Robert R. Harding, a federal prosecutor who battled prison gangs and Baltimore’s heroin kingpins and supervised the investigation of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, died of complications of heart disease related to cancer April 7 at Gilchrist Center Baltimore City. He was 75.
Mr. Harding handled high-profile cases, including leaders of the Black Guerrilla Family at the Baltimore Detention Center. He prosecuted two inmates, five corrections officers and a kitchen worker, part of a conspiracy that involved drug dealing, extortion and witness intimidation.
“He was devoted to the City of Baltimore, in cleaning up its politics and institutions and protecting its people. He loved the city deeply,” said a son, Thomas C. Harding.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, he was the son of Elizabeth R. Harding, a homemaker and nutritionist, and Harold F. Harding, a professor at the Ohio State University and an Army major general.
He received a bachelor’s degree with honors at Cornell University and a doctorate in French history from Yale University. He taught at Yale University before he decided to change careers.
“My father viewed academia as being ivory tower and wanted to do something that had more of a real-world impact,” his son said.
He was a graduate of the Yale Law School and was an editor of the school’s law journal.
He worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the summer of 1982 and was a law clerk to Judge Herbert J. Stern in New Jersey.
“Rob chose to clerk for Stern because the judge had the reputation as an extremely effective criminal prosecutor,” said a friend, Joseph L. Ruby, who is also an attorney. “Rob always wanted to be on his feet, as a standup federal prosecutor in court, prosecuting criminals.”
Mr. Harding worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office from 1986 to 1990, and then moved to Baltimore where he worked for 30 years as an assistant United States attorney.
“He found his calling,” said another son, Dr. Alexander S. Harding. “He conducted sweeping investigations of large-scale heroin traffickers that resulted in dozens of convictions. He was involved in prosecuting many of Baltimore’s most violent criminals, including Anthony Jones in 1998, who then continued to run his drug operation from inside prison.”
As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Harding often took over daunting cases.
“He initially focused on taking out drug importation leaders and large-scale dealing cases. He later created a prison corruptions task force, and at the same time, understood that prison guards were understaffed, underpaid and undertrained,” said Joyce McDonald, an assistant U.S. attorney and friend. “He had a balance about him when he pursued a case. His sense of humor always came through.”
During his career, Mr. Harding prosecuted Linwood “Rudy” Williams, an underworld figure that inspired a portrayal on HBO’s “The Wire.”
A friend, Jefferson M. Gray said: “Rob was calm, thoughtful, not so much reserved, as courtly; respectful of others, and a good listener. He was personally modest, not someone who tooted his own horn or relished publicity.”
Mr. Gray also said: “He was a great lawyer: brilliant, painstaking, original, and creative. ... He had a fierce work ethic, which he never flaunted and was utterly low-key about. ... His cases were profiled by publications like The New Yorker and The Washington Monthly, but he never sought the limelight.
“Nor did he ever seek to capitalize on his accomplishments in the public sector by seeking a lucrative position in private practice,” said Mr. Gray, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Mr. Harding rose to become the chief of narcotics and then criminal chief for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he supervised over 70 attorneys.
His sons said that when Mr. Harding was a supervisor, he carried a substantial caseload, as it was important to him to lead from the front lines.
“Rob Harding was an exceptional lawyer who served as a mentor and role model to many federal prosecutors,” said former U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein. “Rob handled some of the biggest criminal cases in Maryland history, including a wide-ranging investigation of jailhouse corruption.”
Mr. Rosenstein also said: “Even while serving as a supervisor, he maintained one of the largest caseloads in the office. After his illness required him to retire, Rob wanted to continue contributing to the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a volunteer. His sharp intellect, wry sense of humor, and unflappable demeanor made him an invaluable colleague and friend.”
In 2011, Mr. Harding began his prosecution of prison gang cases, including Dead Man Inc.
Mr. Harding led the prosecution of detainees and guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
He prosecuted a second major prison corruption case involving the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore that involved 80 defendants and secured convictions of 77.
More recently, Mr. Harding oversaw major corruption cases against members of the Baltimore City Police Department and supervised the investigation of Mayor Pugh.
His son Thomas said: “He was calm, levelheaded, reasonable and used good judgment. He was also disciplined and careful. Building a case was like a chess game for him. He worked it strategically and methodically.”
His son Alexander Harding said his father used poster boards to depict the complicated hierarchy of drug organizations.
“He wasn’t interested in taking down the dealers on the street. He went after the leaders and most dangerous people,” Alexander Harding said.
Mr. Harding, an Orioles and Ravens fan, spent time biking and hiking in Baltimore and at his second home in Massachusetts.
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He was an ardent collector of baseball cards and memorabilia, particularly of rare and historically significant Negro Leagues players issued in Caribbean countries and Mexico, where they played during the winter.
He loved to travel with his family, and they hosted foreign visitors to stay with them in Baltimore. He welcomed exchange students yearly.
He hosted friends for dinner at his Mount Washington home and more recently at his Harbor East residence.
After retiring in 2020, he remained in close contact with many of his former colleagues. Earlier this year, he helped teach a trial advocacy seminar for more junior attorneys in his former office.
“My father had a strong and clear sense of right and wrong,” said his son Thomas. “He believed very strongly in the pursuit of justice, in punishing criminals and protecting the law, and he shared a belief in social justice with his wife, though he was guided more by a sense of individual moral responsibility.”
Mr. Harding was married to Lucy A. Cardwell for 42 years. They met at Yale and he was her caregiver until her death from ALS in 2021.
Survivors include his sons, Thomas C. Harding of New York City and Dr. Alexander S. Harding of Boston; a brother, Daniel R. Harding of Seattle; a twin sister, Susan F. Harding of Santa Cruz, California; and three grandchildren.