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How State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby became the hero of Baltimore

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Marilyn Mosby stepped up to the podium on Friday to announce the criminal charges her office would file against the officers involved in the arrest that led to Freddie Gray's death. Within minutes, the Baltimore state's attorney was a celebrity.

The announcement — of a total of 28 charges against the six officers — came after weeklong protests demanding that the police be held accountable for the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury sustained while in their custody.

"Mr. Gray suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet, and unrestrained inside the BPD wagon," Mosby said. She also said that Gray should never have been arrested in the first place: the officers "failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray's arrest, as no crime had been committed."

It wasn't long before Fusion called her "America's favorite prosecutor." The Huffington Post asked, "Who is this objectively badass attorney running the Freddie Gray investigation?" "She just became the most prominent prosecutor in the country," said MSNBC's Joy Reid. "Mosby for Mayor" became the unofficial slogan of her new fans on Twitter.

Why she's suddenly in the spotlight

As state's attorney for Baltimore, where Gray died a week after his April 19 arrest, it was up to Mosby to review the results of the Baltimore Police Department's investigation into his death, conduct her own investigation, and decide whether and how to charge the six officers involved.

On Friday, in a 16-minute televised press conference, she announced that Gray's death had been ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. Next, she detailed the criminal charges she would pursue against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest, including second-degree murder, manslaughter, and assault.

Police said they arrested Gray for allegedly possessing a switchblade — but Mosby said the knife was legal, and police didn't discover it until after the arrest. Therefore, she said, Gray's arrest itself was unlawful.

Vox's German Lopez wrote that those statements seemed to validate the concerns of those who protested after Gray's death that the officers who arrested him were "at least criminally negligent, if not downright abusive."

Some of the attention Mosby is getting is because she announced the charges faster than expected. People are also talking about her because she decided to charge the officers at all; in other recent, high-profile cases when police were involved with the deaths of unarmed black men, the officers were not charged. (See, for example, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.)

Mosby's central role in a case that's dominated national headlines for a week, combined with the enthusiasm of those who were surprised by her decision to charge the officers, immediately boosted her popularity. NPR reported that Mosley "had about 10,000 followers on Twitter in the hour after the speech; a few hours later, that number had more than doubled."

The same day as the press conference announced the charges, Mosby was introduced to a national television audience for second time in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby sat down with Chris Hayes to talk about her stunning announcement today of charges against six officers in the death of Freddie Gray and to answer charges from the police union that she should recuse herself from the case because of conflicts of interest.

Posted by All In with Chris Hayes on Friday, May 1, 2015

The controversy surrounding her role in the case

An attorney for Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police called the charges an "egregious rush to judgment." That's to be expected, as the union exists to protect and advocate for police officers.

The union also believes Mosby should recuse herself from the case. The Washington Post reported that Gene Ryan, a police union leader, penned a letter that called for Mosby to appoint a special prosecutor, pointing to what he called "the many conflicts of interest presented by your office conducting an investigation in this case."

The concerns he raised were:

  • William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., the attorney who is representing Gray's family, donated $5,000 to Mosby's campaign for state's attorney in 2014.
  • Mosby's husband, Nick, is a Baltimore City Council representative whose district includes the West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was arrested. Ryan wrote that Nick Mosby's political career "will be directly impacted, for better or worse" by his wife's role in the case.

During the press conference and her interview with MSNBC, Mosby denied that these issues caused a conflict.

"I'm here to do my job," she said. "It's about applying justice fairly and equally to those with and without a badge. Did I treat this case any different in the pursuit of justice? No, I didn't."

The police union also donated to Mosby, giving her $3,250, according to records uncovered by the Post.

What we know about her thinking and her worldview

Mosby is sympathetic to the concerns both of law enforcement officers and of people — especially African Americans — who are worried about police misconduct. Or at least she makes a convincing case that she can see both sides of the debate over racialized policing and the police-involved deaths of unarmed African Americans.

"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace,’" Mosby said Friday. "To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf."

She also revealed that, at 35, she has a personal stake in the plight of the young people in Baltimore who were the most outspoken protestors after Gray's death. Her use of "our" instead of "your" at the end of this statement suggests that in some ways, she considers herself to be one of them: "You're at the forefront of this cause, and as young people our time is now."

At the same time, Mosby emphasized her personal connection to the law enforcement community, saying, " My father was an officer, my mother was an officer, several of my aunts and uncles; my recently departed and beloved grandfather was one of the founding members of the first black police organization in Massachusetts. I can tell you that the actions of these officers will not and should not, in any way, damage the important working relationships between police and prosecutors as we continue to fight together to reduce crime in Baltimore."

Finally, her chosen language at the press conference revealed that she sees the case at hand as representative of larger problems. Her call to "develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come" suggests that she's a person who thinks not just about individual actions — in this case, of the police officers involved in the arrest that ended Gray's life — but of the larger issues they represent and solutions they require.

What we know about her background

Mosby, a 35-year-old African-American Democrat, is the youngest chief prosecutor in any major US city.

Here's how she got here:

  • She was raised by a single mother in Boston.
  • She comes from a big law enforcement family. Her mother, father, grandfather, and uncles were all police officers.
  • She's said that she knew at age 6 that she wanted a career in the law. (She told the Washington Post the shooting death of a 17-year-old cousin helped convince her she wanted to become a lawyer.)
  • She attended Tuskegee University for college and then Boston College Law School (where she met her husband, Nick, with whom she has two daughters).
  • After law school, Mosby clerked for the US Attorney's Offices in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, and in the homicide unit of the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston.
  • In 2005, she became an assistant state's attorney in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office.
  • After moving up the ranks there for six years, she left to work as an attorney for Liberty Mutual Insurance, representing the company in civil litigation. Later, she became an investigator.
  • In 2014, she ran and beat an incumbent for the role of Baltimore State's Attorney and became the city's top prosecutor.

What's next?

Mosby will remain in the spotlight as she leads the prosecution of the six police officers over the coming weeks and months. Both praise and criticism of her will intensify during the officers' trials and when the public learns of their fate.

Mosby hasn't yet spoken publicly about her long-term professional aspirations. But Baltimore defense attorney Warren Brown, who backed Mosby's opponent last year, told the Wall Street Journal that the public's assessment of Mosby's handling of the Gray case could determine her political future.

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