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Baltimore state's attorney can handle Freddie Gray case scrutiny

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby is seeking justice, not vengeance.

Marilyn Mosby can handle her critics. She's a professional overseeing a high profile Baltimore case, and she is being held to the same standard to which all prosecutors are held. Some of those scrutinizing her have a fundamental misunderstanding of her role as a prosecutor, however, which is a disservice to her and the justice system.

Ms. Mosby is not Freddie Gray's personal attorney. Prosecutors do not and cannot represent individual victims. They represent the people of the community, which includes the victim and even the defendants. When I was a prosecutor, this was one of the hardest things for victims and their families to understand. It was the crime itself that offended society, not the crime against them. That reality renders every victim a virtual John Doe. Mr. Gray's name doesn't even appear in the case caption. His invisibility is not due to apathy, but because the prosecutor's role is as avenger of a wrong done to society. It's a distinction that requires Ms. Mosby to seek justice — not vengeance. This is precisely the reason Ms. Mosby's alleged conflicts of interest based on her pre-existing relationships with others involved with Gray are irrelevant. She doesn't represent Mr. Gray, and she is sworn to be objective. If you don't believe in the sanitizing power of the oath, then your disbelief must also extend to the president, the jury system and even those who take the Hippocratic oath.

Still, Ms. Mosby's personal actions must be scrutinized to ensure that she is objective enough to protect even the rights of the accused. Unlike defense counsel, Ms. Mosby can't roll in the mud. She can't do or say anything that tries the defendants in the court of public opinion or undermines her office's ability to secure an impartial jury. Although police misconduct is omnipresent, Ms. Mosby can't use these six officers as a proxy for failed cases. The cries of a rush to judgment and overcharging must fall upon deaf ears, and she must focus on what she can prove here.

Ms. Mosby's swift charging decision was not extraordinary. Once an officer relayed the facts, as a prosecutor, I knew precisely whether and what crime to charge. Ms. Mosby, whose office also conducted its own investigation independent of police, was entitled to charge the defendants once a homicide was ruled, and she's entitled to revise her charges until trial. Doing so is a routine exercise of prerogative, not backpedaling. Although similar cases involved ad nauseum deliberation, it wasn't because the prosecutors didn't have enough to charge. It was because they were trying to justify the failure to charge.

Most importantly, Ms. Mosby can't personally capitalize on her prosecution of the accused officers; this is Prosecutorial Ethics 101. And this is why her participation in, not mere attendance at, Prince's "Rally 4 Peace" concert raised eyebrows and wagged tongues. When she was invited to the stage by Prince — amid cheers — to be serenaded, it was not because she was a random attendee but because she was the prosecutor who had just charged six Baltimore officers with behavior that resulted in an unarmed black man's nearly severed spine and subsequent death. That public appearance undermined her position as an objective prosecutor because it suggested that she is basking in — rather than tolerating — the national spotlight. It was a human error in a role that requires her to be robotically precise. It's not a disqualifying error, but it gave critics unnecessary ammunition against her. If she is perceived — if only for a moment — as someone who bases her decisions on popularity, her pursuit for justice will be a Sisyphean task.

Ms. Mosby is not a savior; she is a prosecutor. She can't guarantee a conviction; she can only present the evidence that exists. In exercising her prosecutorial discretion, she became a symbol of hope that perhaps police officers would be finally be held accountable in an era of their perceived legal invincibility. But if you don't understand her legal limitations, you will mistake her objectivity for weakness and her responsibility to protect the rights of the accused for incompetence. And if the officers are acquitted, you will vilify her.

Ms. Mosby is neither a hero nor a villain. She's a prosecutor who knows that justice isn't personal.

Laura Coates is a former assistant united states attorney for the District of Columbia and a former trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Her email is contact@lauracoates.com; Twitter: @thelauracoates.

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