Mosby: Milwaukee approach would put Baltimore witnesses' lives in danger

The foundation of the criminal justice system is built around trust. And in today's harsh reality, citizens in Baltimore City typically do not trust prosecutors or police. They do not trust that their safety and well-being will be protected when they are called to testify in open court.

They are afraid of being ostracized by their communities after being labeled a snitch. They are afraid to tell my staff and my partners at the Baltimore Police Department what happened to their father, their cousin, their best friend or even their own children. They are afraid to tell law enforcement who fired the bullets that left their loved one slumped over and lifeless in a pool of blood.


Unfortunately for my constituents, there is a real possibility that pursuing justice on behalf of a slain victim inside the courtroom may produce a second victim outside of it.

As we publicly debate the merits of a Wisconsin crime fighting strategy, let's not forget that we live in a city where street justice — or unflinching silence — is seemingly more practical than waiting two years to face a violent gang hitman in open court.


Criminals — especially the violent ones — aren't stupid. They know how to use Maryland Case Search online to look up particular court cases, check probable cause statements, monitor social media accounts and gather intelligence from individuals in or close to law enforcement. They live by a code that is completely self-serving with the reckless mentality to intimidate, hurt or kill anyone who "snitches." We all remember what happened to the Dawson family.

In the last few months Baltimore City has seen a disturbing rise in homicides and shootings. We haven't seen monthly homicide rates like this in 40 years, yet there's no corresponding flood of witnesses. That's the problem: People die; 3-year olds like McKenzie Elliott and 17-year olds like Michael Mayfield die. And nobody talks.

One of the main attributing factors to this culture of silence and lack of cooperation is witness intimidation.

Just a few months ago my office convicted a gang member of witness intimidation. My prosecutor, a victim/witness advocate, and a Baltimore Police Detective worked around the clock to protect the witness and their children.

The witness was relocated three times — and then a fourth after the Baltimore Sun published this person's name in the paper after they testified in court. The children of the witness, at one point, had to be sent away for their own safety — and the witness had to sleep at the BPD homicide unit's office due to the imminent death threats that loomed over their head. Everywhere this witness went required a police escort. When the case was all over this person had to quit their job, move out of the city and start a new life for themselves and their children. In order to obtain that conviction, this witness had to trust that my office would protect them.

Despite these very real barriers, prosecutors in my office have fought and convicted some of Baltimore's most dangerous criminals, including two Black Guerrilla Family gang hitmen and what we believe is a five-time serial rapist, who previously evaded justice on four separate occasions. We owe our success in each of these cases to the exceptional bravery of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the state and risked their lives to do so.

Witness intimidation and lack of participation are very real problems for law enforcement here in Baltimore. Anyone who marginalizes this issue has not spent much time investigating or prosecuting violent crime in our city.

I believe wholeheartedly in using data, collaboration and innovation as a means to reform the criminal justice system from a holistic approach. In fact, for the past eight months we have worked with community groups, faith leaders, local businesses and law enforcement agencies at every level of government on a number of criminal justice initiatives.

Regardless of what the headlines say, I never derailed the Homicide Review Commission — in fact I have stated that I will participate in the commission so long as it uses closed cases for its research.

I respect and admire the professional expertise of Daniel Webster, the commission's academic leader, but we simply disagree on this particular policy of sharing information about ongoing cases.

Granting individuals outside of law enforcement access to information that could land our most violent and well-connected killers in prison for the rest of their lives is simply too great a risk to the people that are putting their own lives in danger to protect the rest of the community from further violence.

The programs and reforms I've enacted since I've been in office have all been aimed at rebuilding the trust among law enforcement and our communities. We're talking to 8th graders about careers in criminal justice; we're offering employment and expungements to first-time, non-violent, felony offenders; we're educating the community and providing resources to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors; and we've completely restructured the victim/witness division to better serve and protect witnesses.


We will not see a sustainable turn in this tide of violence until residents trust that prosecutors and police have their backs. And if that means the endurance of sensational headlines and finger-pointing editorials from Baltimore's paper of record — so be it. I will not betray the public's trust.

It is the least I can do for the men and women of the public who are risking their lives, and their families' lives for justice.

Marilyn Mosby is Baltimore's state's attorney. Her email is mail@stattorney.org.

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