This article originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
A LITTLE BEFORE SEVEN the other night, the prosecutor Marilyn Mosby stopped by my house in Baltimore for dinner. She was coming straight from work in one of her customary gray pantsuits, and because I was already nursing a beer, she took off her jacket with a sigh and poured herself a glass of white wine. Then we stepped onto the back deck to throw a few burgers on the grill. This being a September evening, you might imagine the yard in raking light and breezy autumnal aspect, but it was actually pretty swampy, the oppressive tonnage of summer humidity not yet given way to season’s end, so as soon as the burgers looked about done, we ferried them inside and settled at the island in my kitchen to eat. After a few minutes, Mosby’s husband, Nick, who sits on the City Council, knocked on my front door, let himself in and wandered through the house to join us. He took a seat two chairs down from Marilyn, leaving an empty one between them.
“Hey, Marilyn,” he said quietly.
“Hey, Nick,” she said. “How are you?”
“Fine,” he said.
“How was your meeting?”
“Didn’t you have a Council meeting?”
“Oh,” he said. “That was a long time ago.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Then where are you coming from just now?”
“I was waiting for you at home,” he said.
Now she looked annoyed.
“I called you at 6:07,” she said. “You didn’t answer.”
“Which number?” he asked.
“Your cellphone!” she said.
There was a long silence as Marilyn stared at Nick, who stared at the table.
“Well,” he said, shaking his head. “I was at home.”
I relate this bit of conversation not because it offers a perfect window on the Mosbys and their marriage, but just the opposite: because it’s important to understand from the outset that what you are about to read is a narrow but intimate view. A couple in the midst of a public ordeal is not excused from life’s usual bothers, and what is striking when you find yourself in proximity to a crisis isn’t always the soaring arc of the fall but the way it touches against, grazes and refracts all the familiar daily torments on the way down.
In case your memory is a little foggy, the Mosbys have emerged as one of the most prominent political couples in Baltimore over the last 18 months of upheaval. Nick represents the City Council district where a 25-year-old resident, Freddie Gray, was arrested in April 2015 and where protests over his death turned to incendiary violence. Marilyn is the state’s attorney who, in the midst of that unrest, took to the steps of the War Memorial downtown, facing City Hall, to announce that she was filing criminal charges against six police officers over Gray’s death.
“I have heard your calls for ‘no justice, no peace!’” she boomed before a bank of television cameras in a clip that would echo across the country, would calm the simmering tenor of the city and would, at least temporarily, elevate Mosby to the role of proxy for a nation reeling with outrage and disbelief over the failure of other prosecutors in other cities to indict other police officers for the killings of other black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island. In the days after her announcement, Mosby would be thrust into a woozy limelight: called onstage at a Prince benefit concert and photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue.
Yet over the last year and a half, the halo around Mosby has faded as her office failed to convict any of the police officers and instead produced three acquittals, and one hung jury — before deciding in late July to withdraw all remaining charges. She is now being sued for defamation by five of the officers she indicted and has become a go-to grievance for the voluble right, being subject to more or less constant assault on the conservative airwaves, accused of criminal misconduct by Donald Trump and featured on the cover of the police magazine Frontline under the headline “The Wolf That Lurks.” A steady barrage of racist hate mail and death threats still pours into her home and office. Nick Mosby has had an equally dispiriting year, having started and abandoned a campaign for mayor of Baltimore and, in the process, giving up his seat on the Council, where his term comes to an end this year. Critics often accuse the Mosbys of Clintonian ambition. A few weeks ago, Baltimore’s alternative weekly, City Paper, released its annual Best of Baltimore issue, declaring them “Best Failed Political Dynasty” and naming Marilyn “Best Don Quixote.”
Missing in all the hype and fizzle has been just about any public comment from the Mosbys, and particularly from Marilyn, who spent nine months under a gag order imposed by the criminal courts. At her news conference in July to announce the dismissal of charges, she seemed to offer a glimpse into her mood and thinking when she denounced the city’s criminal-justice system as hopelessly broken. “Without real, substantive reforms,” she said, “we could try this case 100 times, and cases just like it, and still wind up with the same result.” Afterward, Mosby declined to take questions, and she has mostly avoided interviews since, citing the defamation lawsuits against her.
