State’s Attorney’s Race: Thiru Vignarajah on Freddie Gray and Gun Trace Task Force

Candidate for State’s Attorney Thiru Vignarajah talks about two of the big cases that have defined the incumbent’s first term and discusses what he may have done differently

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Story Transcript

BAYNARD WOODS: The race to be Baltimore city’s top prosecutor is one of the most important elections this political season. In order to help voters decide between Marilyn Mosby, the incumbent, and her challengers Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah, the Real News sat down with all three to discuss their policies, criminal justice reform, and the politics of the race. Today we sit down again with Thiru Vignarajah, who has worked as a prosecutor at the state and federal levels and served as the deputy attorney general for the state of Maryland. Welcome, Thiru.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Thank you so much for having me.

BAYNARD WOODS: So I started when I was talking to your opponents, to the State’s Attorney and to Ivan Bates, asking about the Freddie Gray case because they are both on opposite sides of that. She was prosecuting the officers that were involved in his death and he was defending one of those officers. But you just released a plan for dealing with police involved issues this week, so maybe that’s a good way to get into that. What would you have done differently or, say, three months into your own term if a similar situation occurred? How would you handle that?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: It’s a really important question. It’s a really important issue. Freddie Gray was one example of the level of mistrust with respect to police here in Baltimore. And in some respects the plan we put out was an effort to move forward, to instead of looking back and asking who was right. Was it the prosecutors, was it the defense in that particular case? What can we learn from that and what can we do better going forward?

But you’ve asked me, I think, a fair question, which is what would I have done in that particular case or in a similar case three months into my tenure? I don’t want to get in the business of second guessing a particular decision. I don’t know what Ms. Mosby knew, I don’t know when she knew it. But here’s what I do know, which is if I’m thinking about bringing charges against six individuals, whether they’re police officers or gang members in a drug organization in East Baltimore, thinking about bringing complex conspiracy charges premised on a novel legal theory that’s going to be viewed by so many as a referendum on whether we can hold police accountable, that’s the kind of complex case that you just can’t do in eight days. And we saw the consequences of that rushed process. We saw those cases crumble in the courtroom.

So I know that that’s not the right approach. I’ve investigated and prosecuted complex cases, as you mentioned. And you need to take the time to dot your I’s and cross your t’s. But there is a broader question because a lot of folks say, well, that’s easy to say sitting from the perch of hindsight. But when your city is at risk, when there’s a real risk of, of an uprising, what do you do in that circumstance? And I do think that’s part of the state’s attorney’s job. But it’s not only the state’s attorney’s job. I may have taken the steps of the War Memorial, but I wouldn’t have done it alone. I would have done it with the City Council, with the mayor, with the police commissioner, with faith leaders, with community activists, and I would have said, listen, we need your patience. This is a really important case, and we need to make sure we do it right. If there is evidence to bring charges, we will bring charges and we will hold these police accountable. If there isn’t evidence to bring charges you will hear that decision from me and I will do my best to explain the decision, and you can hold me accountable for it. But either way, don’t corrupt the process. Don’t taint the process by engaging in putting pressure on the office to make a decision before it’s ready to make that decision.

BAYNARD WOODS: You say that if, in the first sort of police-involved incident in your administration that you would personally handle that case yourself rather than having a deputy be involved in it.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: That’s exactly right. These are really important cases. These are cases that are viewed by the public as a measure of trust in government, of trust in police. And if we’re going to have a case like that on my watch it’s important for me to underscore the importance of those cases, and I’m going to lead that investigation myself.

BAYNARD WOODS: And we have this sort of fake news, attacks on people as fake news all the time, and distrust of the press among the political class going all the way up to the top in the White House, and you know, here on the local level and in many ways. But you say you would embed someone from the police department, and, I mean, sorry. You would embed a reporter in your investigation, and something like that. Why, why would you do that?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: I mean, it’s a real moment in national politics. It’s become so fashionable, not just on the national stage but here in Baltimore as well, to criticize the press, to criticize the judges. I think that’s a really dangerous trend, and one of the things that I’ve promised to do is for each investigation, not just the first, for every police-involved fatality investigation that’s undertaken by my office. I’m prepared to invite, with certain conditions, a member of the media to be embedded in the investigation. It’s what happened in the Freddie Gray case. The Baltimore Sun actually had a reporter embedded in that investigation. And one of the virtues of that is it protects everyone. It makes sure that there is a member of the press, part of the Fourth Estate, there to make sure that the public’s interests, the police interest, the prosecutor’s interest, the victim’s interests are all being preserved recorded for posterity. If no one’s watching, it’s easy to not know what happened. But if someone from the press is there there’s a measure of faith and trust that the public can have that what was done wasn’t done behind closed doors in the shadows, but rather in the light of public scrutiny.

