A jury sided with Marilyn Mosby on Friday and found that the Baltimore state’s attorney did not illegally fire a city prosecutor over politics four years ago.
The former prosecutor, Keri Borzilleri, had sued Mosby, claiming she was fired as retribution for supporting the political campaign of a previous state’s attorney. Such a firing would have violated state law that protects workers for their politics, religion, race, gender and age.
Jurors deliberated about a half-hour before deciding Borzilleri wasn’t fired over her politics.
“The verdict speaks for itself,” Mosby said through a spokeswoman. Mosby declined to take questions.
Borzilleri’s attorney declined to comment Friday.
Long before the lawsuit, the two women were friendly colleagues in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office. They both worked out of District Court and often chatted between cases.
Mosby fired Borzilleri after four days in office. The state’s attorney testified that she was motivated by Borzilleri’s terse treatment of victims and witnesses. Mosby said she believed Borzilleri was dismissive of them.
“That lack of empathy was something I felt was problematic,” Mosby told the court.
Borzilleri had worked nine years as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore. She rose from prosecuting misdemeanor cases in District Court to handling violent crimes in the downtown Circuit Court. In January 2015 — about seven months shy of vesting an $11,000-a-year pension — she was fired.
Like the rest of the more than 200 assistant state’s attorneys, Borzilleri was an “at-will” employee. This meant 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 the select few reasons protected under the law.
Borzilleri had openly supported then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, whom Mosby beat in the 2014 primary election. Borzilleri had put a campaign sign for Bernstein in her yard and hosted a gathering of his supporters. Photos of the event went on Facebook.
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 Borzilleri brought her case to Baltimore Circuit Court.
Borzilleri had sued for an unspecified amount: the costs of her lost pension, lost income while unemployed and some incidental expenses from her firing.
Even as the five-day trial drew to a close Friday, controversy spilled outside the courtroom.
An assistant attorney general of Maryland wrote publicly on Facebook on Friday afternoon, disputing Mosby’s courtroom testimony.
The post quickly drew attention from the city’s legal community. Within hours, Assistant Attorney General Michelle Wilson took down her post. She did not return a message.
At issue was an incident at the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys banquet in 2014. Attorneys for Borzilleri said Mosby made a “throat-slitting gesture” toward a Bernstein supporter at the banquet.
They had offered the incident as evidence that Mosby was out to get those who favored Bernstein. They called Syeetah Hampton-El, a former assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore, to the witness stand Wednesday. Now an administrative law judge, Hampton-El testified that Mosby made the gesture in her direction.
On Thursday, however, Mosby took the stand and said it wasn’t true.
“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.”
Then Friday, the assistant attorney general waded in. On her Facebook page, Wilson wrote that she was at the banquet and near Hampton-El. Mosby did indeed make the “throat slitting gesture,” she wrote.
“I was facing the dais when she made the throat slitting gesture but the reaction at my table was immediate,” Wilson wrote. “Those facing her immediately commented and I was right across from Syeetah and could [see] her face and reaction.”
Mosby declined through a spokeswoman to respond to questions about the trial or the post.
She testified that she fired about five prosecutors upon taking office. Hampton-El herself resigned.
Mosby wanted her staff to be “mission-oriented,” she told the court. “Prosecutors who understood what I was trying to do from a criminal justice reform perspective.”