four years later, the names on the ballot are the same. Much else is different.

Federal perjury charges hang over Mosby as she tries to fend off well-funded challenges by Democrats Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah. An independent candidate, defense attorney Roya Hanna, will face the winner in November’s general election.

Controversies trailed Mosby over the past four years. More recently, staff departures and retirements strained her office. Bates and Vignarajah are pledging to rescind her key policy: to cease prosecuting people for drug possession, prostitution and other nonviolent offenses. It’s shaping up to be Baltimore’s most anticipated race of the July 19 primary election.

Mosby, 42, of Reservoir Hill, wants a third term as state’s attorney. She’s married to City Council President Nick Mosby, and she makes about $248,000 a year. She’s running on her record — of reducing prosecutions of nonviolent offenses, of freeing men wrongfully convicted, of spending more to support victims and witnesses — rather than campaigning on new plans for the office.

When asked in forums and interviews how she will improve, Mosby says her office operates at a high level and prosecutors need to continue what they’re doing. Consistency is most important in a city that has seen a revolving door of police commissioners and mayors in recent years, she says.

Mosby claims a 90% conviction rate, but that figure doesn’t include the cases she drops before trial. She’s built a national reputation as a leader in criminal justice reforms while her support locally has slipped.

Some 60% of people surveyed for The Baltimore Banner by the Goucher College Poll said they disapprove of the job she’s doing. That’s a higher rate of people than disapprove of the mayor, the police commissioner or the schools CEO.

In 2018, she won 49% of the vote. Bates took 28% and Vignarajah 22.5%.

Bates and Vignarajah continue to hammer her on the amount of gun violence in Baltimore. The city has suffered more than 300 homicides a year since she took office in 2015. Both men say Mosby isn’t doing enough to stop the bloodshed. It’s the same line of attack Mosby used to unseat her predecessor, Gregg Bernstein.

Only now, Mosby says she shouldn’t be judged by what happens in the streets.

“A prosecutor comes into play after somebody has already made a poor decision or broken the law. So how you hold me into account is what we’re doing in those courtrooms,” she said in an interview. “The concept that they’re going to pin at my feet that I’m responsible for the violence. … If anything, them making that argument shows their inexperience.”

Bates, 53, lives in Locust Point and worked as a city prosecutor before opening the defense firm Bates and Garcia, LLC. Vignarajah, 45, lives in Federal Hill and served as a city, state and federal prosecutor. He is CEO of Capital Plus Financial, a Texas-based financial institution that lends money to projects of social impact.

Both men say a state’s attorney can do more to reduce street violence. In an interview with The Banner, Bates said tougher sentences will deter criminals.

“The most important aspect in driving down violent crime is certainty of consequences,” he said. “The criminal element, they will change their behavior when they know they will go to jail.”

He wants to fast track prosecutions of people who illegally possess handguns and help police shut down drug corners.

“Open-air drug markets — not going to happen,” he said. “Put a camera on a pole right right there on that neighborhood block. Either they’ll be there, or they won’t. Watch that block for 30 days. Let’s identify every single person. Let’s go ahead with our warrant task force and lock them all up.”

Mosby’s office stopped prosecuting drug possession, but she continues to prosecute drug dealing.

Vignarajah said he will reduce violence by directing prosecutors to take on bigger roles before an arrest, such as with wiretap investigations. He proposes restructuring the office based on police district. Prosecutors assigned, say, to the Southern District would work up from District Court to prosecuting felony crimes — all within the Southern. He wants to improve relationships between prosecutors, police and neighbors.

“Crime is not like the weather,” Vignarajah said. “What we do defines whether crime goes up or down.”

Vignarajah also wants to institute a text-message alert system when someone is carjacked, like the statewide Amber Alert when a child is abducted. Amid the rash of carjackings, he wants to provide financial incentives for families to install GPS trackers on their cars.

Vignarajah’s campaign has raised about $600,000 in the last reporting period, the most of the three candidates, according to campaign finance reports. Bates’ campaign has raised $449,000 in the same period, while Mosby’s campaign has reported raising nearly $33,000.

