Marilyn Mosby has been shaped by her experience growing up black in a tough part of Boston.
BALTIMORE — Shortly before she became the youngest top prosecutor in any major U.S. city, Marilyn Mosby, a daughter and granddaughter of police officers, had tough words about how the nation’s criminal-justice system had handled mistreatment of black men by the police.
“It’s been 78 days since Michael Brown was shot in the street by a police officer,” Mosby said in October at her alma mater, Tuskegee University in Alabama. “It’s been 101 days since Eric Garner was choked to death in New York by a police officer, and 54 days since the New York City medical examiner ruled that incident a homicide. Neither has resulted in an indictment.”
Mosby made clear Friday that she intends to proceed at a different pace. Her announcement that she would prosecute six officers in the death of Freddie Gray landed her in the national spotlight, making her a hero to those demanding better police treatment of black men, but drawing complaints from critics who accuse her of pursuing a political agenda and who say she moved too quickly.
At 35, Mosby — whose official title is the Maryland state’s attorney for Baltimore city — has been shaped by her experience growing up black in a tough part of town. As a student in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, she would awaken at 5 a.m. for an hourlong bus ride to attend school in a wealthy white suburb; she was the only black child there.
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When she was 14, her cousin was mistaken for a drug dealer, and shot and killed on the doorstep of her home. As adults, she said in an interview, both she and her husband — Nick Mosby, a member of the Baltimore City Council — have learned what it feels like to be looked upon with suspicion by the police.
“I’ve had experiences as an African-American woman where I’ve been harassed by police, or my husband has been pulled over and harassed by police,” she said in an interview in her office, near police headquarters in downtown Baltimore. “Does that give me a perspective? I think it does.”
Her turn in the spotlight comes after four months on the job. She was elected in November, ousting the incumbent, Gregg Bernstein, after campaigning aggressively on a vow to prosecute police misconduct. Some of her backers, including Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West was killed after a violent scuffle with the police, were in tears after listening to her Friday.
“I’m so excited, I can’t stop crying,” Jones said.
But critics accuse Mosby of playing politics, and say she moved too fast, potentially jeopardizing her case. The swiftness with which she announced charges — less than two weeks after Gray died — stunned Baltimore and legal experts beyond the city, some of whom wondered if she was motivated by a desire to defuse a volatile situation.
“Think about how long it took in Ferguson to go through each and every piece,” said Ivan Bates, a former homicide prosecutor in Baltimore, referring to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, in which Officer Darren Wilson did not face charges. “It’s easy to charge. It’s hard to convict.”
Gray’s death while in police custody opened a deep wound in Baltimore, a city with a black mayor, a black police commissioner and a decades-old history of tensions between the police and black residents.
Lest anyone think she lacks respect for the police, Mosby takes pains to point out that her mother, father and grandfather were police officers. She has noted her grandfather was a founding member of the first association of black police officers in Massachusetts.
After attending college at Tuskegee, where she met her future husband, and law school at Boston College, where she received her degree in 2005, she decided with Mosby to settle in Baltimore, where he grew up. It was less expensive than Boston; they bought a rundown house in Reservoir Hill, an especially gritty neighborhood blocks from the poverty-stricken community where the rioting erupted Monday after Gray’s funeral.
“He points to a 20-year-old dilapidated vacant shell with no roof and a tree growing out of the middle of the ground, and he’s like, ‘This is where I want to live,’ ” she said, recounting their house-hunting excursion. “And I looked at the open-air drug market and the trash in the streets and the number of vacant houses on the street and I’m like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
She was a law clerk in the Baltimore prosecutor’s office before becoming an assistant state’s attorney in 2006.
Mosby later spent about three years working as a lawyer for an insurance company, Liberty Mutual, before she was elected to the city prosecutor’s job last year. When she challenged Bernstein, who is white, in the Democratic primary, most people thought she would lose.
Sonia Kumar, a staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said supporters like Jones had a big part in turning out the vote.
“Her actions really told us who she is today,” Kumar said of Mosby. “For years and years, victims of police violence in our city, overwhelmingly black people, have sought justice for their loved ones to no avail. This is an historic moment.”
Mosby’s critics, including Bates, said she lacks the necessary experience to prosecute a complex case like the Gray case. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, accused Mosby of having conflicts of interest, including that she has been supported politically by William Murphy Jr., the lawyer for Gray’s family. He also noted that her husband’s political future, like hers, could be affected by the case.
On Friday, Mosby dismissed suggestions she should recuse herself from the Gray case. “I uphold the laws. He makes the laws,” she said of her husband. “And I will prosecute any case within my jurisdiction.”