Adnan Syed Prosecutor On What The Serial Case Means For His State’s Attorney Bid

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In wake of an appeals court ruling that upholds overturning the conviction of Adnan Syed, prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah talks about what the case says about his bid for Baltimore City State’s Attorney and the criminal justice system.

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Story Transcript

BAYNARD WOODS: For the Real News, I’m Baynard Woods. Baltimore City, where we have historically high homicide rate, unprecedented and police corruption, and the history of mass incarceration. The office of the State’s Attorney plays a particularly important role in the criminal justice system, deciding who to prosecute, and how. We’re sitting down one on one with all of the candidates running for the office in three part interviews that will address some of the issues we’re facing as a city. We’ve already spoken with the incumbent Marilyn Mosby, and one of her challengers, Ivan Bates.

Today we talk with Thiru Vignarajah. Thiru is the son of Baltimore schoolteachers. His sister is also running for governor and we hope to talk to her soon. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, and clerked on the Supreme Court. He worked as a federal prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Office, and was the assistant attorney general for the state of Maryland. He’s had high-profile cases like prosecuting the Black Guerrilla Family and arguing the post-conviction of Adnan Syed. Welcome, Thiru.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Thank you so much for having me.

BAYNARD WOODS: Yesterday the court ruled, the Court of Special Appeals ruled, to uphold the overturning of the conviction. And I know that because it’s a case in play you can’t say a lot about what it’s, what’s going on with it. But I mean, I feel like you’re, your plans that you’re putting out are very progressive, and some people may say that prosecuting this case where there are a lot of questions about the original trial isn’t particularly progressive. What does it say about what you would do as state’s attorney?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: You know, Baynard, you mentioned it, because it’s a pending case I’m very limited in what I can say. The office is reviewing the decision that just came out yesterday to determine what’s an appropriate next step. And because of my involvement in the case I am limited in what I can say. But I’ll repeat what I’ve said in open court, which is that this is a case that has drawn a lot of public attention, but it’s really important to approach this case like any other case, like any other high-profile case, to dot our I’s and cross our T’s. It is certainly not popular in some circles, but what’s popular is not always just, and what is just is not always popular. The state’s attorney’s obligation, the attorney general’s obligation, is always and only to do what is just. And people can disagree about what that looks like. But over the course of my career, whenever we have had a case where there needs to be a hard look, we’ve given it that hard look. And if there wasn’t sufficient evidence to proceed, we haven’t proceeded. And if there was sufficient evidence to proceed, we have.

I think that’s what being progressive means. It means not taking cases forward if there is insufficient evidence. But it also means taking cases forward if there is sufficient evidence and not allowing the winds of public sentiment to drive a particular decision. Unfortunately, that’s what has driven so much of the regressive policies in the context of criminal justice. It was when crime spiked that we saw mandatory minimums, not just in the 1980s, but in the last couple of years here in Baltimore. It was when crime spiked that we saw Jeff Sessions come to Baltimore to talk about deporting immigrants when they are plainly not what is driving crime in Baltimore City.

And so I think it’s really important for us to keep our bearings to make sure that we are keeping our eye on on a destination and not allowing them the, the public sentiments of the moment to decide what’s right and what’s just. That doesn’t change. And last couple of years it was really hard to watch everybody, from the City Council to the General Assembly, to talk about mandatory minimums. We had a state’s attorney who went and testified twice two years in a row in favor of mandatory minimums at the General Assembly for statewide laws. We’ve seen opponents advocate for the bail industry in Baltimore City when cash bail is such a disaster not just from a moral perspective but from a constitutional perspective. And that is all the product of politics, and I think one of the real dangers of allowing politics to play such a role in decisions about what is just, about what a justice system looks like, and how we proceed as prosecutors.

BAYNARD WOODS: So someone asked yesterday, Syed’s lawyers, how much money they estimated the case has cost the state of Maryland. And so I’m interested if you have an estimate on that, but I’m also interested in the larger idea. In Philadelphia the new District Attorney Larry Krasner has implemented a policy where if you want to put someone into jail for three years you need to tell them, be open with the jury about how much that’s going to cost for that amount of time to have them in there, and what else the state could be doing with that money. Would you support a position like that? I mean, do you have any idea how much this prosecution has?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: You know, I don’t have any particular comment or view on that. What I will say is this: we do have to make those decisions about how we’re spending our resources. One of the things that I’ve been very explicit about is that we have to divert resources from prosecuting victims of addiction, victims of trafficking for petty offenses, for loitering, for trespass, for simple possession. And take those resources and reclaim them to focus them on prosecuting more serious crimes. Carjackings, burglaries. Because every time we make a decision in terms of resources to prosecute a drug addict for loitering, we are making a decision to deprive a prosecutor who’s struggling to prosecute carjackings in circuit court of those resources.

