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Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby takes stand, defends firing prosecutor she said had 'lack of empathy'

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby took the witness stand Thursday to defend her firing of a former city prosecutor, saying the woman was dismissive of crime victims.

Mosby told the courtroom she felt Keri Borzilleri was terse with victims and witnesses. The state’s attorney fired Borzilleri without explanation five days into Mosby’s first term.

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“That lack of empathy was something I felt was problematic,” Mosby said.

Borzilleri had worked nine years as an assistant state’s attorney before she was fired in January 2015. Then she sued Mosby, saying her firing amounts to a political reprisal for supporting her boss, then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, over Mosby in the 2014 Democratic primary election.

“Did you know she had a sign in front of her house?” Mosby’s attorney Wendy Shiff asked.

“No,” Mosby said.

“Did you know whether or not she hosted a meet-and-greet with Mr. Bernstein?” Shiff asked.

“I did not,” Mosby said.

“Did it matter to you?”

“It did not,” Mosby said. “As assistant state’s attorneys, you tend to support your boss.”

Mosby’s testimony came on the fourth day of the jury trial, and marked a rare instance of a sitting state’s attorney being called to the witness stand.

Mosby emerged on Maryland’s political scene nearly five years ago with a stunning victory over Bernstein. She rose to national prominence by filing charges against six Baltimore police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest and death, though none were convicted.

Borzilleri had openly supported Bernstein. She put his campaign sign in her yard and hosted a gathering of his supporters. Photos of the event went on Facebook. In January 2015 — about seven months shy of vesting in an $11,000-a-year pension — Borzilleri was fired.

She first sued Mosby in federal court, claiming the state’s attorney violated her rights to free speech and free association. But a federal appeals court sided with Mosby.

Then she brought her case to Baltimore Circuit Court. Like the rest of the prosecutors, Borzilleri was an “at-will” employee, meaning she had no contract with the office and could quit or be fired at any time and for almost any reason. That is, except for a select few reasons protected under state law. Borzilleri could not be fired for, say, age, race, gender, religion or politics.

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She has sued for an unspecified amount: the costs of her lost pension, lost income while unemployed and some incidental expenses from her firing.

Meanwhile, Mosby’s attorney has pointed to her deputy as evidence that the firing wasn’t political. Her deputy, Michael Schatzow, was friends with Bernstein — they attended each other’s weddings — and he donated to Bernstein’s campaign.

Mosby said she fired about five of the more than 200 assistant state’s attorney’s in Baltimore. She wanted “mission-oriented” prosecutors, she said.

“Prosecutors who understood what I was trying to do from a criminal justice reform perspective,” she said.

Another former prosecutor, Syeetah Hampton-El, had supported Bernstein’s re-election campaign and testified on Wednesday that Mosby made a “hand-under-throat” gesture toward her during a banquet.

On Thursday, Mosby denied making the threatening gesture.

“It’s absurd that anybody would suggest I would have made a throat-slitting gesture at a forum with 200 people,” she said. “Syeetah Hampton-El has always had an issue with me.”

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