Woman in the Hot Seat
The Prosecutor Who Could Save Baltimore
Marilyn Mosby, who is black and from a family of cops, has charged several police officers in the case of Freddie Gray's arrest and death.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is an African-American who was reared in the inner city. Her husband is an African-American Baltimore city councilman who is vocal on behalf of his community.
Nobody can accuse her of being anti-black.
But it would be just as ridiculous to accuse Mosby of being anti-cop.
Her father, mother, and grandfather were police officers and she grew up in what was known in her Boston neighborhood as “the police house.” She has said that she decided to become a prosecutor when she was 14, after her teenage cousin was shot to death in a robbery outside her family’s home. The cousin, 17-year-old Diron Spencer, was a college-bound honor student described by all as the perfect kid. He had just come back from working as a lifeguard and was still wearing his swimsuit.
“I’ve seen my family blood, the same blood that runs through my veins, spilled on my front door,” she said when she announced her candidacy for state’s attorney last year.
She added that she knows what it is like to live with the threat of crime.
“I’ve locked my doors. I’ve clutched my purse.”
“It is my genuine belief despite what we might all want to think, what we might want to believe, the police officers in this city are doing their jobs,” she said. “I repeat, the police officers in Baltimore city are doing their jobs and taking bad guys off the street.”
At the same time, Mosby also offered a comprehensive vision of a criminal justice system that embraces everyone.
“I learned at a very early age that the criminal justice system is not just the police and the judges and the states attorneys,” she said. “It’s much more than that. I believe that we are the justice system. We, the members of the community, are the justice system because we are the victims of crime…We are the accused…We are the cops…We are the witnesses…We are the perpetrators…We are the judges. And as community members, we are the jury.”
During last year’s campaign against incumbent Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, Mosby was asked about her opponent’s decision not to bring charges against the cops who were in a chaotic tussle with a Baltimore man named Tyrone Wright that ended with his death. The coroner ruled that Wright died due to “cardiac arrhythmia” resulting from a “cardiac conduction system abnormality” complicated by dehydration and “exertional excitement.” The autopsy showed bruising that could have resulted from baton blows, but no serious injuries that might have come from a beating.
“There is insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the officers’ were unreasonable or that their conduct constituted a reckless disregard for human life to warrant criminal action,” Bernstein had concluded.
Mosby replied that she was not sure that she would have reached a different determination. She was confident that she would not have taken so long to reach it.
“This family waited nine months to know how their loved one was killed,” Mosby said. “I’m going to be much more transparent.”
Mosby went on to win the election by 10 points. She will have been in office for exactly five months on Friday, when the Baltimore police present her with the result of their investigation into Gray’s fatal injuries while in custody.
“We will be turning information over to the state’s attorney and they will take it from that point,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said Wednesday evening.
Mosby has been conducting an investigation of her own and she will no doubt assemble all the available facts in an effort to make a determination—not as an African-American, not as the daughter of cops, but as a prosecutor sworn to uphold the law.
Some citizens might assume that she will be influenced by her husband. City Councilman Nick Mosby scolded the national media for paying little attention to the protests before the riots. He made clear that violence is never acceptable, but he also said the rioting needs to be seen as a symptom of something much bigger than Freddie Gray, much bigger than Baltimore. He cited the socioeconomics that produce young men with little education and fewer opportunities.
“Unfortunately, this is their voice; the voice is destruction, the voice is anger,” Nick Mosby said.
But however much Marilyn Mosby may or may not agree with her husband, she has given an early indication that her office will energetically prosecute people who were arrested during Monday night’s riot and any disturbances that may follow. One of her deputies is said to have asked in several instances on Wednesday that the accused be granted no bail at all as the first cases began to reach criminal court.
That does not mean Marilyn Mosby and her office will be any less aggressive if the investigation of Gray’s death establishes probable cause to believe that any of the officers involved broke the law. They can expect no special treatment from this cops’ kid, who can be expected to apply one standard to all.
If the investigation unexpectedly clears all the cops of any wrongdoing, Marilyn Mosby almost certainly will go where the facts lead, even if the outcome threatens to incite far greater fury than flared at the start of this week.
There is also the federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, now headed by another African-American woman, the newly sworn Loretta Lynch.
However it goes, the Mosbys will themselves continue to represent a seed of hope for Baltimore. Nick Mosby grew up in Baltimore and was on the way to becoming his family’s first college graduate when he headed off to Tuskegee University. He there met the then-Marilyn James.
In Boston, she had been one of only three African-American girls in the suburban high school to which she had been bused during an effort to reduce de facto segregation in its schools. She had been active in student government as well as editor of the school newspaper.
The memory of her murdered cousin had accompanied her as she then see off for Tuskegee and a life such as he could no longer pursue. She finished college, and then returned to Boston for law school.
She and Nick Mosby were married in 2004 and she joined him in Baltimore. She initially balked at buying a house that had fallen into such disrepair it had a tree growing in the middle of it. The open-air drug market nearby was hardly a bonus.
The Mosbys turned the wrecked house into a happy home where they set to raising their two daughters. He was elected to the City Council. She worked as an assistant state’s attorney for a time and then led investigations for an insurance company before she declared herself a candidate for state’s attorney.
She pledged that she would be swifter and much more transparent than her predecessor in a case where a grieving family was awaiting an outcome.
The loved ones of Freddie Gray will now see if Marilyn Mosby is as good as her word.