Marilyn Mosby is many things to many people. Baltimore’s state’s attorney has been a rising political star. She is smart, energetic, progressive, reform minded and the source of some pride within the city’s Black community. And she is innocent until proven guilty. Yet last week’s four-count federal indictment of the 41-year-old mother of two, who has served as Baltimore’s top prosecutor for seven years, was a body blow. Not only because the city has seen more than its share of public corruption allegations (and convictions) over the last two decades, but also because Baltimore remains besieged by gun violence, and the state’s attorney is in a key position in that fight. No matter what one may think of Ms. Mosby’s job performance to date, it is difficult to see the outlook for reducing the homicide count somehow improved by this circumstance.
Let’s be frank: Long before federal prosecutors set their sights on Ms. Mosby’s financial dealings, she was a political lightning rod. Many in the city, including members of this board, are enthusiastic about the way her understanding of how historic racism and mass incarceration has crippled the community shapes her office’s policies. Yet others in Maryland, with more politically conservative views, see her decision to not seek convictions for low-level offenses, such as drug possession, as unacceptably soft on crime. That has set off fireworks between her and Gov. Larry Hogan, who has accused her of being the cause of the city’s crime problems while she, in turn, labeled such attacks from a white Republican as racist dog-whistling. Both found opportunities to engage their political base, but, once again, the exchange only hurt the criminal justice cause.
And then there’s the indictment. The allegations against her are far from trivial, stemming as they do from false statements made on financial forms related to mortgage applications in Florida and a hardship withdrawal from her retirements savings that’s also related to those property purchases. But they are not exactly the crimes of the century, either. Some of her supporters have disparaged the charges as mistakes of paperwork; they are more than that. A qualified attorney surely understands the risk of misrepresentation on a federal form, including the claim of a pandemic-related hardship as allowed under the CARES Act. Yet perhaps there are mitigating circumstances — as her attorney now alleges, but offers no specifics — that might somehow justify the claim for someone who earns a quarter-million dollars per year. We do not know. Ms. Mosby has yet to offer an explanation, which is also her right.
The state’s attorney’s chief response so far has been to claim victimhood. Was she targeted? Was she treated differently because she is a Black woman? Would these same charges have been pursued in other cases? Some respected civic leaders point to the prosecution of former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh and see a pattern of going after women of color in leadership, a perception that also damages the city’s standing. Yet, sadly, Baltimore has seen its share of male public officials going to prison as well, with two police commissioners, Darryl De Sousa and Edward T. Norris, having been convicted of financial misconduct. Mr. Norris was sentenced to six months on charges related to using police funds for lavish personal spending and lying about them on his tax returns in 2004. Mr. De Sousa received a 10-month sentence on three counts of failing to file federal income tax returns in 2019. Mr. De Sousa is Black, Mr. Norris is white.
Again, Ms. Mosby deserves her day in court which, unfortunately, could be months or more away. That leaves at least two challenges: how best to prosecute criminals while this cloud hangs over her; and how to judge her behavior when a primary election beckons on June 28, and not all the facts are on the table. The latter circumstance will simply be left to voters to judge. Much of the case against Ms. Mosby comes down to documents with her signature on them. The burden to prove a crime in that is on federal prosecutors, though we certainly expect Ms. Mosby to offer a vigorous defense. Most worrisome to our city is the challenge of running her office while her integrity is openly in doubt. A solution might be for her to remain in her post (and thus, not concede guilt), but assign the day-to-day decision-making authority to subordinates. That way the public can be confident that the critically important work of the state’s attorney’s office will not be held at arm’s length, whatever the fallout of the federal prosecution.
Lastly, we would have to observe how thoroughly discouraging it is to ponder the prosecutor’s indictment at the same time the public is presented a searing 660-page report on the Gun Trace Task Force, detailing how police officers abused the public trust in a far, far worse manner. Nothing underscores hopelessness quite like the people who are supposed to be the good guys acting as the bad ones, except, perhaps, doing so while the homicide count remains so disastrously high.
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