Baltimore is a peculiar place, with its own categories of privilege. The northern sector is an enclave of white wealth that would be familiar to any New Englander, with historic stone churches and elite preparatory schools cultivating vaunted lacrosse programs, but the city is predominantly black, with mostly black political leaders, and if you’re a kid like me, who came up through the public schools downtown and spent several years writing news and opinion pieces for a prominent black paper, you can gain a certain alternate privilege and entree with the city’s other power base, which we might call the black establishment. It is possible to find yourself, as I did one night this spring, sitting alone with the mayor in the back of a bar to chat over a few drinks, or leaving for vacation this month with a longtime member of the City Council. So when a curious figure like Mosby emerges, even if she’s bound to silence, you’re only a phone call away from a personal introduction.
Which is how it came to be that one day in August, I asked a friend to put us in touch and discovered that Mosby was not only willing but eager to record a series of conversations. A couple of days before she and Nick dropped by for dinner, we traveled to Dorchester, Mass., to visit the old Victorian home where Mosby’s grandmother lives, chatting around her dining table among piles of family knickknacks and photo albums, and a few days before that, we scarfed down pizza at the Mosbys’ rowhouse in Baltimore, six blocks up the street from my parents, while their two young daughters, Nylyn and Aniyah, scampered around laughing and the family cat clawed at the leather chairs, with Marilyn pausing occasionally to shriek: “Get Down! GET DOWN!”
The upshot being that after a while, these get-togethers began to seem less like individual interviews than phases in a much longer conversation that was already well underway. As I listen to the recordings now, what jumps out is how fluid the discussion became, how quickly it would pivot from the most quotidian affairs, like a choice of condiment or a spat over a missed phone call, to a deeper slate of personal concerns that cut to the center of their lives, as the Mosbys tried to convey in whatever words they could muster the experience of these last few months, of what went wrong, and when and why, and how much they had lost.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be who I was before,” Marilyn told me at one point. “I’m still trying to figure out who this new woman is.”
THROUGHOUT ALL THIS, I was also recording conversations with a variety of other people in Baltimore, some fiercely opposed to the Mosbys, others ardent fans. At a certain point in the middle of September, after maybe three weeks of hosting gatherings, it began to feel as if my living room had become an old-fashioned salon, in which the story of the Baltimore uprising was being endlessly retold in Rashomon variation.
Like one night in mid-September, a cop with two decades of service on the police force swung by around 9 p.m. and spent the next hour and a half venting about Mosby’s intractable incompetence. In case you are picturing some old white dude with a revanchist hankering for the good old days of zero tolerance, I want you to know that this cop is a woman of color with staunchly liberal views, who firmly supports mandatory police cameras and readily acknowledges, for example, that under the mayoralty of Martin O’Malley in the early 2000s, the Baltimore police behaved like a goon squad, rounding up black people in mass arrests without a scintilla of probable cause. “O’Malley had us clearing corners and violating the constitutional rights of everybody,” she said.
Even so, she regarded Mosby as a singular catastrophe for the city. One thing that most people outside Baltimore don’t realize is the degree to which Mosby’s election in 2014 came as a surprise. When she started her campaign to become the city’s top prosecutor a year before, she was a 33-year-old corporate lawyer working for an insurance firm. Although she had spent a few years in the prosecutor’s office from 2005 to 2011, she caught little notice on the job. “I was like, ‘Who is that?’” the officer at my house recalled thinking when Mosby announced her campaign. “And I knew pretty much every state’s attorney at the district level, and every state’s attorney at the Circuit Court level, and most of the judges.” In conversation with half a dozen prosecutors who worked with Mosby, no one could remember any of the cases she handled before her election.
People have all different ways of explaining Mosby’s victory, but most agree that it came down to a combination of the political connections that she and Nick developed through his seat on the City Council; a vigorous yearlong campaign of knocking on doors across the city; the failure of the incumbent state’s attorney, Gregg Bernstein, to take her seriously until the final weeks of their race; and the underlying electoral math of a hyper segregated city.
The night before the Mosbys came over for dinner, I invited a city councilman named Carl Stokes for drinks. Stokes is an old friend of mine, for whatever that disclosure is worth, and is a 66-year-old black man who has been involved in local politics since approximately forever. Over the 20 years I’ve known him, I would say he has become increasingly allergic to euphemism. During the uprising last year, for example, he caused a stir on CNN when he denounced the anchor for using the term “thug” with a flurry of unvarnished indignation that I can tell you is precisely what I love about Carl. Anyway, Stokes admires Mosby, but over dinner he laid out a pretty simple theory to explain city elections. “It’s black and white,” he said with a laugh. “This is Baltimore! The only time the issues matter is when two candidates of the same race are competing.” Anyone from Baltimore can think of contrary examples to what Stokes was saying, but anyone honest would have to admit that the basic gist is right.
