Baltimore state's attorney race heats up morning radio during second debate

The three candidates for Baltimore state’s attorney began their second debate Wednesday with calm, measured comments on their humble upbringings, community roots and plans for a safer city.

But it didn’t take long for the three Democrats to pivot from civility to hostility during their hourlong debate on Larry Young’s morning radio show.

“Mrs. Mosby’s record is terrible,” said Thiru Vignarajah, a former city prosecutor and Maryland deputy attorney general. “Mr. Bates’ record is even worse.”

Longtime defense attorney Ivan Bates shot back.

“I don’t think he knows the difference between North Avenue and Northern Parkway,” said Bates, also a former city prosecutor. “He’s only in this race to stop me from winning.”

State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said city voters can’t trust either Bates or Vignarajah. The challengers are seeking to unseat her in the June 26 Democratic primary election. Early voting starts Thursday.

Vignarajah wants to win at all costs, Mosby said. She said Bates “put out so much misinformation that it’s unfair for the voters.”

Their meeting was billed as a forum, but it became an open debate as the three candidates sniped at one another over their records. Conflict in the high-profile race has escalated as the primary election draws near, tension that Young noted during the show.

“This is my ninth one in 20 years,” Young said. “I’ve never had one as disagreeable.”

The race has been consumed in recent days with Mosby and Vignarajah attacking Bates over his claim of being “undefeated” on murder cases. It’s a cornerstone of Bates’ campaign, but both Mosby and Vignarajah say it’s untrue.

Bates said he was involved in 12 to 15 murder cases as a city prosecutor from 1996 to 2002. After last week’s debate, he gave a higher range — 15 to 20 cases — but now says he misspoke.

When declaring himself undefeated, Bates said he isn’t counting cases involving charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He also isn’t counting cases in which he dropped the charges.

“Do you think you mischaracterized your record as undefeated?” Young asked him.

“No, I haven’t,” Bates said. “I’m very happy with my record.”

Mosby has campaigned largely on her record of a 92 percent conviction rate. She also says she’s the only candidate rooted in the community. She accuses her challengers of being newcomers to the city.

She also highlights her efforts to improve police accountability by bringing charges against six officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

The 25-year-old Baltimore man died after suffering severe injuries in a police van. None of the officers were convicted.

Mosby was asked Wednesday if she would have handled the cases against the officers differently.

“I would not,” she said. “Although those individual officers weren’t held criminally responsible … that exposure led to reforms.”

She said her prosecution shook loose long-stalled plans to deploy police body cameras. Because she prosecuted the officers, she said, police are now required to secure all prisoners in seat belts.

“You wouldn’t do anything differently?” Bates said. “You lost. So you didn’t learn from a loss?”

Vignarajah said Gray’s death presented an opportunity to show the nation how to build a solid prosecution.

“Mosby wasn’t ready then, and she isn’t — if she hasn’t learned from her mistakes — ready now,” he said.

Mosby, 38, is running for a second four-year term as Baltimore’s top prosecutor. She rose to national prominence during the Gray case three years ago, and has become a frequent target of criticism from Baltimore police.

Bates, 49, a former prosecutor and Army veteran, is senior partner of the Bates & Garcia law firm.

Vignarajah, 41, is a former Maryland deputy attorney general who also worked in the state’s attorney’s office under Mosby’s predecessor, Gregg L. Bernstein. He is a former president of the Harvard Law Review.

Vignarajah says he has a plan to cut the city’s murder rate by one-third. He wants all youths accused of crimes to begin in juvenile court. Currently, those charged with the most serious crimes begin in adult court. He also wants to assign prosecutors to high schools to steer teens away from crime. He says he is the only candidate who has pledged not to take money from the cash bail industry.

Bates says he can reduce the record street violence gripping Baltimore. He says he is the only prosecutor proven to convict murderers and that Mosby’s office has failed to hold up its role in fighting crime by keeping criminals behind bars. He has proposed a plan of community prosecution, in which assistant state’s attorneys would handle cases specific to neighborhoods. Doing so could foster better community relationships that would encourage more people to overcome their fears of testifying.

Mosby says her office has worked undaunted through four police commissioners, Gray’s death and unprecedented police corruption. So far this year, she says, her felony conviction rate has inched up to 95 percent.

“My office has epitomized resiliency in the face of chaos,” she says.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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