It was springtime in Baltimore when 25-year-old Freddie Gray, arrested for alleged possession of a switchblade (it turned out to be a legal pocketknife), died after being injured in police custody and the city’s black residents reached their breaking point. The “Baltimore Uprising,” the two-week-long protests that followed in Gray’s neighborhood, was sparked by a confluence of many factors. There was, of course, the unending barrage of high-profile deaths of black men across the country—Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Walter Scott in South Carolina just a few days before Freddie Gray. It was, due, too, to a long-simmering tension between Baltimore’s black residents and the police. A Department of Justice report released in August 2016 found that it was common for police to chase after Baltimore residents, as they did with Gray, and concluded that the department engaged in discriminatory policing, targeting black residents for low-level offenses. A decade earlier, in 2006, the Maryland chapters of the ACLU and NAACP sued the police for making illegal arrests. But perhaps the most significant driver of the anger that bubbled over into the streets was the realization that the indiscriminate killing of black men in America by police wasn’t yielding convictions of police officers. Many times, it wasn’t even yielding an indictment.
By the time Freddie Gray was killed, Black America had already reckoned with the fact that Darren Wilson wouldn’t even go to trial for killing Michael Brown. The same was true for the cops who were involved in the death of Eric Garner. And Baltimore reacted.
But then something extraordinary happened. “I have heard your calls for ‘no justice, no peace!’” the city’s newly elected prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, declared at a press conference almost two weeks after Gray’s death. Days after Gray’s funeral, she did something that almost no other prosecutor in a comparable case had done: She brought charges against the cops involved in his death. To many who were cynical about cops’ getting off too easily, it brought a much-needed sigh of relief, and a little faith. Suddenly Mosby was being held up among liberals as a prosecutor who was holding police accountable. Despite her words of reassurance to police officers—“To the rank-and-file officers of the Baltimore city police department, please know that these accusations of these six officers are not an indictment on the entire force”—she became reviled among cops and conservatives.
But Mosby’s tenure as the left’s new darling was short-lived. She successfully brought six officers to trial, but judges cleared three of charges. After that, Mosby dropped charges against the remaining three. In a July 2016 news conference announcing the dropped charges, Mosby said, “Without real, substantive reforms to the current criminal-justice system we could try this case 100 times, and cases just like it, and we would still end up with the same result.” Having an independent agency investigate from the start, and a say over whether the case would proceed before a judge or jury, would have changed the outcome, Mosby suggested. An account of her epic fall from grace in The New York Times Magazine hinted at the biggest challenge for a self-proclaimed progressive state’s attorney, and a Baltimore Sun article put it bluntly: “The [Freddie Gray] case pitted Mosby against police.”
There is a tension, one that may be unresolvable, between prosecutors who want to make substantive reforms to the criminal-justice system—like ending mandatory minimums, overturning wrongful convictions, reforming cash bail, limiting or ending the use of the death penalty, and creating diversionary programs for drug offenses—and the reality of the prosecutor’s role within the criminal-justice system. It is a conflict of interest to have prosecutors—as civil-rights attorney James Meyerson, who’s also my father, wrote for The Huffington Post—tasked with investigating and charging police for crimes committed against citizens. Most of the time, prosecutors, who are simply trying to get convictions, are working with police to bring charges against civilians. Police are the eyes and ears of a prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors rely on police investigators to bring cases against civilians, to show up in court and testify as witnesses, and to extract confessions from suspects. So how can they be expected to go against their own when it comes to charging their friends with police misconduct? Some cities have appointed special prosecutors to investigate police killings, and the state of New York recently tried to address this conundrum by creating a special prosecutor’s office specifically to investigate police-involved deaths of civilians. But this tension raises a larger question: Is it possible for a prosecutor to reform a broken criminal-justice system when they have to work so closely with, and rely on, law enforcement to do so much of their job?