A couple of days later, I went for a run through the city with a reporter who has covered Baltimore for many years. Zigzagging through a dozen neighborhoods along sidewalks and watershed ravines, he sketched an alternate history of how the last two years might have unfolded if Mosby had somehow lost the election, giving another prosecutor custody of the Gray case, which might have led to a different outcome in the trials while also giving Nick Mosby enough distance from the controversy to be elected mayor — a prospect appealing to my friend, who considered Nick a rising star. At the end of this long, wistful analysis, he threw his hands in the air and said, “We got the wrong Mosby.”
Other Baltimore reporters might tell you just the opposite. Another friend, who covers the city for a major newspaper, has told me on more than one occasion that whatever you think about the way Mosby handled the trials, you have to admire the guts she showed in taking on the Police Department, knowing that it would alienate many of the prosecutors in her office and every cop in the city.
“Even if you don’t think she did the best job prosecuting the cases, I have a lot of respect for her,” my friend said. He was less enthusiastic about Nick: “I think his decision to run for mayor hurt her. Their political aspirations collided, but she’s a much more compelling figure than he is.”
Marilyn Mosby took office as Baltimore’s top prosecutor in January 2015, a few days before her 35th birthday. She arrived for her first day on the job with a clear focus on reform. Mosby believes that the country is in the midst of a paradigm shift in criminal justice, in which city prosecutors are learning to redirect energy from the drug war toward violent crime. “When it comes to violent offenders, I’m going to go hard, and I’ll sit in the courtroom and make sure that the jury sees me and that you get the maximum sentence,” she told me. “But at the same time, when we’re talking about nonviolent offenses, drug offenses, I think that that’s when you can exercise discretion.”
In the weeks before Mosby assumed office, she watched grand juries for Ferguson and Staten Island fail to indict police officers in high-profile killings of black men, and she spent the period leading up to her inauguration traveling to other cities and meeting with other top prosecutors to learn how they organized their staffs to reflect the changing landscape around the drug war and police brutality. She made a point of asking each prosecutor she met how his or her office handled the investigation of police misconduct. “That was one of the questions that I would ask every person,” she said. “I went to Atlanta, I met with Kamala Harris in L.A., I went to Philadelphia, I went to Manhattan, I went to Washington, D.C.”
In her first week on the job, she fired six prosecutors, setting off a round of hand-wringing in the local media; since then, she has presided over a continuous outflow, with more than 60 prosecutors leaving over the last 21 months, which by my estimation is about five times the usual attrition. Mosby said that this is partly a consequence of reform. “Of course the amount of turnover is going to be higher than my predecessor,” she said. “Because I’ve challenged the status quo, and people are going to have a problem with that.”
Whether you agree that losing nearly a third of her staff is a sign of a vigorous shake-up in a calcifying agency or believe instead that it’s a tragic evisceration of a vital public office depends on your own inclinations. Suffice it to say that from the perspective of a cop, the replacement of so many veteran prosecutors with new attorneys has been frustrating. “They have seriously depleted the top end,” a police lieutenant with three decades of experience told me, “and the result is that nobody knows what they’re doing.” Add to that the festering resentment over Mosby’s decision to prosecute officers for the death of Gray, and it’s fair to say that the partnership between the police and prosecutors in Baltimore is broken.
“It’s a fractured relationship,” the cop at my house the other night said with a shrug. “It’s absolutely been fractured, and I won’t say it can’t be repaired, but I think it’s going to be a very, very long time.” As she was preparing to leave, I asked this officer if she was willing to admit that the conflict with Mosby, and the mutual mistrust, has led police officers to pull back from their essential duties. One of the most discouraging statistics in Baltimore has been a 63 percent increase in homicides last year. As I asked about this, I watched the cop’s face twist into a frown, which at first I mistook for a sign that she was offended by the question. Then she nodded.
“Absolutely,” she said. “You should get used to 300 murders a year.”
MOSBY’S CHILDHOOD HOME in Dorchester is a gray, prefabricated duplex surrounded by a thin strip of weedy grass. In a neighborhood of large historic homes with broad eaves and wraparound porches, it stands out for being almost perfectly devoid of architectural interest. What the home lacks in grace, however, it recovers in proximity: It is just around the corner from the sprawling manse where Mosby’s grandparents lived.
As I stood with Mosby outside her former home on Labor Day weekend, I was struck by how different she appeared from her professional persona. It wasn’t just that she had swapped out her workaday suits for a faded purple T-shirt and jean shorts with Converse high-tops. There was also an unguarded ease about her that suggested a person in every way content to be home. When I arrived, she was settled in front of the television with her grandmother while Nick relaxed upstairs.
