Marilyn Mosby is fighting new battles. She’s used to that. The Baltimore prosecutor—an African-American woman, putting her among the 1 percent of all elected prosecutors in the nation who are women of color—made a name for herself by doing what shouldn’t have been considered remarkable: prosecuting six police officers in the death of a black man who died while in police custody.
Reactions were as swift and blunt as she is. Detractors protested on her front lawn. Mosby received death threats that called her a “racist criminal” and called for her to be “hung,” simply for prosecuting police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. After the trial ended in three acquittals, a hung jury and a dismissal of the remaining cases, five of the six officers attempted to sue the state’s attorney for defamation—something that’s rare because of prosecutorial immunity.
Mosby’s career has been largely defined by the Gray case. Next year she faces opposition for the office of the city’s state’s attorney from potential candidates Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah (best known as the prosecutor in the Adnan Syed case, made famous by the Serial podcast); Chad N. Curlett, a former New York prosecutor; and attorney Ivan Bates, who represented Baltimore Police Sgt. Alicia White in the Gray trial and is a former assistant state’s attorney under former State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy, the first woman to serve as Baltimore City’s state’s attorney from 1995 to 2011. A super PAC composed of law enforcement, attorneys and prosecutors was even formed in opposition to Mosby’s run for re-election, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Generally speaking, Mosby is widely popular in Baltimore City, but as she campaigns for re-election, there are wide-ranging sectors of the city pulling out the knives for her.
There’s something about Marilyn Mosby that people may miss behind her serious, tough exterior. She has a great sense of humor. What’s most familiar to the public are her national news headlines and television clips where she has the tone and demeanor of no-nonsense politicians like Auntie Maxine Waters. But in her modest but spacious office in downtown Baltimore, she’s dressed in a plain pantsuit and flats with no makeup. She’s telling the story, during our interview, about how she met her husband, Nick Mosby, at Tuskegee University.
She’s animated, imitating the way he stared at her for what seemed like 10 minutes. She imitates his facial expressions, leaning and resting her elbows on her knees, and has the room busting out laughing.
“He was being cocky at this point because a guy told him I liked him,” Mosby says, laughing.
“She acted like she didn’t see me,” Nick Mosby remembers in a separate interview, laughing, too.
Nick and Marilyn Mosby’s careers, relationship and family—the couple have two children: Nylyn, 9, and Aniyah, 7—were put under a microscope in the aftermath of Gray’s death and the resulting trial of the police officers.
Nick Mosby, 38, a Baltimore native, served as a city councilman, representing the district where Gray died. After an unsuccessful mayoral bid—run amid the turmoil surrounding the protests resulting from Gray’s death, which boosted critics’ talk that the indictment of the officers was politically motivated—he was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to a vacant delegate seat last year. In the state’s capital, Annapolis, he focuses on issues that affect Baltimore, like the pervasive lead-paint problem and fighting for more affordable housing, especially in new developments.
Nick was inspired to do community service by his mother, Eunice Orange, who was involved in local politics, including Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD. When Kurt Schmoke became the first black mayor of Baltimore in 1987 and Nick saw how excited his family was, he knew for sure that he wanted to get into politics.
For Marilyn Mosby, 37, who was born and raised in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, it was a tragedy at age 14 that catapulted her toward her calling.
The fact that her grandfather; her mother, Linda Thompson; and seven great-uncles were all police officers in a city known for a history of racial tension in the 1960s didn’t deter neighborhood kids from making her grandparents’ home the neighborhood hangout spot, where karaoke sessions would last late into the night. Marilyn and her cousin Diron Spence were a constant presence at their grandparents’ house.
“My grandfather epitomized the kind of community police officer we should have,” says Marilyn Mosby. “Every time I came home, there was somebody in the house from the neighborhood and they would be like, ‘Hey, Marilyn, hey cuz!’ and I’d be thinking, ‘Who are you?’”
Her grandfather was one of the founding members of the first black police organization in Massachusetts. His patrol unit was known as the “Soul Patrol,” an all-black police unit that patrolled the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester and was wildly successful, due in large part to the use of community policing tactics.
Marilyn Mosby’s mom had different aspirations than the generations of police officers who had paved the way for her. She wanted to be a dancer. But by 17, and still in high school, Thompson gave birth to Marilyn and gave up on her first dream by following in the footsteps of her tight-knit family and joining the police force. At age 50, after retiring from the Boston Police Department and moving south to North Carolina, Thompson opened her own dance school but got the police bug again. She joined the police academy and became an officer in North Carolina while continuing her dance school.
Marilyn and her cousin Diron were so close, they were like brother and sister. She and Diron talked about their futures often. No one in their families had graduated from college, so they both aspired to be first-generation college students. He wanted to go to Morehouse and she wanted to go to Spelman. Marilyn knew she wanted to work in the criminal-justice system but was unsure whether she wanted to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney. Diron, three years older, was an honors student and a talented artist who had plans to become an architect.
One day, Marilyn heard shots ringing out right outside her front door while someone was frantically ringing the doorbell. When she opened the door, a friend told her that someone had shot Diron, who was lying on the sidewalk. Her cousin had been mistaken for a drug dealer.
“If it wasn’t for the testimony of my neighbor, who cooperated with police and testified in court, we wouldn’t have received any justice,” she remembers.
Both her cousin and the kid who shot him were 17. She thought then that she would make it to college so that she could reform the criminal-justice system. “I realized we have to ensure we get to these young men before they continue to take these black boys’ lives,” she says.
