It was 21 minutes that would change her life and send ripples of both outrage and relief across the country. On the first day of May, as a battalion of lawyers stood on the steps of Baltimore’s War Memorial, state’s attorney Marilyn J. Mosby stepped up to the podium and did what no lead prosecutor in America had done in many turbulent months: bring swift and severe charges against police officers in the death of a black man.
A stunned cheer rose from the crowd as 35-year-old Mosby made her statement. The six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, who had died in April from spinal injuries sustained in custody, would face 28 counts, ranging from false imprisonment to second-degree murder. In forceful language, Mosby described her department’s investigation and how the state’s medical examiner had ruled Gray’s death a homicide. She acknowledged the unrest in Baltimore, coming on the heels of police killings in other cities of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. “I have heard your calls for ‘No justice, no peace,’ ” she said. “However, your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of Freddie Gray.”
Suddenly this young prosecutor who had served barely 100 days in office had become a national figure. “I was on CNN, and we were all assured that it would be a routine press conference,” says Marc Lamont Hill, a political commentator and professor of African-American studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “Instead, Mosby came out swinging for the fences. I was in shock.” Her statements gripped a country embroiled in a debate about race and police misconduct, and energized those who believed that officers were not being held accountable. Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted that she wanted make a documentary about Mosby. The U.S. congressman for Maryland Elijah Cummings, a central figure in the Baltimore protests, told the cameras, “Thank God [for] Marilyn Mosby and her team.”
“It was a powerful act that allowed the city to begin healing,” says Hill. “Within an hour of that announcement, the entire black community was laying claim to her—ready to saint her because she did her job.”
When I meet Mosby eleven days later, it is clear that she hadn’t expected such an intensity of response. “I don’t think I felt the weight of the case stepping up to that podium,” she tells me as we sit down for dinner at her favorite café in Baltimore’s Harbor East. “I was thinking, I’m doing the right thing. That’s what I’m here for.” We’re at a corner table where she can keep her eyes on her security team—thickset men with earpieces, a round-the-clock detail that has been with her since she took office in January. Dressed in a simple pantsuit, sleeveless blouse, and not a trace of makeup, Mosby is warm and willing to accept hugs from fellow diners who thank her “for giving us justice.” Otherwise, she is every inch the prosecutor: straight-backed, concise, a portrait of self-control.
She won’t discuss specific details of the Freddie Gray case, but our conversation, over appetizers and a pitcher of sangria, happily ranges from parenthood (she and her husband, Nick, a Baltimore city councilman, have two young daughters, Nylyn, six, and Aniyah, four) to her long-held desire to reform the criminal-justice system. She laughs when she admits that her husband buys all her clothes: “I don’t have the patience for it, but Nick loves going to stores. He’ll probably be mad that I told you that.” Despite a consuming job, she attends Baptist church every Sunday, takes her daughters to dance classes, and makes every effort to end her workdays before her girls’ bedtimes. “People say, ‘Is it hard being a prosecutor?’ And I say no. This is easy. If I get home late, I have my four-year-old pointing to her watch.”
If anyone is qualified to comment on issues of race, urban violence, and policing, it is Marilyn Mosby. Born to an unmarried high school junior in the gritty Dorchester neighborhood of south Boston, she was raised alongside her younger brother and sister in a house full of cops: Her grandfather was on the force, as was her mother, as was her uncle next door. “It gives me perspective,” she says. “I know the majority of police officers are outstanding, dedicated, loyal public servants, just like my family.” The house she grew up in, nicknamed the Police House, was a boisterous place, where Marilyn’s grandparents would host competitive karaoke nights around the family pool. “The entire community would come,” she says, “which is annoying when it’s 4:00 a.m. and you’re trying to study.”
Her mother, Linda, describes Marilyn as “a determined little girl. When she was a baby, I had to rock her to sleep to a specific song, Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock with You.’ ” Linda enrolled her daughter in a desegregation program that bused Marilyn an hour away to one of the top schools in the state, where she was at first the only black student. “She soared through the curriculum,” remembers Monique Marshall Veale, an administrator who became a mentor to Marilyn. “I can still hear her voice in the halls in eighth grade. She challenged anything that didn’t feel right or sound right.” Then, the summer before ninth grade, Marilyn experienced a tragedy at home. Her seventeen-year-old cousin Diron Spence was shot and killed just steps from her house when, she says, he was mistaken for a local drug dealer. As Mosby describes Diron lying in the street, emotion catches in her voice. “We were raised like brother and sister, and both wanted to be first-generation college graduates.” The trauma of that scene has never left her.
It also made her think. “Here you have a seventeen-year-old going to his grave, but the individual who shot him was also seventeen years old. How could we have gotten to that young man before he picked up a gun?” She decided to pursue a career in law and won a scholarship to Tuskegee University in Alabama. “I didn’t join a sorority. It was about trying to get into law school from day one,” she says. During her first semester on campus, she met her future husband, a gregarious engineering major from Baltimore. “We would stay up all night talking on the phone about everything—issues, education, music,” says Nick. “We talked about our families and what we wanted to do with our lives.” Though Mosby jokes, “My friends didn’t like the girl from the North landing Mr. Popularity,” the two were inseparable. “What really attracted me to him was that he wanted to return to Baltimore and give back. He could easily have gotten a job anywhere and made a lot of money, but he wanted to be a public servant. I thought, There is substance to him. I really like this guy.”