Now, as she stood on the sidewalk around the corner, she seemed to brace herself for the inevitable rush of memory; we were on the spot where, as a young teenager, she watched her cousin die.
Mosby and I had spoken about Diron Spence before. Growing up on either side of their duplex, just three years apart in age, with the shared experience of attending mostly white schools through Boston’s Metco desegregation program, Mosby and her cousin became extraordinarily close. “He was like my brother,” she said.
Spence was killed on an uncommonly hot afternoon in August 1994. Mosby, who was 14, was in her bedroom when she heard the crack of gunfire. “Then I hear the doorbell going crazy, so I ran downstairs,” she recalled. As she opened the door, she found a friend in a panic, saying, “I think somebody just shot Diron.” Mosby could see a figure running down the street. She shut the door, then opened it again. Diron’s body was crumpled on the sidewalk. “I seen him laying on the corner,” she said. “Just laying there.”
Standing on the site two decades later, Mosby was still visibly shaken. The neighborhood contained plenty of troubled kids, but Diron wasn’t one. He was an honor student on his way to college. Investigators would eventually conclude that the killing was a botched robbery and a matter of mistaken identity. “Everything is still a blur,” she said. “I try to suppress a lot of that stuff. I just remember seeing him laying in the street.”
We walked to the front of her grandparents’ house and stepped inside. There was a billiards table in the middle of the front room and beyond it a pair of French doors leading to a large indoor pool. “This was the hangout spot,” she said. “We used to have barbecues, and then my grandmother had karaoke night until like 4 in the morning every weekend.”
The crowd that gathered around Mosby’s family in those days consisted mainly of cops. Mosby comes from a police family in a way that few Americans can understand. Her grandfather was a founding member of the first black police officers’ association in Massachusetts and made the home both a gathering place for cops and a refuge for troubled kids. Although Mosby’s mother and uncle shared the duplex around the corner, Mosby spent much of her childhood with her grandparents. Her mother gave birth at 17 and struggled with substance abuse, often leaving Mosby in the care of her grandmother, Marilyn Thompson.
We found Thompson in the kitchen, watching television. She is a sturdy woman with short gray hair, a shy smile and amused eyes. She told me a story about Mosby’s childhood as the only black student at her elementary school in the wealthy town of Dover. “This one other girl was Asian,” she recalled with a smile, “so Marilyn told the little girl, ‘You and I have to stick together, because we’re minorities.’” Mosby laughed, but she had told me less anodyne stories of white children telling her they didn’t want to be friends with a black girl or approaching her in the hallways, wagging their fingers and trotting out lines like, “You go, girl.”
“I had to be representative of all black kids,” she said. “So at a very early age, you have to put it in perspective. I said: ‘I don’t speak like that. Why are you talking to me like that? You’re talking to me like that because I’m black, and you have this perception about black people.’”
As a teenager, Mosby plunged into political action. She became active in the student government and the school newspaper; she worked with a group called Weatoc, which raised awareness about issues of race and gender; she joined an organization known as Project Hip-Hop, which fosters appreciation of the civil rights movement — she walked the bridge in Selma and visited the grave of James Chaney. In 1998, she enrolled at the historically black Tuskegee University, where she met Nick. Their first evening together, they stayed up until all hours dissecting politics. He was determined to return to Baltimore and enter local politics.
I asked Mosby if, during these years, she also began to see another side of the police; if like so many black Americans, she found herself stopped and questioned without cause. “I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me and my husband,” she said. “But at the end of the day, what are we doing about it? Back in the day, they strategized, they organized. It wasn’t just marching and protesting. And it’s so frustrating to me. Do you know how much of a difference you can make by being at the table? For example, the whole Black Lives Matter — like, start enrolling in these police departments! I’m trying to reform the system from within. Ninety-five percent of the elected prosecutors in this country are white. Seventy-nine percent are white men. As a woman of color, I represent 1 percent of all elected prosecutors in the country.”
As she spoke, it occurred to me that from a certain vantage, Mosby seemed almost perfectly groomed for the moment in which she burst into national attention. If you were trying to engineer a figure with the right background and life experience, the instinct and inclination to do what prosecutors for Ferguson and Staten Island did not, you would imagine a young black prosecutor, acutely aware of racial injustice and systemic oppression, who had organized herself since childhood to confront bigotry through political action, and yet someone who came from generations of police, who could not be accused of hating cops or coddling criminals, whose commitment to hard-nosed prosecution was inspired by her own formative experience of violent crime.
