Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby surprised many observers by announcing severe criminal charges against all six officers involved in the death of 25-year-old Gray of a spinal cord injury, including depraved heart second-degree murder, a crime that suggests “callous disregard” on the part of the officers.
During her live press conference Friday morning, Mosby immediately set herself apart from the other prosecutors in prominent police death cases in the past few months, both by announcing that her office would file charges against her own police officers, without even the cover of a grand jury, but also with the rhetoric that she chose.
“I will seek justice on your behalf,” she said in closing her remarks. “This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. As young people, our time is now.”
Mosby, who noted with pride that she comes from five generations of police officers, also denounced those who led a skewed media narrative suggesting Gray was responsible for his own death with harsh words, saying, “I strongly condemn anyone in law enforcement with access to trial evidence who has leaked information prior to the resolution of this case.” And she balanced that with a message to rank-and-file officers: “please know that these accusations of these six officers are not an indictment on the entire force.”
Mosby’s comments stand in remarkable contrast to those of other prosecutors in recent prominent cases. St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, for example, gave a winding late-night press conference this summer that lambasted the media, Michael Brown, and a host of other parties that were not the police.
“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media,” McCulloch said, as he made the case for exonerating Darren Wilson on behalf of the grand jury who had been tasked with assessing the case.
Mosby, 35, is “the youngest top prosecutor of any major city in America,” according to a recent NBC News profile, and was elected to office just four months ago on a campaign in which she pledged to tackle police brutality. She has received the highest of praise even from defense attorneys and community activists. She also has the credibility of coming from a family of police officers.
With Friday’s announcement, Mosby had an early opportunity to make the most forceful demonstration of her commitment on police brutality.
“She gave us her word,” activist Tawanda Jones told the New York Times. Jones’ brother was killed by police after a violent altercation. “I said, ‘How will you handle police brutality?’ She said, ‘If you put me in this chair, I don’t care if they are in uniform or not. I come from a family of officers. Some are good, some are bad, I will hold everybody accountable to the law.’ And thank you, Jesus, she lived it out.”
In addition to her supportive tone, Mosby is also extraordinary for having filed charges at all. Over the seven-year period ending in 2011, for example, a recent Bowling Green State University study found that only 41 officers had been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings. During that period, there were, at the very least 2,718, shooting deaths — a federal figure that is known to vastly underestimate the true count. Freddie Gray’s case did not even involve a gun.
Part of the reason for this figure is that prosecutors are usually not well suited to file criminal charges against their own police. Prosecutors are law enforcers, like police. In most every case they take, they rely on police to provide them with cases, make arrests, present evidence, and even testify at trial. If prosecutors can’t work with cops, they can’t convict anybody. And they don’t want to alienate those very same people, particularly because they often maintain personal relationships. As a result, when faced with a case charging the police, “prosecutors face enormous pressure from both police and fellow prosecutors not to go forward with such cases,” explains law professor David A. Harris in a law review article on police accountability.
Because of this, it is the community that frequently calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor who is independent of this bias. But in the case of Baltimore, it was actually the police union that was calling for a special prosecutor, likely because they had heard about Mosby’s reputation.
If history is any indication, Mosby may face an extraordinary uphill battle going forward. When Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg recently filed charges against two police officers for the first time in recent memory over the shooting of an unarmed homeless man, police responded by excluding her from future investigations of police shootings. After Chicago prosecutors filed charges for the first time in 15 years against a cop for an on-duty shooting, a judge acquitted the officer in a bizarre ruling that reasoned the charges filed against the officer actually weren’t severe enough. If Mosby’s prosecution reaches a jury, she could face an audience with its own set of biases, as juries also tend to favor the police.