BAYNARD WOODS: So the other big case that sort of bookends Mosby’s tenure is the Gun Trace Task Force, the federal trials that we just got through, where eight officers were indicted on racketeering, corruption charges. And I guess the first question is, you’ve been a prosecutor for a long time, or a federal prosecutor. Did you know that these things were going on?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: You know, I think this was shocking as to the scale of it, the magnitude of it, how long ago it was, how shameless they were, and how brazen they were and what they were doing. But at the same time I don’t think it’s news to folks in Baltimore that there are folks in that department that have taken, you know, taken liberties with their privileges, and have crossed the line in small and big ways. Sometimes it’s overtime fraud, which is, in its own right is a crime and ought to be taken seriously. And sometimes, as in this case, it’s well over the line. We’re talking not about cops, you know, making an error. This is criminal conduct the likes of which the city has never seen.

And it shakes our faith. It shakes our faith in the entire institution. But there is a silver lining. I mean, one of the silver linings of that case is we saw what prosecutors could do when they built a rock solid case, when they worked with local and federal law enforcement to build a case that would hold up in a courtroom. That’s what I think police accountability looks like in 2018. That’s what I think the public expects. And there’s no reason why the city prosecutors shouldn’t be a part of that. Just as when I became a city prosecutor after being a federal prosecutor, we started taking some of the strategies and approaches that I had learned as a federal prosecutor into the city. We had to do the same thing in this particular context. That is a roadmap for how we can hold police accountable. And that could have been a case that was undertaken by the state’s attorney in Baltimore City Circuit Court. It didn’t need to be done exclusively by the feds. And if we’re going to fix this lack of faith in police the city has got to be a part of it. The State’s Attorney’s Office has got to be a part of it.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, Mosby has been accused of, and prosecutors, not just her, but the prosecutors working of wanting to make the cases, and so trying to avoid calling someone like Rayam, but while still having the case. We had a case in court last week, Charles Smith, and they were arguing that because of other evidence, even though two of the Gun Trace Task Force officers were the arresting officers, they could still bring that case. Would you, how would you stop this kind of, I mean, one, would you bring those cases? And then, two, there was the, the claims that there were, there was a leak from within the State’s Attorney’s Office. How would you stop your prosecutors from working too closely with police?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Well, let me take each of those parts of the question separately. I think the first part of the question is, what do you do to make sure that you are doing your job in the context of police corruption? These officers collected an obscene 1.3 million dollars in overtime over the course of their involvement in this conspiracy. Seven hundred fifty thousand dollars, almost, was collected on Ms. Mosby’s watch. There were red flags that a state’s attorney who’s looking would have seen. I don’t suggest, and I think I’ve heard other folks say this, that Ms. Mosby knew about the corruption and tried to cover it up. I think that’s perhaps being a little unfair.

I think what is fair is to say there were clear red flags that a division of prosecutors like what I want to create, a civil rights division, would have seen and would have looked at with greater scrutiny, and would have picked up on. In terms of how we approach those cases going forward. I think this is one of the things that’s really lacking today. I’ve heard Ms. Mosby’s office say, oh, there’s a couple of hundred cases that are impacted. Oh, there’s a couple of thousand cases that are impacted. The idea that we’re sitting here over a year after the indictments not knowing how many cases are impacted really troubled me. So my team, we’re looking at public information, actually assembled an index of the 2322 cases that are affected by the eight convicted officers, and we’ve published it online so that people can see on our website each and every one of those cases to understand the magnitude of it those cases resulted in over a thousand convictions. Over 1500 years in prison time. Tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

And I think the public needs to see that. They need to understand what the index looks like. But they also need to understand how we’re going to approach the cases that we’re going to defend and the cases that we have to drop. So one of the things that we’ve put out is actually a clear paradigm, a clear approach, a clear framework for how to approach those cases. I think one of the things that’s troubling in what we’ve seen over the last couple of months is it seems so reactive. Ms. Mosby drops a case here, defends a case there. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason for how she’s approaching this. And I think the public’s faith is shaken more when it doesn’t look like the state’s attorney knows what they’re doing. I don’t want to just complain about the mess, I want to clean it up. And acknowledging the scope and magnitude of it and in articulating a clear framework for how to approach it I think is part of that, part of the solution.

BAYNARD WOODS: 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.