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The Many Trials of Baltimore’s Rising Prosecutor

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Weeks after Baltimore was wracked by protests following the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, Prince held a “Rally 4 Peace” concert in the city. The show was meant to help the city heal, and the music legend unveiled a new single for the occasion: “Baltimore.” “Does anybody hear us pray,” Prince sang, “for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?”

During the song, Prince brought a special guest on stage: Baltimore City state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby. On May 1, Mosby announced criminal charges against all six officers involved in Gray’s arrest in a remarkable news conference that brought the boiling city to a simmer. At the concert, Mosby came out with her husband, a city-council member, and waved to the crowd of thousands packed into the downtown arena–an unusually bright spotlight for a local prosecutor. The dramatic moment affirmed Mosby’s newfound role as a hero of Baltimore’s black communities, and epitomized what critics say is her penchant for publicity.

Mosby, 35, became an instant national figure through her forceful announcement of the charges against Baltimore police in Gray’s death, the most serious of which included second-degree murder. She was hailed by communities of color for standing up to police but vilified by law enforcement, who believed she sided with protesters. From legal experts, she faced criticism for acting too quickly, potentially overcharging and making inappropriate public statements.

These issues will come to a head on Nov. 30, when the first of six trials involving Gray’s death will begin. In New York City and Ferguson, Mo., grand juries last year decided not to indict officers involved in police-related deaths. But in Baltimore, Mosby has the chance to be the first prosecutor to obtain convictions against police since the Black Lives Matter movement took root.

In many ways, Mosby’s experiences have prepared her for this moment. Raised in Boston, she grew up in a family full of officers; her grandfather was a founding member of Massachusetts’ first black police organization. The summer before she entered high school, her 17-year-old cousin was fatally shot outside her home, an incident Mosby has described as key in setting her on a path toward a career in criminal justice. A few years later, Mosby received a scholarship to attend Alabama’s Tuskegee University, the historically black college, and later graduated from law school at Boston College, where professors remember Mosby as tenacious. “Marilyn had a very strong sense of self,” says Tracey West, a Boston College Law School associate dean who advised Mosby. “She did not have second thoughts.”

After five years as a junior prosecutor and three in private practice, Mosby was elected Baltimore’s top lawyer in 2014. The incumbent had a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage, but the newcomer won by double digits in part because she received strong support from Baltimore’s black residents.

In her fourth month on the job, Freddie Gray died in police custody from a severe spinal injury a week after he was arrested, and Baltimore erupted. Mosby’s office charged all six officers involved in Gray’s arrest within 24 hours of receiving the police department’s report on the incident. “It was a great symbolic victory for folks in Baltimore,” says Tre Murphy of the Baltimore Algebra Project, a social-justice organization. J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore defense attorney, says Mosby’s decision to charge sent a very clear message to police: you will be prosecuted if something like this happens on your watch. “It was brave,” Gordon says. “And it was just what the city needed. Right now, she is Baltimore’s darling.”

After the charges, Mosby became bigger than her office–making the rounds on national news networks, posing for photographer Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, showing up beside Prince. The attention galvanized critics who said Mosby seized the moment to raise her own profile. Others raised questions about her husband’s connection to the case. Nick Mosby represents the neighborhood where Gray was arrested and is now running for mayor. (Mosby, who will lead a team of prosecutors in the case but won’t be trying it herself, declined to comment, citing the upcoming trial.)

The criticism has gone national too. The New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association, an organization of 12,000 active and retired sergeants, placed Mosby on the cover of the group’s magazine under the headline “The Wolf That Lurks” and called the officers’ indictment a “legal atrocity.”

Her decision to charge is also part of the debate over increased crime rates. A number of major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, have seen murders and shootings rise this year. (Baltimore announced its 300th homicide on Nov. 15–the highest annual toll since 1999.) FBI director James Comey and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg have made statements that suggest they back a theory known as the “Ferguson effect,” which holds that police have become more hesitant to use force, fearful their actions could be recorded and used against them. In Baltimore, police made fewer arrests in the month after Gray’s death than in any month in the three years prior.

The case itself looks shakier than it did a few months ago. Mosby initially said the switchblade Gray carried was legal. But defense attorneys representing two of the officers argue the knife was illegal, justifying the arrest, and charges of false imprisonment brought by Mosby were dropped after being presented to a grand jury. In court motions, the officers’ defense attorneys claim the prosecution withheld evidence showing that Gray may have tried to injure himself during the arrest and that he had a history of so-called “crash for cash” schemes in which he attempted to hurt himself during prior arrests in order to win settlements against the city. Those attorneys have also questioned in court filings the nature of a meeting between an assistant medical examiner and the prosecutor’s office before the autopsy findings were released.

William Porter, who has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office, will be the first to go on trial. The five other cases may hinge on Porter, if he testifies. According to the Baltimore Sun, Porter reportedly told two officers, including the driver, Caesar Goodson Jr., that Gray appeared to need medical attention in the back of the police van, where officers failed to place Gray in a seat belt. Defense attorneys familiar with the case say Porter’s testimony could show that other officers were negligent in Gray’s death, aiding the prosecution’s case against them.

Still, legal experts question if the prosecution has a strong enough case. “It would be difficult to imagine a second-degree murder conviction, nor should there be, based on what we know,” says Douglas Gansler, a former Maryland attorney general.

Mosby has defended the charges, telling CNN in May that “you should not bring charges if you don’t believe that you have probable cause that these individuals are responsible.”

When Mosby was in law school, she took an ethics course with R. Michael Cassidy, who says a regular theme in the class is that it’s sometimes appropriate for prosecutors to charge the higher crime in a close case if it will more accurately reflect the community’s interest.

“The prosecutor represents multiple interests,” Cassidy says. “That’s why we have elected district attorneys.”

It may be that Mosby took her law professor’s advice when she announced criminal charges in May. But it’s not clear such a strategy will win in court.

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