Despite his fundraising edge, Vignarajah’s tries for elected office have been shadowed by questions about his conduct toward subordinates. Two years ago, seven attorneys who worked for him told The Baltimore Sun he was an unreasonably demanding and controlling boss. Three people called his conduct “abusive,” saying he would yell at one woman and present loyalty tests such as asking her to work all night.

Independent journalist Justine Barron published on her blog last month text messages tracing to 2014 that show Vignarajah berating and insulting a woman who worked for him. It’s the first time the woman, Katie Dorian, publicly spoke at length about her experience working for Vignarajah. Now she works as chief of the organized crime unit for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.

“I want it to be unequivocally clear that Thiru can be a dangerous person to work for. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Dorian told The Banner.

During a candidate forum last week, Bates pressed Vignarajah to explain himself. Vignarajah described the issue as a political attack.

Bates’ campaign has benefited from a recent $155,000 advertising push by a political action committee of former mayoral candidate Mary Miller. The TV ad shows Miller and former mayor Sheila Dixon endorsing Bates.

Vignarajah and Bates have pledged to personally try one case a year if elected; Mosby has not tried a case.

Mosby says she’s not worried that her opponents raised more money than her.

“When I beat Bernstein, he out-raised me three to one,” she said. “I have the power of the people.”

The two-term state’s attorney has struck a defiant tone amid ongoing controversies around her. She’s scheduled to stand trial in September on federal charges of perjury and making false statements on loan applications. She’s accused of a sequence of dishonest financial maneuvers that allowed her to tap into her retirement savings early and buy two homes in Florida worth more than $1 million combined.

Mosby and her defense team responded by coming after federal prosecutors on the case. They accuse authorities of singling out Mosby because of her race, gender and politics. On those grounds, she asked to have the charges dismissed, but a federal judge denied the request. U.S. District Judge Lydia Griggsby, the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland, found no merit in the claims.

The state’s attorney has incited sharp criticism from activists for her decision to continue to prosecute Keith Davis Jr. for murder. He’s been tried four times for the 2015 shooting of Pimlico Race Course security guard Kevin Jones. Twice, juries deadlocked over the verdict. And twice, he’s been convicted, but the verdicts were overturned. Davis is awaiting his fifth trial.

Last week, a Baltimore judge said that Mosby and her staff have “engaged in conduct establishing personal animosity towards Mr. Davis outside the bounds of legitimate prosecutorial conduct.” She was ordered to produce objective evidence that she did not act vindictively.

Bates said he would drop the charges against Davis. Or upon the request of Jones’ family, he would refer the case to another jurisdiction for review. Vignarajah declined to comment on the case.

During campaign events, Mosby continues to tout her decision to stop prosecuting some nonviolent crimes. In March 2020, she directed her staff to drop charges against everyone arrested for possessing drugs — any drugs, including heroin — prostitution, trespassing, open container, urinating in public and minor traffic offenses. She formalized the directive one year later as an office policy.

Mosby defends her policy with research from the Johns Hopkins University that found no increase in citizen complaints or threats to public safety. It’s become the defining policy of her second term.

“I’m not going to utilize the criminal justice system for petty offenses that for Black people in this country can lead to a death sentence, are being discriminately enforced against Black people, and have no public safety value,” she told The Banner.

She hasn’t persuaded everyone. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said he wants his officers to have the authority to arrest people for drugs and the other minor offenses when a suspect has a history of violence. Bates and Vignarajah both said a blanket policy is the wrong approach and call for case-by-case decisions.

“We can’t take every public urination case to trial, but to announce to the world that certain categories of crimes are no longer criminal, that’s a huge mistake,” Vignarajah said. “It sends a terrible signal to the community, particularly disinvested communities, where grandmothers and schoolchildren have to walk by needles and bags of heroin.”

Bates said the decision to cease prosecuting people for possessing drugs and prostitution means victims of addiction and sex trafficking no longer come into contact with authorities who may help. He wants officers to issue citations for nonviolent crimes such as loitering and to require offenders perform community service. He wants to send people arrested for drugs to inpatient treatment programs.

“We can’t just lift our hands up, and walk away, and let people do whatever they want,” he said.

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