Heralded young prosecutor joins city state's attorney's office

When Thiru Vignarajah left the Maryland U.S. attorney's office to lead a new unit of the city prosecutors, there was the matter of putting together a new team of lawyers to pursue major crimes, bolstering relationships with police and other law enforcement agencies, and identifying the city's most violent criminals.

There was also another matter: painting the office.

To help create a sense of ownership over their work, he encouraged his new prosecutors to pick out their offices and paint the walls with the color of their choice. In an aging, cramped courthouse, a new atmosphere took shape.

"We've tried to make sure that prosecutors have a sense of responsibility for cases that they prosecute," Vignarajah said. "Just like creating a space that is our own, I think building morale and building a team makes the unit function better and do better work."

Not yet 35, Vignarajah has a sterling resume that includes a term as the editor of the Harvard Law Review, a Supreme Court clerkship under Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and two years as a federal gang prosecutor.

Hiring an up-and-coming prosecutor away from the federal government and to the city state's attorney's office, with its daunting caseload, tight budget and less than glamorous digs, was a coup for Gregg Bernstein, who took over as the city's top prosecutor last year.

Those who have worked with him say his leadership skills are one of his best assets.

"I think what really stands out about Thiru, apart from his resume, is his good interpersonal skills," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. "He's developed excellent working relationships with law enforcement, legal colleagues, and victims and witnesses."

When he was hired this summer, Vignarajah was the second person to defect from the U.S. attorney's office, after Bernstein hired George Hazel to become one of his top deputies. Rosenstein said that's virtually unheard of.

"I wasn't looking for a new job. This seemed like a pretty unique opportunity, to shape and lead a new unit, to think through the architecture and lay the foundation for a new initiative," Vignarajah said. "An opportunity to lead like that doesn't come around very often."

Bernstein and Vignarajah say the unit's goal is to build cases against the city's repeat offenders, those responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence. Much of their efforts — from wiretaps to pressing for probation violations — are nothing new, but Bernstein wants their work to be even more focused and coordinated. Part of that is motivated by a desire to restore faith and trust in the office among the community, he says.

"We want to build this office, and the major investigations unit in particular, to a unit on par with the U.S. attorney's office," said Bernstein, himself a former federal prosecutor.

Vignarajah's family emigrated from Sri Lanka, first living in the basement of relatives in New York and nearly moving to Nigeria to take part in a teacher ambassador program. Instead, their visas came through and they established roots in Woodlawn, where Vignarajah was raised. Both of his parents made their careers as educators, and his father still teaches in the city school system.

His first inclination that he wanted to pursue law may have been in high school, when he got involved in debate team. He went on to Yale University, where he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and political science in 1998. He received a master's degree at King's College in medical ethics and law, then went on to Harvard Law School.

He was elected the 118th president of the Harvard Law Review, considered the most prestigious in the country and a position once held by President Barack Obama. Among his initiatives there was creating a "familial environment" at the Gannett House office. Before Harvard, he worked as a business consultant, and after graduation as a national security attorney for the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP.

U.S. Judge Richard Bennett said Vignarajah had "enormous opportunities in many fields, and chooses to dedicate himself to public service."

"We're fortunate to have a lawyer of his ability and skills choose to serve the public," Bennett said.

For the head of a major unit, Vignarajah lacks experience. His time as a prosecutor is limited to his work with the U.S. attorney's office, where he spent just two years on a grant-funded position prosecuting gangs.

"I think there's a lot I can contribute, and a lot I need to learn," Vignarajah said. "There are also advantages to bringing a fresh perspective."

During his time in federal court, he handled a case involving a group of men who schemed to pose as law enforcement officers and rob wealthy businessmen. All pleaded guilty and received lengthy sentences. He impressed colleagues as well as those who he squared off with.

"The cases we had together when he was with the U.S. attorney's office, I found him to be very thoughtful, incredibly smart," said Deborah Boardman, a federal public defender. "Thiru has the unique ability to weigh the community's interests in punishing crimes against the need to view each case individually and consider the humanity in the defendant."

Until his departure, he was also part of a long-term investigation of the South Side Brims subset of the Bloods gang, which involved coordinating with law enforcement officers from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore.

In creating the Major Investigations Unit, Vignarajah pulled together a team of six prosecutors with various backgrounds, narcotics, economic crimes, homicide and felony family violence, among them. They speak regularly with police officials and authorities from other agencies, intent on helping develop cases against those deemed responsible for creating havoc on the streets.

"The goal is to create a unit of all-purpose prosecutors, who can effectively investigate every type of violent repeat offender and successfully prosecute every type of case," Vignarajah said.

"When you have that resource, you can sit down with law enforcement partners and say, 'That particular target, we should do an undercover buy. That target, we should use confidential sources develop probable cause to execute a search warrant. That target doesn't actually touch the drugs, he directs the violence, he directs the drug dealing — we might have to do electronic surveillance and go up on a wire.'"

Those familiar with the new unit's work said they plan to make greater use of an investigative grand jury. Prosecutors might also show up on a seemingly low-priority case, but that will be because the defendant is a bigger target than the charges indicate.

Vignarajah declined to discuss any current cases, even those that have already been filed, citing Bernstein's policy of not discussing cases until they have concluded.

In addition to his work as a prosecutor, Vignarajah also teaches at the University of Baltimore's School of Law. At a recent event at the Modell Performing Arts Center where Vignarajah conducted a question-and-answer session with Breyer, the Supreme Court justice, interim Dean F. Michael Higgenbotham called Vignarajah a "rising superstar."

If his teaching and courtroom work wasn't enough, Vignarajah and his wife also recently had their first child. But he's already notified Bernstein that he'll need to take some time off in the spring — since college, he's attended every March Madness NCAA tournament with his friends. The Yale grad says he pulls for the Terps.