Mosby and I left her grandmother in the kitchen and settled to chat in the dim light of the dining room. She seemed almost to exhale the accumulated strain of the last year and a half as she began to describe in detail the moment when she lost faith in the police investigation of Gray’s death, when she realized that she didn’t trust the internal review to uncover the truth and felt compelled to turn the glaring light of the prosecutor’s office onto the family of blue that she’d known all her life.
THE POLICE DEPARTMENT from the very outset seemed to be going down a different route,” Mosby said. “They were under the impression that Freddie Gray did this to himself.”
It was April 13, 2015, when Mosby first spoke with Baltimore police officers about Gray’s injuries. He had been arrested a day earlier, at the corner of Mount and Presbury Streets in a tough West Baltimore neighborhood known as Sandtown-Winchester. Two of his neighbors used cellphones to record the scene as a pair of police officers on bicycles held him down, then dragged him to a van with his legs dangling beneath him. Gray could be heard on the video screaming in apparent pain. By the end of the day, he lay in the hospital, in a coma, with three fractured vertebrae, a crushed larynx and his spinal cord nearly severed, while the videos of his arrest began to circulate on social media.
Mosby is an avid Twitter user and saw a video that night. As she gathered with her staff the next morning for their daily meeting, she prepared a list of questions about what happened to Gray. This is routine for any situation in which prosecutors suspect that a crime might have taken place; part of their job is to coordinate with the police to draw out evidence necessary to consider charges. But when Mosby and her staff met with police officials the next day, she said, her internal alarms started going off. She believed that the police investigators were not seriously considering the possibility of wrongdoing by other cops. “It was this perception that he had done this to himself, and it didn’t add up,” she said. “They didn’t want to do anything that we requested them to do, and we saw that right away.”
Mosby decided to look into the case independently: “It just did not make any sense, and so I said: ‘Send our investigators out to the scene. We need to figure out what’s going on.’” She told me that some prosecutors in her office were reluctant to question the police narrative so quickly. “My team was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to be real careful, because we need the police,’” she said. “I told them: ‘We need the police to a certain extent, but we need to find out the truth. So I need you to go send investigators out there and find out what the hell happened.’”
One element that raised Mosby’s suspicion was the statement of a witness, Donta Allen, who was picked up by the police shortly after Gray and was held in the opposite side of the transport van. Although there was a metal partition separating the two men, the police told Mosby that Allen heard Gray intentionally smashing his head against the dividing wall. “Donta Allen, to me, was not a credible witness,” Mosby told me. “This is an individual that says, ‘I know the guy on the other side was banging his head!’ How do you know that? There’s a wall. You don’t know what’s banging. And it’s the same thing that the police officers are trying to say.
Meanwhile, Allen hasn’t been charged with anything, and he’s essentially being let go. I need to know who this Donta Allen is. So I had my prosecutors go down to the police station to try to pull the records to see if he’s a confidential informant. My suspicion was that he was.”
Investigators for the state’s attorney do not have police powers. They can knock on doors, interview witnesses and request public documents, but in order to file a search warrant, they need police support. Mosby said that on a series of requests, she could not get the Baltimore police to comply. “We couldn’t trust that they were going to follow through with everything that we needed,” she said. One of her requests was to execute a search warrant on the personal cellphones of the officers involved. Mosby told me that she knew the officers exchanged several text messages while Gray was in the van, and she believed that the content of those messages would be important to determine what happened.
“We got a judge to sign off on the search warrant,” she said, “and a police investigator failed to do it. She didn’t execute it, and then returned it and didn’t tell us. It was just incredibly, incredibly frustrating. It was at this point where I was just like, ‘You all, we cannot rely on them, so we have to do something other than working with them.’” The lead investigator for the police, Dawnyell Taylor, told me that the cellphones were actually a “nonfactor” because another officer turned over a personal cellphone to the grand jury that contained innocuous messages with some of the cops involved. “You got to see it all,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t going to give us jack.”
Mosby said she turned to the state police for help. “We went to them with a number of items in which we said, ‘Can you please follow up on this, this and this?’ And they said, ‘No, we’ll only help you with I.T. support.’”
Meanwhile, if you lived in Baltimore, you could feel the temperature of the street rising. On April 19, one week after Gray’s arrest, the police announced that he had died. Outrage in the city began to swell, and protests filled downtown. On Saturday, April 25, demonstrators clashed with overzealous officers in riot gear outside the baseball stadium, and on April 27, officials responded to a false report of incipient violence by shutting down lines of transportation near a local mall, which only fanned the outrage further: Fights broke out, cars and buildings were torched and 130 police officers suffered injuries.
