The two challengers for Baltimore state’s attorney attacked incumbent Marilyn J. Mosby Thursday during the first debate to feature all three candidates, blaming her for the escalating violence that has gripped the city throughout her first term.
Defense attorney Ivan Bates and former Maryland deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah also accused Mosby of “rushing” the prosecution of the six officers charged — but not convicted — in 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray. They said she had destroyed the relationship between prosecutors and police.
“We don’t need a defense attorney. We don’t need a politician. We need a proven prosecutor,” Vignarajah said.
“Are we safer now than we were three years ago?” Bates asked the audience. “That answer is no."
Mosby wasted little time hitting back — hard.
She branded her challengers as out-of-towners who are leveling misleading attacks against her. Both Bates and Vignarajah have faced questions about whether they have lived in Baltimore long enough to run for the office.
“I live in the heart of West Baltimore.” Mosby said. “I didn’t have to move back here to run for state’s attorney. I’m in this for the long haul.”
Mosby took particular issue with Bates, who said she had lied repeatedly about her record and the policies of her agency on bail and juvenile prosecution.
“These are lies,” she said. “Much like ‘He’s never lost a trial’ … these are lies. Unfortunately, that’s what people do when they’re running for office. They lie.”
She contrasted her work prosecuting accused offenders to Bates’ job defending them.
“I didn't become a defense attorney and defend robbers and rapists,” Mosby said.
The debate was hosted by the Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV and the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said the debate was the most contentious of any he’s seen leading up to the June 26 primary.
“This was a hard-hitting debate,” Hartley said. “This was a great debate. Both challengers needed to go after her, and they did. She went right back after them. It was civil but it was right on the line of civil.”
Mosby, 38, is running for a second four-year term as Baltimore’s top prosecutor. She rose to national prominence during the Gray case three years ago, and has become a frequent target of criticism from the Baltimore Police Department.
Bates, 49, a former prosecutor and Army veteran, is senior partner of the Bates & Garcia law firm.
Vignarajah, 41, is a former Maryland deputy attorney general who also worked in the state’s attorney’s office under Mosby’s predecessor, Gregg Bernstein. He is a former president of the Harvard Law Review.
Baltimore has suffered more than 300 homicides for three years in a row.
For Bates and Vignarajah to be successful, Hartley said, they will need to tie the homicide rate to Mosby’s performance.
“The state’s attorney is a seriously important link in the justice system,” he said.
Bates and Vignarajah attempted to pin the blame for escalating violence in the city on Mosby, calling her office ineffective at convicting criminals. Vignarajah said he would attract top talent to the state’s attorney’s office, as New York City did to help in that city’s historic decline in crime.
“New York City isn’t Gotham anymore. Baltimore is,” Vignarajah said.
He pledged to cut Baltimore’s murder rate in half within three years.
“The city that I love is in crisis and I can do something about it,” Vignarajah said. “I have pledged on my watch to bring record homicide rates to record lows at record speed.”
Bates said experienced prosecutors have left the office under Mosby but will come back to work for him.
“I won every murder case I was involved with,” he said. After, he put the number of homicide cases he was involved in trying at around “15 or 20.”
Mosby argued that her office is operating effectively despite tremendous challenges, such as frequent turnover in the leadership of the Police Department, corruption among its officers and the unrest that followed Gray’s death. She touted a 95 percent felony conviction rate and jail sentences for violent offenders deemed “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Police Department.
“I intend to continue to encourage my prosecutors to get the job done because that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said.
Bates and Vignarajah faulted Mosby for her handling of the prosecution of the six police officers in the Gray case. They accused her of rushing to file charges without building a case based on evidence.
“Don’t you dare try to do that in eight days,” Vignarajah said. “You have to take the time to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. … Don’t you dare compromise the legacy of Freddie Gray by rushing.”
Bates, too, said Mosby didn’t bring a case strong enough to win.
“The two prosecutors who prosecuted that case had never, ever done a homicide before,” he said.
Mosby said she wouldn’t change a thing. She said the charges helped bring about reform within the Police Department that wouldn’t have happened otherwise
“A life was lost, and I fought for Freddie Gray,” she said. “I’m proud to be part of the reforms that came out of Freddie Gray.”
While the candidates share similar views on many issues, they have campaigned on very different plans to remake Baltimore’s juvenile justice system.
Currently, juveniles are charged as adults in the most serious crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery and armed carjacking. These cases can be sent to juvenile court only with a judge’s approval.
Vignarajah says he wants to reverse the system so that all youths, even those charged with the most serious crimes, begin in juvenile court, where the focus is on rehabilitation, not punishment.
Bates says he wants to bolster the juvenile unit with a corps of career prosecutors dedicated to juvenile cases.
Both challengers have criticized Mosby for treating juvenile justice cases as a training ground for young prosecutors.
Mosby has opposed attempts to remand violent youths to juvenile court. Her office says it fought the transfer to juvenile court of Prince Green, who was 15 years old when he was charged with stabbing a bicyclist to death in Waverly. The youth was released from juvenile detention this year and was charged last month in another violent crime.
Many audience members at the debate said they were already committed to a candidate. But John E. Kyle showed up undecided.
“My major disappointment with Mrs. Mosby was she was angry,” the Bolton Hill man said. “I was looking for her to be more positive about why I should vote for her.”
He said he also found offensive her jab at Bates for his work as a defense attorney representing robbers and rapists.
“Everybody deserves a defense,” Kyle said.
He didn’t know much about Vignarajah before the debate, he says, but he left slightly impressed by him. He also said he was impressed by Bates, who hammered Mosby on her conviction rates.
“Nothing I heard today makes me inclined to retain the current state’s attorney,” he said.
An archive of the forum can be found on the Baltimore Sun’s Facebook page.
The three Democrats are the only candidates in the race, so the Democratic primary will decide the winner.
Bates and Vignarajah have been frustrated for weeks that Mosby had declined to engage in previous debates. Four years ago, Mosby expressed the same frustration when she was challenging then-State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.