They married in 2005, after Marilyn graduated from law school at Boston College, and Nick found a dilapidated house to renovate in a struggling neighborhood of Baltimore. She worked for nearly six years as a junior prosecutor (her conviction rate: 80 percent) and three as a fraud litigator for an insurance firm. All around her she saw a system in crisis—Baltimore jurors who distrusted the police and an attorney’s office focused solely on convictions. She decided it was time for change and ran for state’s attorney on a platform of combating police misconduct and building ties to the community. The incumbent outraised her three to one, but she won by double digits. “Incumbents rarely get beaten here, and this one had a lot of powerful backers,” Nick says. “But if I had one word to describe Marilyn, it’s driven.”
Even as Mosby’s profile soared, she began to face criticism. Opponents argued that her press conference was a hasty act of political theater. Defense lawyers for the six officers filed a motion to have her recused from the case—because her husband is an elected local official and because she once accepted campaign donations from the lawyer for Freddie Gray’s family. “It’s our position that she has a lot of conflicts of interest that betray her neutrality,” says Catherine Flynn, the attorney representing the accused officer Garrett Miller. “And I can see long-term consequences from what appears to be a rushed decision.” Flynn points to ongoing violent crime in Baltimore, three murders alone while Mosby attended a Prince concert on Mother’s Day. (Prince brought Mosby briefly onstage—an incident that brought a welter of negative press. “I’m a fan,” she says simply. “Prince hadn’t been to Baltimore for fourteen years. He called me onstage, and what am I going to do, say no?”)
The city’s police union—which also donated to Mosby’s campaign—has become a critic too. “My own personal opinion is that these officers were overcharged,” says Sergeant Robert F. Cherry, Jr., a policeman for 21 years. “Now all of them face felony and misdemeanor charges because we have a state’s attorney who used an opportunity of crisis to quell the riots. The union’s position is that we are going to aggressively try to get all those charges dropped.”
Several legal experts I spoke to said they were surprised by the speed with which Mosby conducted her investigation. “You could argue that the facts and circumstances dictated a swift action,” says Deborah Gramiccioni, the executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU. “The problem in these cases is this stuff takes a while to investigate—it just does.” Gramiccioni adds that she’s troubled by the “extrajudicial statements” Mosby made from the podium—for instance, when she said, “to the youth of the city, I will seek justice on your behalf . . . our time is now.” “Such statements could give the defense an opening to successfully argue for a change of venue because of a tainted and inflamed jury pool,” says Gramiccioni.
“The unrest had nothing to do with my decision to charge,” Mosby says. “I just followed where the facts led. This is not something that was fast, or in a hurry. From the time that this incident occurred, we were out there conducting our own investigation and working with the police department. There is nothing that we’ve done differently in this case.”
Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, stands behind Mosby. “I believe the state’s attorney is doing the best job she can under the circumstances. Her work is a critical piece for helping to heal the fractured relationship between police and community.” Mosby also has a network of support from attorneys in other cities and states, prosecutors whom she consulted upon winning office. Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general (and now a U.S. Senate candidate), is one. “I was struck by her desire to be an innovative leader, to tackle our most serious public-safety challenges,” comments Harris. And Cyrus Vance, Jr., Manhattan’s district attorney, whom she also visited, is quick to offer praise: “I found her open-minded, interested, and taking her job very seriously.”
The day after our dinner is a busy one. Mosby is meeting with her external-affairs team to plan the announcement of a program that puts first-time, nonviolent offenders in a work-training program. Dressed in a beige pin-striped skirt suit and Tory Burch heels, she scrutinizes every detail of the presentation, down to how many minutes she wants to spend shaking hands and who will be standing behind her when she speaks.
We load into her SUV to head for City Hall. “Keep doing what you’re doing!” a woman calls across the parking lot, and once inside Mosby is embraced by city officials, community members, and, notably, uniformed police officers.
Later, at her desk, which overlooks the harbor, we talk about the issues that have been bedeviling not just her city but African-American communities everywhere. “There have been decades of failed policies: zero tolerance and harassment and people being locked up for small crimes,” she says, “policies that drive a divide between communities and law enforcement. So many people feel like they are voiceless, that they’ve been dehumanized. What we saw in the riots is a result of that.” Mosby stands by every word she uttered at that podium on May 1 and is confident that the six officers will get a fair trial in her city. (On May 21, a grand jury handed down indictments that largely supported her charges.)
Given the extraordinary attention she has received, it seems natural to ask if she has ambitions beyond state’s attorney. Mosby shakes her head. “There isn’t an endgame, and that’s the difference between being a public servant and a politician.” Her office has some 50,000 cases on the docket each year, and Mosby has already proved a steely prosecutor. (“Fuck you, Mrs. Mosby,” one gang member said in the courtroom after his guilty verdict earlier this year. “I just smiled,” Mosby recalls.) Whether the Freddie Gray case results in a conviction or an acquittal, Mosby’s priority remains the same—to build a bridge between the public and the police. “I’m not conflicted about charging these police officers. I believe in applying justice fairly and equally, and that is what our system is built upon. That is why I do what I do.”
|Written By:||Heidi Mitchell|
|Photo By:||Annie Leibouvitz|