In what is likely to be the only election forum for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney candidates, incumbent Marilyn J. Mosby did her best Thursday to swat back the opposition, but her two Democratic primary challengers have been waiting all year to take their best shots — and they did.
Mosby, 38, who is running for re-election, seemed to be playing defense for much of the hourlong forum at the University of Baltimore, as her two opponents in the June 26 primary criticized her office’s prosecutorial record, much as she did to her predecessor four years ago, when she defeated Gregg L. Bernstein.
At times she appeared uncomfortable, irritated and even angry at the podium, responding sharply to some questions, and flinging charges of telling “lies” at one candidate, Ivan J. Bates, 49, a former assistant state’s attorney, now a criminal defense lawyer.
Both Bates and the other would-be top prosecutor, Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah, a former assistant U.S. attorney, assistant state’s attorney and deputy attorney general, slammed Mosby’s running of the office as part of the reason for the city’s skyrocketing violent crime and faltering criminal justice system.
“I just have one question: Are we safer now than we were three years ago? That answer is no,” Bates said in his opening statement. “We need to restore confidence to a criminal justice system that’s just not working.”
Vignarajah, 42, who once headed the office’s major investigations unit and is now a corporate attorney, voiced a similar concern, saying, “The city I love is a city in crisis” and vowed to reduce the homicide rate.
“Baltimore is at a moment in its history where we don’t need a defense attorney, we don’t need a politician. We need a proven prosecutor,” he said. “This is what I’ve dedicated my life to and I want to have a chance to do it again.”
Toward the end of the televised forum, university police rushed into the audience to cart away a cat-calling protester who shouted a number of insults at Mosby, including “Your record sucks” and “You are a liar.”
Statistically, her office’s record is in many ways worse than that of Bernstein, whose performance she assailed to help defeat him in the last election.
Asked how she would reverse the trends on her watch where the percentage of dropped felony cases has increased and the conviction rate has declined slightly, Mosby defended her office’s performance by citing the extraordinary hurdles the city has faced in the last four years.
She ticked off a litany of what she called “external challenges,” including: the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody; the resulting riots; a U.S. Department of Justice report on discriminatory policing practices; department-wide use of body cameras on police officers, which revealed evidence being planted; the opioid epidemic; the police Gun Trace Task Force scandal, which she somewhat hyperbolically referred to as “one of the largest police corruption scandals in the history of the country;” and finally, having to work with four police commissioners in three years.
“I’m extremely proud of the fact that my prosecutors have been able to maintain … last year a 93 percent felony conviction rate [and] year to date, [a] 95 percent felony conviction rate,” Mosby said.
Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, 25, a week after he sustained a spinal cord injury during a ride in the back of a police wagon, Mosby charged six officers involved in arresting and transporting the man who was handcuffed and shackled. All pleaded not guilty.
At the time, Mosby was criticized by some for overreaching when she hastily brought the charges, amid looting and rioting that swept parts of the city. One officer’s trial ended in a mistrial, and two others were acquitted before Mosby announced in July 2016 that charges against the remaining three officers would be dropped.
A question about the Gray case Thursday seemed to scratch open that wound anew.
For her part, Mosby said she would not do anything differently, citing the many changes and reforms that the case eventually brought about.
But her challengers said they would have waited before deciding to charge the officers.
“I would never second guess a prosecutor on any particular case,” Vignarajah said.
“But, let’s be clear,” he said, “if you’re considering indicting six individuals on complex conspiracy and murder charges that are premised on a legal theory that’s never been tested before, that’s going to be a referendum on your city, your country, of whether we can hold police accountable, don’t you dare try to do that in eight days.”
Bates defended one of the officers in the case of Freddie Gray, whose death he called “truly a tragedy.”
But, he said, “You do not, do not, rush the investigation.”
The next question was about the relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and the police.
“There’s a misconception that there’s somehow a chasm between my office and the police department,” Mosby said.
Bates, however, said “from the outside looking in, I clearly see a breakdown in communication.”
“Baltimore is in a crisis, and we do not have the luxury to fight with our partners over there in the Baltimore Police Department,” he said.
Vignarajah went a step further, saying that the relationship between the police and prosecutors “has literally never been worse.”
“To pretend that that relationship is intact over these past three years is to peddle a fiction that the people of Baltimore know is not true,” he said.
“But it’s worse than that,” Vignarajah said, “because the last two answers from Ms. Mosby show that she has this trend of taking credit for everything and taking responsibility for nothing.”
Her rationale, he said, “is the rooster taking credit for the dawn.”
The subject of the failure of the juvenile justice system came up in the context of the May 21 death of Baltimore County Officer Amy S. Caprio and the four city teenagers charged with her murder.
The size of the office and the experience level of the prosecutors was broached as well, and Bates made a point of noting that 105 prosecutors have left the office since Mosby took over.
Asked about bail reform, Vignarajah tried to differentiate himself from Mosby and Bates, saying he has refused to accept campaign contributions from the bail industry.
By contrast, he said, the industry has given “thousands of dollars” to Mosby’s campaign and “$10,000 to Bates.”
Mosby seemed particularly bothered by Bates and focused repeated attacks on him.
“I live in the heart of West Baltimore. I didn’t have to move back here to run for state’s attorney,” Mosby said early on, taking a barely veiled shot at Bates, who moved back to the city from Laurel in 2016. Later, she said, “my opponent just moved back from Howard County.”
Twice she made a point of saying that she lived “in the heart of West Baltimore,” though she resides in Reservoir Hill, which falls in the police department’s Central District.
Mosby also claimed Bates was wrongly characterizing her office’s operation and his own record.
“Misinformation that’s being provided to the public — just much like you’ve never lost a trial and I don’t have full-time employee within my juvenile division — these are lies,” she said. “And unfortunately, that’s what people do when they run for office — they lie.”
Not so, Bates countered. “I have never lost a homicide [case] — that’s what I said.”
Vignarajah concluded his remarks by calling for change.
“We have a crisis in Baltimore, the likes of which our city has never seen — more murders, lower confidence in police and criminal justice than ever in our history,” he said. “This is something that we as a city, we have to change, because we have lost 100,000 people every decade for the last 40 years. We simply cannot afford to lose 100,000 more.”
He then pledged to cut the number of murders by half in three years, restore faith in the police by holding officers accountable and fix the broken juvenile justice system.
“The albatross around the neck of Baltimore City is crime, the defining narrative of Baltimore City is crime,” Vignarajah said. “It’s USA Today and The Economist and the FBI describing it as the most deadly, the most dangerous, the most violent city in the country — that is how we lose families and lose businesses that are the heart and soul of Baltimore.
“We can do better,” he said.
In her closing, Mosby took barely oblique schoolyard shots at both Vignarajah and Bates.
“I didn’t run and go work for a corporate law firm,” she said. “I didn’t become a defense lawyer and defend robbers and rapists.”
A noticeable groan indicating a possible foul could be heard in the audience.
“My office has been resilient, in the face of chaos,” Mosby said, repeating a theme of the challenges presented in the last nearly four years.
Bates punctuated his close with a little dramatic flair, as if he were trying a case.
“Baltimore, this is the biggest question you have to ask yourself: What are we going to do with this election?” he asked eventually.
“Baltimore City, … if you say enough is enough, and you are not happy with what’s happening in our city, then you must vote change, because you want a better, safer Baltimore. My name is Ivan Bates and I am that change,” he said, ending his pitch to applause.
The forum was cosponsored by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore, and the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
Asking questions of the candidates were Pat Warren of WJZ, Andrew A. Green, opinion editor of The Sun, and Ronald H. Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore Law School.