Baltimore City

Four years in, Bernstein in primary fight for re-election with Mosby

Four years ago, Baltimore defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein emerged from a private practice to run an aggressive campaign targeting a longtime chief prosecutor who Bernstein said had grown complacent.

Now, as he makes his first re-election bid for Baltimore state's attorney, Bernstein is the one facing pointed attacks in the Democratic primary campaign — this time from a former assistant who says his leadership has already failed.


Marilyn J. Mosby, a politically connected insurance company attorney, has seized on the city's persistently high homicide rate and pointed to prominent crimes to criticize Bernstein's approach to the job. The incumbent, meanwhile, has run an understated campaign that emphasizes changes he has made to the office.

At stake is one of Maryland's highest-profile law enforcement jobs and one frequently at the center of Baltimore's continuing struggle with crime. Both candidates agree on the need to rid the streets of violent offenders, but they differ on how to do it.


Bernstein believes in lengthy, federal-style investigations that result in the arrests of dozens of suspected gang members with the intention of weakening the criminal organizations on the streets. Mosby says she would devote more attention to convicting Baltimore's most dangerous felons.

Those approaches draw on the candidates' sharply different backgrounds, with Mosby and Bernstein displaying contrasting personal styles as they campaign.

Bernstein, 58, passed the bar when Mosby was a young child. After time as a federal prosecutor, he founded his own law practice, then rose to partner in a Washington firm. Despite his electoral success in 2010, Bernstein says he prefers to focus on the lawyerly aspects of the job.

"I'd never run for anything before, not even student council president," he said. "Politics is not something that is in my blood."

Bernstein has played his re-election campaign carefully, raising large amounts of money, lining up endorsements and pointing to results of his time in office but refusing to tackle Mosby's criticism head on or to compare himself to her.

The 34-year-old Mosby is the daughter of police officers and wife of City Councilman Nick Mosby. She couples a police officer's love of telling stories from the beat with a belief in the importance of civil rights.

"The criminal justice system is probably the biggest problem facing African-Americans today," Mosby told a community group in Druid Heights this week.

But Mosby does not want to confuse that concern with a softness on violent criminals. She has hammered Bernstein when people have been charged with murder shortly after walking out of court, and criticized him over repeated acquittals of a defendant charged in a series of rapes.


"He's been ineffective in targeting these individuals," Mosby said.

After law school at Boston College, Mosby passed the Maryland bar in 2006 and started as a city prosecutor. She quickly moved up to handling more serious cases. She said she took about half a dozen felony cases to trial, as well as about 40 misdemeanors, before leaving the office in late 2011.

She was not involved in a rape or a murder case as a prosecutor.

Catherine Flynn, a defense attorney who faced Mosby at trial, said that though Mosby performed well enough in court, she is not ready to lead the entire 400-person office.

"You want someone who knows what they're talking about," said Flynn, who supports Bernstein's re-election.

But veteran Baltimore attorney William H. Murphy Jr. said young state's attorneys have been successful before and that Mosby could turn her youth to her advantage.


Murphy previously supported Bernstein but faulted him for his aversion to politics.

"This is a political job by definition, and you have to answer to the public," Murphy said after endorsing Mosby at a news conference.

Mosby brushed aside questions about her qualifications, arguing that Bernstein had little experience in front of city juries when he was elected. She said her broader record shows a pattern of taking tough stances against criminals with violent pasts, even when they faced misdemeanor charges.

"You need to look at the individuals," she said.

If she was running the office, Mosby said, she would implement her personal approach. In response to a consultant's investigation into the Police Department that found confusion over whether police or prosecutors had responsibility for tracking violent offenders, she has pledged to make a target list soon after taking office.

Bernstein said the report was out of date by the time it was published and that the problems have been fixed.


Mosby used the example of a man charged last year in the killing of a 1-year-old. Cornell Harvey had been acquitted in another murder case four months before the killing, and Mosby thinks prosecutors could have done more to keep tabs on him. Harvey has pleaded not guilty.

"If you so much as jaywalk I'm going to bring you down," she said.

Bernstein has built a unit designed to run investigations using informants, wiretaps and other tools.

He said he is proud of charges against drug networks in several city neighborhoods. The areas have seen violence drop since the arrests, he added.

"That suggests to me that the strategy is working," Bernstein said. "And there's more coming."

But progress has been slow. The first cases arrived more than two years after Bernstein took office, and none will be resolved in time for Bernstein to point to any convictions ahead of the election.


Across the office, though, Bernstein said he sees improvements, pointing to data compiled by his office that show increased conviction rates in felony cases and longer average sentences for murderers. Those results show that the office is bringing stronger charges and winning respect from judges, he said.

Mosby's camp challenges the numbers, saying conviction rates do not tell the whole story. A case charged as attempted murder but ending in a guilty plea to second-degree assault, for example, counts as a conviction.

Bernstein defends his record and says he wants to do more in a second term.

"There's still a tremendous amount of work to do," Bernstein told residents gathered this week in a Northeast Baltimore church hall.

A jacketless Bernstein stood at the front of the hall, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up a quarter of the way, and rattled through his accomplishments of the past few years. The audience was most interested in programs Bernstein has boosted for low-level offenders that let them avoid being convicted.

Mosby wants to take the idea further, developing a program for people accused of nonviolent felonies. At the Druid Heights meeting, Austen-Monet McClendon, 24, asked Mosby whether she had read "The New Jim Crow," a book by Michelle Alexander comparing the drug war to pre-civil rights legal regimes.


The candidate said that she had, adding, "My aspiration in life was to reform a system that affects so many of us."

Bernstein said the persistent crime in the city convinced him to challenge Patricia C. Jessamy in 2010.

"As a lifelong resident of Baltimore, I just became increasingly frustrated with the level of violence that was happening in the city," Bernstein said.

Jessamy had been in office for 15 years, but Bernstein eked out a 1,100-vote victory. He relied heavily on support in the northern and southeastern parts of the city, and Mosby has said she's hopeful she can snatch votes elsewhere, despite having less funds.

The victor on June 24 could face defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr. at a general election if he collects enough signatures to run as an independent.

On Friday, Bernstein and Mosby made their first joint public appearance, debating on the radio show of Larry Young, whom Bernstein once successfully represented in a bribery case.


The pair stuck to their signature styles. Bernstein aimed to climb above the fray, pointing to increased conviction rates and the creation of his major investigation squad.

"I've been almost single-minded in my focus on the violent crime," he told Young.

But Mosby, her voice quavering at points, said the issue was real for her and her West Baltimore neighbors who are still suffering.

"All we have to do is open up the door," she said.


Gregg L. Bernstein, 58

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Law school: University of Maryland

Experience: Assistant U.S. attorney; founder of own firm; partner, Zuckerman Spaeder; incumbent state's attorney

Family: Married, two sons

Marilyn J. Mosby, 34

Law school: Boston College


Experience: Assistant state's attorney; counsel, Liberty Mutual Insurance

Family: Married, two daughters