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How Baltimore Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby Became My Hero

The Baltimore State’s Attorney makes me optimistic about criminal justice reform

Andrew Burton/Getty

In May, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby burst onto the national scene when she held a televised press conference to announce her team's decision about whether or not to indict the six officers involved in the arrest and eventual death of Freddie Gray. She’d only been in office for five months; this was the first time many viewers—including myself—had heard her speak. I sat at home in Baltimore, transfixed. Her head tilted, her voice purposeful and deliberate, Mosby directly addressed city residents and protestors, the youngest among them in particular. “To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf,” she promised. “This is a moment, this is your moment. [...] You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.”  

It was a moment that earned her a reprimand during yesterday’s first hearing in the case. "Is it the prosecutor’s job to calm the city or to prosecute cases?" Judge Barry Williams asked rhetorically, before denying the defense’s motion to recuse Mosby from prosecuting the trial.

But back in May, as she listed the charges her office intended to pursue—all of which will proceed, with each officer tried separately—I knew my city had found a new and formidable champion. It wasn’t until the Q&A portion of that press conference, though, that I found myself wanting to champion her. Mosby, who had sounded empathetic and conciliatory through much of her prepared statement, answered each question posed afterward with mounting forcefulness. By the time a reporter asked, “What do you think needs to be done to make sure that what happened to Freddie Gray doesn’t happen again?” Mosby answered quickly, “Accountability.” The reporter pressed. “You’re getting it today,” she retorted.

That was the moment Marilyn Mosby became my folk hero. Like her, I'm a 35-year-old black woman, committed to effecting lasting change in embattled communities. But my contributions have been indirect. I teach, write, and philosophize; Mosby is a frontline freedom-fighter. She couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial time.

July marked Baltimore City’s deadliest month in more than 40 years, with a record 45 people killed in 31 days—the most killed in one month since August 1972. City officials, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Mosby, have been working on a strategy to address the surge in homicides, which Baltimore Police union president Gene Ryan has attributed to the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprising in late April. In June, Mayor Rawlings-Blake fired Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts as a way of addressing the crisis. She, Mosby, and others also established a “war room” to increase collaboration between the city’s police department, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, the FBI, the DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

When the initiative was announced in July, Mosby gave an interview to the Baltimore Sun. "We are essentially declaring war on those individuals with no code of ethics killing women and killing children,” she said. “We are going to war, and we're going to do it collaboratively." Though the war room is still too new and tenuous a venture to have measurable results, Mosby’s office has been doing its part. They have successfully prosecuted two individuals city police had dubbed “Public Enemy No. 1” [sic] this year: gang members Darryl Martin Anderson and Capone Chase, who are now both serving life sentences.

On Sunday, Mosby spoke with local television station WBAL to address what she believes is one of the biggest hindrances to effective law enforcement in the city: a community skeptical of its police officers and of one another. "This is the home of witness intimidation, where that 'Stop Snitching' mentality began. We have to build the trust of the community back up.” She wrote as much in a Baltimore Sun op-ed in early August: “The foundation of the criminal justice system is built around trust. And in today’s harsh reality, citizens in Baltimore City typically do not trust prosecutors or police. [...] Unfortunately for my constituents, there is a real possibility that pursuing justice on behalf of a slain victim inside the courtroom may produce a second victim outside of it.”

In 2004, a homemade DVD titled Stop Snitching! began circulating in Baltimore City. Produced by local gang member Rodney “Skinny Suge” Thomas, the bootleg film was a perverse PSA, threatening harm to anyone who provided police with tips about crimes they’d witnessed. Stop Snitching! had some national notoriety, due in part to the brief appearance of NBA star Carmelo Anthony. Thomas was also involved with a sequel in 2007; both films led to the eventual arrest of two corrupt Baltimore City Police officers and Thomas himself in 2010. Ironically, Thomas’ conviction was the result of “snitching”: Two gang members testified against him as part of a broad racketeering prosecution of several members of a local gang called the Tree Top Piru Bloods. In another twist of fate, two of Thomas’ sons have been murdered in Baltimore City in the past 14 months. Twenty-two-year-old Ronnie Thomas III was shot in May, his 14-year-old brother Najee Thomas was killed in April 2014.

The homicide surge, ongoing witness intimidation, and community fear make reform particularly difficult this year. Despite Mosby’s rising-star moment at the Freddie Gray press conference in May, praise for the strong record her office is establishing hasn’t been unilateral. She’s been accused of “derailing” a study program called the Baltimore Homicide Review Commission, created to identify current homicide trends, after refusing to release details of open cases. She’s come under fire for making onstage appearances at social events, such as Prince’s Rally4Peace and the UniverSOUL Circus, where she and her husband, Councilman Nick Mosby, were introduced and applauded as guests. In a January interview with Baltimore Magazine, Mosby also mentioned critics who cited her age and fledgling record as obstacles to success in her new role:

A lot of people told me that I couldn't run for state's attorney, that I couldn't run against an incumbent with powerful backers who outraised me four to one. They said that I was too young, too inexperienced. If I allowed that to define my purpose, I wouldn't be in the position that I'm in. I honestly believe that I'm following my passion, which has always been to reform the criminal justice system.

By participating in the war room assembly, as well as attempting to participate in the Homicide Review Commission, Mosby does seem committed to assisting city officials’ attempts at reform. She’s also quickly established herself as an new kind of public figure in Baltimore City politics by virtue of the speed with which she’s getting things done: from her swift indictments of the officers in Freddie Gray’s death to the conviction of Anderson and Chase.

How will the years she spends as a prosecutor here jade her? I worry a little when I think of it. But whenever I do, I re-read her profile in Vogue; remember seeing her at the Prince concert; smile at her Instagram feed (which lets me track her community outreach); read up on the programs she’s implemented, like Aim to B’More, which offers first-time, nonviolent offenders the opportunity to expunge their records by earning a GED and completing a job readiness tract;  and remember the Baltimore City Junior State’s Attorney Program, a summer camp for eighth-graders interested in the criminal justice field.

I’m reminded, in those moments, that I’m as much of an optimist as she appears to be. I have faith that her efforts will continue to keep me hopeful about the future of this city for years to come. And that’s exactly what Baltimore needs its public figures to be right now: lightning rods of optimism.