We do need to make those decisions. I don’t know that it’s critical to communicate that in every case to a jury. I do think it’s really important to be reflective about that internally, to communicate that to the public, to make clear your priorities. I’ve made it very clear that we’re not going to be wasting resources prosecuting these petty offenses when these victims of addiction need support and assistance and substance abuse counseling. That’s where the resources need to be spent not just within the State Attorney’s Office, but at the state level, at the city level. So that calculation is really important, and I absolutely would support that calculation. I don’t think it’s critical to communicate that to a jury every single time.

But I think there’s a broader point there, which is how do you change the culture of the office. I want to build a world-class office of top flight trial attorneys. That’s what we need here in Baltimore City. We need prosecutors who believe in doing the right thing, but also working hard to make sure that the right thing is achieved in a courtroom. And that culture change, making sure they understand what Brady looks like, making sure they understand what their obligations constitutionally look like, making sure that they are making thoughtful decisions on every given case, that they’re not just achieving a conviction, they’re achieving justice, is a cultural change that we need to make sure is happening. And I’m not sure that’s happening in the State Attorney’s Office right now.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: I mean, would you, to come back to Krasner a little bit. He’s also said, and you said you wouldn’t prosecute addicts for loitering, but would you prosecute addicts for possession, or prosecute sex workers? What’s your position on not prosecuting these nonviolent crimes at all, as he’s directed his line attorneys?

BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. I mean, I think these categorical lines are very, very helpful because it makes clear the policy, and I think the State’s Attorney’s Office ought not across the board be prosecuting victims of addiction and victims of trafficking for petty offenses. Sometimes these individuals commit much more serious crimes. And when they do I think that there is a responsibility of the office to bring a measure of justice to the victim. But for a lot of these categories of crime what we’re talking about is minority communities that have been overpoliced for decades feeling the brunt of this.

When you talk about loitering and trespass, we’re sitting in a city that is a majority black, but it’s not 85 percent, 93 percent black, which is what we see for prosecutions of loitering and trespass, for example. That’s just got to stop. Period. I don’t think that’s a hard call. And by the way, it’s not like we’re making our city safer by prosecuting them. Those are 1 day arrests. They’re going in and out of Central Booking. The only reason they’re ever held is because they can’t make a thousand dollar bail. That’s not what’s driving violent crime in Baltimore City. Krasner is, I think, taking the right approach. In some respects I would go farther than him. When it comes to cash bail, something that, you know, me and my opponents just disagree about. I think the cash bail system is, been a albatross around the neck of Baltimore City and minority communities in particular. We’re going to end cash bail altogether. When I was a federal prosecutor we didn’t have cash bail. We made recommendations based on risk of flight and risk to the public, and that’s it. And there were lots of folks that needed to be released on conditions so that they could continue to be connected with their family, continue to provide for themselves by continuing the job that they had. There was no need to help, hold them in custody while charges were pending. And I want to end cash bail across the board in Baltimore City.

BAYNARD WOODS: Something you just set about making the city safer, actually making it safer by arresting people, it seems like sort of the contradiction of the job of a prosecutor that on the one hand, we know that mass incarceration doesn’t make people safer. It brings jail culture to the corners and to the streets. And on the other hand we have some very violent crime happening in the city. What would you do to deal with the homicide crisis?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, we put out a plan to cut murders in half in three years. Some of my opponents have called it wildly unrealistic. Another reporter actually called it a must-listen. And one of the reasons why I think it’s such an important policy is we’re not just talking about platitudes. Everybody says focus on violent repeat offenders. Focus on the gangs, invest in our youth. But what are the next 15 words? What are the next 150 words and how we take those principles, those aspirations, and make them real? This five-point plan says let’s focus on the 10 deadliest neighborhoods in Baltimore City, and start developing gang cases in each and every one of those neighborhoods. That’s not about locking up the victims of addiction. It’s not even about locking up the corner boys. It’s about locking up the shooters and the killers, and doing it in a way that gets them off the street for good.

We’re also talking about investing in community prosecution, matching community policing with community prosecution. My opponents don’t appreciate that when you do a case in West Baltimore for drugs one day and East Baltimore for drugs the next day, it’s not developing an expertise in drugs. It’s just not developing the kinds of relationships we need with the community. I also want to reinvest in re-entry. We got to make sure that we are really being smart about making sure that when people get back out they’re entering a constructive path and not returning to the days of yesteryear. And I want to take those resources from prosecuting victims of addiction, and taking those resources and reclaiming them to go after violent repeat offenders.

BAYNARD WOODS: Great. Well, thanks so much for being with us again, Thiru. We’ll be back with the next segment on some of the politics of the race.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Thank you again.

BAYNARD WOODS: For the Real News, I’m Baynard Woods.