Lee O. Sanderlin
In 2014, Baltimoreans, frustrated with violent crime, elected a 34-year-old insurance attorney who had never tried a homicide or rape case to be the city’s top prosecutor.
Eight years and more than 2,500 homicides later, the city’s Democratic voters ousted Marilyn Mosby as Baltimore state’s attorney, choosing defense attorney Ivan Bates in Tuesday’s primary.
Mosby’s campaign declined an interview request. In a statement, Mosby conceded and said she called Bates on Saturday morning to congratulate him.
“I am grateful to my family and my colleagues in the state’s attorney’s office for their commitment to our city and all their hard work on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore,” Mosby said. “We have so much to be proud of and I am forever indebted to so many for their love, support, and partnership over these past eight years.”
Her time in office was polarizing, and will be remembered for her progressive prosecution policies and prosecution of police officers as much as for the investigations into her conduct. A litany of reasons exist for why individual voters chose not to nominate Mosby to a third term, but supporters and detractors alike pointed to her frayed relationships with other city and state agencies, an inability to reduce violent crime and perceived vindictiveness toward those who disagreed with her.
The fact that she was under federal indictment also hurt her campaign, supporters said. Mosby was charged in January with two counts each of perjury and mortgage fraud; she has denied the allegations.
“I hope no public official ever has to go through what Marilyn went through, because there’s only so much a human being can take before it starts having a negative effect on your performance, your attitude,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy, a prominent criminal defense attorney and Mosby supporter, about the criticism Mosby faced through her tenure.
“It all added up,” he said.
From the beginning of her tenure as state’s attorney, Mosby clashed with the Baltimore Police Department. In 2015, she made national headlines when she announced her office was charging all six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man from Sandtown- Winchester in West Baltimore. None of the officers were convicted and the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, has attacked her repeatedly since then.
Her prosecutorial policies, specifically a decision to quit prosecuting simple drug possession, prostitution and trespassing, were hailed by progressive pundits and lambasted by the city’s business community and the FOP. Prosecution of minor offenses disproportionately impacts poor and Black people, and Mosby sought to fix systemic inequities in the criminal justice system.
“The white community hasn’t supported Marilyn, for the most part, from the beginning of her tenure,” Murphy said.
Some took issue less with the substance of the policy change than how it was rolled out. Former prosecutors told The Baltimore Sun in June that they regularly found out about office developments from the media, rather than from Mosby herself. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison also has said Mosby did not tell him in advance that her office would no longer prosecute drug possession.
Her 2014 primary victory, a shocking upset over incumbent Gregg Bernstein, was the product of an aggressive, grassroots campaign focused on bringing down crime in the city. Living in West Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill community, she endeared herself to an electoral base of working-class Black voters fed up with what was going on in their neighborhoods.
“When you live in West Baltimore and crime is plaguing your community, you become outraged,” Mosby told The Sun then.
But homicides skyrocketed under her tenure. In 2014, Bernstein’s last full year in office, Baltimore recorded 211 homicides. There have been 202 homicides in the city so far this year, and in every year of Mosby’s tenure, the city exceeded 300 homicides.
And as the killings continued, Mosby’s office deteriorated. In 2018, more than 200 prosecutors worked there, according to city salary records. As of June, there were fewer than 140 prosecutors on staff. Her administration cited the COVID-19 pandemic and salaries as reasons why people left. In contrast, former attorneys told The Sun in June that grueling hours, large caseloads and depleted morale drove them out. What’s more, the staffing levels were so low they likely posed a threat to public safety, they said.
Like Mosby in 2014, Bates and Thiru Vignarajah, the third candidate in Tuesday’s primary, pledged to reduce violent crime as part of their campaigns. With Bates likely to be elected to the post in November — Baltimore has elected a Democrat as state’s attorney every year since 1920 — the pressure will be on for him to make good on his promises.
But Mosby’s supporters are skeptical about a prosecutor’s ability to drive down murder rates.
“Much of the criticism of a prosecutor is unfair, because prosecutors can’t prosecute if police don’t make the cases,” Murphy said.
“If the police are laying down on the job, and there’s ample evidence of that because arrests are way down, what are they going to do now?” Murphy said. “Will they start making arrests because we have a new prosecutor? I hope they will.”
The department remains under a federal consent decree established in 2017 after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional policing — particularly in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Mosby campaign supporter and defense attorney Warren Brown said it’s likely that the people who became fed up with Mosby and supported Bates will grow impatient with him next.
“When things don’t turn around, you’ll have to cast that anger somewhere,” Brown said.
The federal case against her cast a shadow of uncertainty over her campaign, limiting her ability to raise money and to mobilize support among her usual base, supporters said.
Prosecutors, in court documents, say Mosby lied about her financial circumstances to make early withdrawals from her retirement account to buy two Florida vacation homes: an eight-bedroom house near Disney World and a condo on the state’s Gulf Coast. Prosecutors also say she lied on the mortgage applications about where she was living, her plans for the Disney home and about a tax lien the IRS placed on her and her husband, Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby. He is not charged with anything.
Marilyn Mosby has vowed to fight the charges vigorously. Her trial is set for Sept. 19.
“That cut down on advertising,” Brown said. “You had a lot of people who were reluctant to come out and voice support for her because they don’t want to be in the crosshairs of the feds. Add in the ill feelings about the power dynamics of her husband being president of the City Council — people don’t like that.”
Bates and Vignarajah, a former prosecutor, significantly outraised Mosby throughout the election.
What Mosby did have was an ability to relate to everyday Black Baltimoreans in the communities most affected by gun violence. She regularly would make overtures to members of those communities at news conferences, community meetings and on social media, promising to fight for them.
East Baltimore resident Jessica Waters, 30, volunteered for Mosby’s campaign after making a personal connection with the state’s attorney. Waters said Mosby reached out to her after she saved a child from a burning home. Waters said Mosby’s efforts to exert a positive influence on city youths was valiant. Mosby regularly hosted events for children and teens.
”Having someone like Marilyn Mosby that can lead these youths and teach them different things, I feel like that takes away from crime,” Waters said.
Mosby remains popular on social media, and regularly receives messages of support from her followers.
Kelly Davis is arguably Mosby’s biggest critic, and even she recognizes Mosby’s political skill. Mosby’s office is attempting to try Davis’ husband, Keith Davis, for murder for a fifth time. Mosby once gave the middle finger to a Keith Davis supporter and later denied doing so, despite being caught on camera.
“She’s so good at making you think she’s a relatable figure,” Davis said. “She’s a masterful politician, I just don’t think she’s a very good prosecutor.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.