Following the rebellions after Gray’s death in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice did an investigation and submitted a scathing 164-page report on the Baltimore Police Department, which showed that police officers were so bold, they committed illegal acts right in front of DOJ investigators during ride-alongs.
The report revealed egregious abuses of power, like unconstitutional stop-and-frisks targeting black neighborhoods, including a particularly disturbing incident in which officers performed a strip search and an anal-cavity search of a woman in broad daylight and in full view of the public following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight.
In January, the city and the Department of Justice reached an agreement to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department based on the findings of the DOJ report. The deal came days before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In a sign of how much the political climate around police reform has changed, Trump’s appointed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, called for a review of all federal consent decrees in April, saying that consent decrees “reduce the morale of officers.” (In September, the DOJ announced that it would not pursue charges against any of the six officers in the death of Gray.) But Baltimore is moving ahead with its decree, and a federal judge has appointed a monitor to oversee Police Department reforms.
“The federal administration is looking to turn back the hands of time by touting regression as making America great again on the backs of black and brown people,” Marilyn Mosby says. “We gotta get this right, and we have a unique opportunity to get it right in Baltimore, and I’m here until it’s done.”
Mosby has a 93 percent conviction rate, one of the best conviction rates of any prosecutor in the country, including the prosecution of criminals who are now serving life sentences, like Black Guerrilla Family executioner David Hunter, who flipped her the bird in court. She also helped to free two innocent men in her nearly three years in office. The first, Malcolm Bryant, was exonerated with DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison. The second, Lamar Johnson, after 13 years of failed appeals, was exonerated and freed from a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.
Mosby has had to walk a delicate balance with the Police Department, on which her office relies for evidence to prosecute cases, while at the same time weeding out corruption in the department, including cases where criminals have been prosecuted with tainted evidence.
This year, federal prosecutors charged eight police officers in Baltimore on federal racketeering charges in a case where the officers allegedly robbed citizens and filed false paperwork. Recently, more than 30 cases have been dropped because officers were caught on body cameras appearing to plant evidence or to be “re-creating” crime scenes, and now hundreds of other cases involving these officers are under review.
Mosby says that she didn’t want to just do the job of a prosecutor; she wanted to oversee systemic changes in the justice system.
In order to find the best practices that would work for Baltimore, Mosby traveled around the country and met with district attorneys. One of the results of those trips was the creation of a program modeled after the one created by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) when she was attorney general for California, called “Aim to B’more.”
Under the program, first-time, nonviolent drug offenders go through a probationary period during which they learn life skills and do community service, and at the end of the probationary period, their felony records are wiped clean. Mosby also created the summer junior state’s attorney program, where young people learn various aspects of the criminal-justice system and which culminates in participants presenting a mock trial.
Despite the Fraternal Order of Police’s negative response to the high-profile prosecution of six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, there have been some cracks in the blue wall of silence. A few months after the trial of the six officers ended in no convictions, Officer Wesley Cagle, who shot a man who was already on the ground, calling him a “piece of shit,” in 2014, was convicted by Mosby’s office and sentenced to 12 years. Prosecutors were able to convict him because his colleagues came forward and told what happened.
“I’m doing my job,” Mosby says.
However, with all of her success, she has passionate detractors who are as diverse as police officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors and community activists. Kelly Holsey, the wife of Baltimore police-involved shooting victim Keith Davis, is one of them. She believes, like many in Baltimore, that the two officers who took down Gray were the only two at fault and that Mosby should have focused the case on them.
In the first police-involved shooting after Gray’s death, Davis was shot at 44 times and was struck in the face and the arm by police officers for an alleged robbery in what activists, lawyers and Holsey say was a case of mistaken identity. Davis survived the shooting, and a jury acquitted him of all charges except illegal possession of a handgun.
“They shot the wrong person and they doubled down and tried to cover it up,” says Holsey. “I get it: She’s one of the youngest prosecutors, she’s African American, she’s a woman. She had all these things stacked up against her and she wants to rise above that and not be put into this box, and I get that and I commend that. But there is a right and wrong way to do it. Being a black woman in America in a position of power where the playing field has never been even. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t do it on the backs of the very people you claim to represent, the people you claim to fight for.”
Attorney Ivan Bates, the only other black candidate in the race for state’s attorney, is a formidable candidate largely because of his experience as a former prosecutor. He has also worked in gang intervention with the Crips and the Bloods in Los Angeles and has sued the police and won as a defense attorney. Bates is allegedly endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and supporters of Mosby feel that he’s being brought to the race to split the black vote.
“Ivan Bates is a good friend of mine, but I think he is just being put up to take out a person I believe is doing a formidable job,” says Baltimore attorney J. Wyndal Gordon. “I don’t think he will have the latitude to be that independent thinker who is not bound by politics to do what’s right. I think it’s the FOP using one of us against the other.”
Bates disagrees, insisting that he is not endorsed by the FOP in any way: “When you take an oath, your oath is to protect all of the people. If the police have done wrong, you should prosecute them without a doubt. You’re not going to prosecute someone because they are a black man that lives in a rough neighborhood, and you’re not going to prosecute a police officer just because they wear a blue uniform.”
However, supporters say that Mosby has paid her dues and has been through the fire already and proved she’s willing to make unpopular decisions in the pursuit of justice.
“She’s been battle-tested and still remains popular in her community,” says Gordon, who believes Mosby will win re-election. “She’s still fighting crime. She hasn’t stopped. She has an investment in her community. Whether her head is bludgeoned, she’s unbowed. As a prosecutor, she goes down in the annals as one of the best ones.”