Mosby said that throughout all this, she watched the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and the police commissioner, Anthony Batts, deliver misinformation to reporters. For example, Batts was undercounting the number of stops the police van made before delivering Gray to medical attention. “First Batts said there were three stops, and we knew at that point there were four or five,” she said. “So I sat down with them and said: ‘You know, we’ve got to stop putting misinformation out into the media and giving that to the public. It’s going to be to our detriment.’ They didn’t listen.”
Mosby also believed that the Police Department was in a rush to close the case. She said that Batts “came up with this fictitious timeline as to when the investigation would be complete, on May 1. So I’m like: ‘Where are you getting this? The autopsy report isn’t even usually completed that quickly.’ Then the mayor started telling the media, ‘Oh, absolutely we know that this death took place inside of the wagon.’ Wait a minute. The investigation is not even complete. How are you going out to the public and saying you know for certain that this took place inside of the wagon?”
In private, Batts and Rawlings-Blake are equally critical of Mosby — and sometimes each other. Rawlings-Blake fired Batts as commissioner in July 2015. When I contacted the mayor about Mosby’s comments, she chose not to respond on the record, but Batts vehemently denied putting out misinformation. He said he thought it was important to report progress in the investigation as it happened, even if some details were likely to prove wrong. “Cases change as you get more information,” he said. “But you’ve got to tell people something, and you’ve got to tell them as much as you can to be transparent.” He said that although the preliminary police investigation was ending, he expected Mosby’s investigation to continue beyond May 1.
In Dorchester, Mosby leaned back in her chair and sighed. After 18 months, the memory of her conflict with Batts and Rawlings-Blake was still frustrating. While they argued over how much information to release and whether it was accurate, the streets of Baltimore were breaking down. “There are protesters outside; they are burning stuff down,” she said. “I had told them that was going to happen, because they were exacerbating distrust. So I called the mayor, and I was livid. I was like: ‘You know, this is ridiculous. You all have single-handedly caused what’s happening in this city right now.’ I just screamed on her. But she was like: ‘Oh, no, I’m getting phone calls from the attorney general and the president’s office. They want to know — where’s the state’s attorney?’ I said: ‘That’s because you and your commissioner have set false expectations. You did this, not me. Not me.’ And I was like, ‘You know what else?’ I can’t remember what I said, but I hung up on her. And that was it.”
Just then, Nick wandered down the staircase in an old Orioles T-shirt.
“Nick,” Marilyn said. “Do you remember my conversation with the mayor?”
“When you asked them to stop having the press conferences?” he asked.
“No, not that one. She said the A.G. had called. They wanted to know where the state’s attorney was and why I hadn’t done anything.”
Nick shot a worried glance at my tape recorder. “Yeah, I don’t remember,” he said.
A silence descended in the room, and after a while Nick continued to the kitchen. Marilyn and I spoke for a few minutes longer, then she walked me to the door. We stood on the porch in darkness, and I asked if she felt any regret about the impact of her public profile on her private life.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “It’s definitely a sacrifice. This has been the most trying time in our relationship, and I’ve been with Nick since I was 18 years old. It’s a lot of stress, and I take it out on him, unfortunately.”
“At least you’re aware of that,” I said.
“I am now,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, in retrospect, you can say, ‘O.K., I was projecting whatever I was going through onto you.’ But when you’re going through it, you don’t necessarily understand it.”
Mosby swallowed hard and looked away, and I walked down the street to my car. As I pulled away, she was still standing alone on the porch in darkness.
A FAVORITE PARLOR GAME in Baltimore these days, best undertaken with bourbon, is to enumerate the various errors and blunders in the Freddie Gray trials. The most common mistake you hear attributed to Mosby is that she overcharged in the indictments, trying to establish such a profound degree of blame that it was impossible to prove. This is an accusation you hear everywhere around town, but it strikes me as the least compelling, because it overlooks the reality that prosecutors often overcharge as a matter of process, and that it’s standard procedure in a criminal case to begin with the most extreme indictment that can be squeezed under the rubric of probable cause. As the case proceeds and the standard of proof rises, the arc of a case is often a matter of prosecutors tailoring those early claims down.
