What the speed of the Gray decision means

After days of protest, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby surprised many when she swiftly and firmly announced charges against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.

The move came as a surprise because state’s attorneys often appear to give deference to law enforcement. And it is surprising because citizens have seen in previous cases that the wheels of justice turn slowly, meaning justice delayed is often seen as justice denied. But Marilyn Mosby sent a message today that she will not be deferential to law enforcement, and that justice in this case will move swiftly.

While Mosby’s decision to charge these officers has drawn praise from many, including U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, some may question whether these charges came too quickly, and whether they were rendered due to public and political pressure. Yet while Mosby is new to the role of state’s attorney, elected just months ago, she’s been a line prosecutor for five years: She knows that prosecutors should not charge individuals unless they feel they can win in a court of law.

At her press conference announcing the charges, she offered a litany of events that, if they occurred as portrayed, suggest negligence on behalf of the officers — from a failure to properly restrain Freddie Gray to an alleged failure to address his calls for aid. As an exacerbating factor, she added that that Gray was illegally arrested.

Given such a story of negligence compounded by negligence, it’s not hard to see how she would arrive at a charge of gross negligence and even murder with a depraved heart. And while it’s unusual for a thorough investigation to take less than two weeks, it is not unheard of — and if Mosby found solid basis to charge these officers, it is absolutely appropriate for her do so as expeditiously as she did.

There seems little doubt that the national attention this case received played at least some part in the speed at which these charges were brought. With that in mind, if such pressure influenced the nature of the charges, then that would clearly be a bad thing: Prosecutors’ charging decisions shouldn’t be influenced by public opinion. But I don’t think that’s what happened here. What more likely happened here is that public opinion made this case a priority, and it expedited a charging decision.

However, one thing the speed of these charges does signal is that Mosby understands the larger context of this case.

“To the people of Baltimore,” she said, “and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

We are embroiled in a national conversation about police aggression and the inequity of how minorities are treated in the criminal justice system. By acting with such certainty on this case, Mosby has demonstrated a sensitivity to these larger issues, and I have a sense that she understands that how she proceeds will provide a blueprint for how tragic cases like these should be handled in the future.

Mosby handled the press conference with extraordinary aplomb. She answered all the questions she could, and when she couldn’t answer a question, she explained why, and she refused to tender her personal opinion. This is exactly the kind of firm and steady hand we need from a prosecutor who has suddenly found herself in the center of the most critical and pressing social justice issue of our time.

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