To my mind, the more troubling aspect of the trials is the litany of small, strange choices that aggregated until you had to wonder what prosecutors were thinking. For example, in Maryland, a criminal defendant has the right to decide whether he wants to face a judge or a jury. When a police officer is charged with a criminal offense, she enjoys the same basic rights. Pretty much anyone in Baltimore can tell you that a cop will get more sympathy from the average judge than the average jury, so it was no surprise when most of the officers asked for a bench trial. Except that it did appear to bother Mosby, who has insisted that the officers shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice. Mosby told me she believes that the right to a trial by jury is so basic to the American system that the defense and the prosecution should have to agree before it can be waived. That’s how the system works in federal court and some other states. If the Freddie Gray case had taken place in Atlanta, for example, a prosecutor could have forced the police officers to face a jury. As it happened, the trials took place in Baltimore.
The other glaring example like this involved Gray’s pocketknife. Police claimed that the knife was illegal and used it to justify his arrest. Mosby and her staff have argued that the arrest was illegal, because police didn’t know that Gray was carrying a knife when they took him into custody. The problem with this position is that it fails to account for the murky space between a stop and an arrest. Cops have a great deal of latitude — one might say too much — to detain a suspect, and if they find an illegal weapon during a search, they can escalate to an arrest. These are pretty rudimentary things, which is why it’s bewildering that Mosby’s team chose to make them an issue in the case. Taylor, the lead investigator for the police, said of Mosby, “Maybe if she spent some time in the courtroom, she would know how this whole process worked.”
On the other hand, the level of intransigence that Mosby says she encountered from the Police Department is troubling. Especially if the officers planted an informant in the van to suggest that Gray injured himself, as Mosby suspected, and if investigators failed to execute a search warrant for the text messages. Allen, by the way, has retracted his original statements about Gray banging his head, and he denies being an informant. Mosby so distrusted the process, from top to bottom, that she did not inform the mayor of her decision to press charges until a few minutes before she announced it to the world. “I called her five minutes before, and I said, ‘I’m giving you a heads-up,’” she said.
What has emerged, then, is a pair of irreconcilable narratives about the death of Gray — but a trial, by nature, tends to emphasize one. The prosecution crafts a detailed story about what may have happened, leaving the defense to respond in pieces along the way. But there is another complex narrative for the defense, another timeline to explain Gray’s death, which is endorsed by just about every cop in the city and many of the prosecutors who have left Mosby’s office. I find that narrative underwhelming for several reasons, one of which is that I believe the medical examiner’s conclusion that Gray’s injuries suggest homicide. It’s nevertheless useful to consider the alternate story, so I’ll try to present it as nearly as I can.
IMAGINE THE SCENE for a moment. Here is Freddie Gray. He’s standing on the corner in a pair of bluejeans and a light jacket over a black Lacoste T-shirt. Let’s say he’s holding a few pills of dope, or let’s just say he’s selling them, when a pair of cops roll up on bicycles and Gray takes off.
Probably at this point the cops should let him go, because really, who cares? Veteran officers know that the city is awash in violent crime and that mucking around with Gray over a dope collar amounts to nothing. But these are cops on an enforcement detail, under pressure to make arrests, so we have a pursuit, and pretty soon, they have Gray down. But when they search his pockets, they can’t find the pills. No surprise. Any suspect on the run is going to consider tossing his dope or swallowing it, and it seems as if Gray ate his. His toxicology report will eventually come back with traces of opioids in his blood, and even the cops will admit that Gray wasn’t a junkie or a user. In fact, some of them will tell you that he worked with them as an informant and that they wish the flex squad had left him alone. “When I catch somebody and I can’t find the drugs, I’m like: ‘All right. You win today. I’ll get you tomorrow,’” a cop who worked with Gray told me. “But those young guys, those bike cops, honestly they’re kind of looking for numbers.”’
So now the police call for a wagon, and when it comes, they hoist Gray in. At this point, he’s crying out in pain and clearly dragging his legs. Any normal citizen watching the video is going to say the only humane thing to do is call for medical help, but plenty of cops see it differently. They’ll tell you that people fake injuries all the time, and not only fake them but deliberately incur them to avoid jail. “I’ve seen it hundreds of times, guys banging their head on the cellblock wall or the door or just thrashing around to injure themselves,” one cop told me. In any case, Gray goes into the van with handcuffs and shackles, but no one puts his seatbelt on. That may seem negligent, but cops say it was completely normal; that if you get close enough to strap someone in, there’s a chance he’ll strike out. “Their knees are literally touching the center wall, so you would have to crawl across their waist to buckle them in,” a longtime officer told me. “So if he’s sitting on the right side of the van, you’re going to have to lean over him with your gun side basically sticking in his stomach, and you’re at his mercy. Even though he’s handcuffed, he can bite you, he can knee you, he can head-butt you.” The cop with three decades of experience told me, “I never saw one single guy seat belted, ever, before Freddie Gray.”
So the van takes off with Gray shackled and possibly injured, loose in the back without a seatbelt. Next you have the “rough ride.” There’s been a lot of talk about this: cops driving fast around corners and making sudden stops with suspects in the van. Nobody on the police force will say this never happened. It’s a point of fact in Baltimore, especially in decades past, and any good cop will tell you that giving somebody a rough ride should be grounds for disciplinary action. But a lot of cops don’t believe that it happened to Gray. Think about the dynamic, they say. These are a couple of cops on bicycles calling for a wagon. The driver doesn’t care about them. “They’re just here to pick up your guy, search him, take him to central booking, drop him off,” one cop said. “There’s no camaraderie, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get him for you.’ That’s not going to happen.”
Maybe the van driver has his own agenda, or maybe Gray is simply in the back of a wagon bouncing through the cratered streets of West Baltimore. Either way, by the time he comes out, he’s in critical condition. We know from the autopsy that the way he was dragging his legs wasn’t substantiated by any known injury. Cops will tell you that after faking a medical calamity, Gray gave himself a real one inside the wagon.
And that’s your basic police narrative. Call it the case for the defense. If you find it convoluted and improbable compared with the simple explanation that the police roughed him up and bounced him around until he died, then the question becomes, If the prosecution’s story is so obvious, why was it so hard to convict? One member of the hung jury told me that, although she is a black woman from the city who appreciates the problem of police brutality, “11 out of 12 of us felt like the prosecution should have done a better job, and some of us are individuals who were for conviction.”
Mosby likes to say that even without convictions, the trials have done more good than she could have hoped. The Police Department has installed cameras inside vans and adopted new requirements for the use of force and the provision of medical care. Two weeks after Mosby dropped the remaining charges, the Justice Department released a blistering review of the discriminatory practices of the Baltimore police; under federal scrutiny, the department is likely to implement a raft of reforms. But the most important impact of the trials may be in the way future investigations of the police unfold. This month, Mosby plans to introduce, with a consortium of other prosecutors from around the country, a set of five recommendations that would give prosecutors more independence and authority to investigate the police.
Still, in the case of Freddie Gray, the uncomfortable truth remains that if, like Mosby, you believe that a man was killed by police negligence, you must also accept that the officers accused of killing him went free. The question that lingers around Mosby, then, is really one of shading: whether the failure to convict was a result of her own mistakes or of the larger forces arrayed against her. Whether, that is, the fatal error was personal or systemic, whether it was pride or destiny that stopped her, whether the tragedy is Shakespearean or Greek.
OVER DINNER at my place, conversation with the Mosbys drifted between this and that, before turning to their political aspirations, once shared, now driven apart. Since the day they met at Tuskegee, they worked together for every ambition, helping to manage each other’s campaigns and careers. But within weeks of Marilyn’s inauguration, news reports began to imply that Nick was pulling the strings in her office. To blunt the accusation, Marilyn felt compelled to put distance between them. As the trials commenced and Nick ran for mayor, the distance widened. If her battle with the Police Department cast a shadow over his campaign, his campaign added fuel to the criticism that her prosecution was politically driven. “Had he run for mayor not now, but next time. . .” she mused one evening as we sat in her corner office overlooking the dusky skyline. Her voiced trailed off, then she said, “But this is his dream, and you don’t ever want to be discouraging.”
Marilyn told me that she and Nick had never talked openly about the distance, but as dinner wound down in my kitchen, it came up. We were talking about the criticism of his influence, and she said, “I had to establish my own sort of leadership, because I was being accused of him running my office.”
Nick turned to Marilyn. “Our strength has always been working together,” he said.
“I have to take into consideration the political ramifications,” she said. “You may be asking what took place at work, but because I’m so much on guard, I don’t want to talk about that. But then that creates this. . .”
“Chasm,” Nick said.
“A chasm between us,” she said.
“There’s always going to be some level of disconnect there,” Nick said. “I don’t see it ever returning back to the level where it was.”
Marilyn looked surprised. “Like you mean the damage has been done?” she asked.
“It’s just like, that’s what the relationship is now,” he said.
There was a long silence, and I realized that when you looked at the fallout from Gray’s death — the devastation to his family, the eruption of the city, the polarizing trials and dismissed charges, the rift between cops and prosecutors and the surging violence — the scars were everywhere in this city, but it sometimes seemed as if the only public figure who had really suffered for his death, who put her career and private life on the line, whether right or wrong, the elected official who paid the highest price was the one who set out to make sure someone did.