Did Baltimore’s top prosecutor lie under oath?

It has been two weeks since a serious allegation was made that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby gave false testimony under oath. No elected official has stepped forward to suggest that the allegation should be investigated as possible perjury. Why not? Maybe it’s the preoccupation with the “Healthy Holly” book scandal. Or maybe it’s something else.

On March 20th, Syeetah Hampton-El was called to the witness stand in a civil trial in which Ms. Mosby was a defendant. Ms. Hampton-El is an administrative law judge and former city prosecutor. She testified that Ms. Mosby made a “throat-slitting gesture” toward her at an Alliance of Black Women Attorneys banquet in 2014 because Ms. Hampton-El supported Ms. Mosby’s opponent in the 2014 Democratic primary, incumbent state’s attorney Gregg Bernstein.

On March 21st, Ms. Mosby testified that she recalled attending the banquet but strenuously denied the allegation by Ms. Hampton-El, stating that it was “absurd that anybody would suggest I would have made a throat-slitting gesture at a forum with 200 people.” Ms. Mosby added that “Syeetah Hampton-El has always had an issue with me.”

On March 22nd, Michelle Wilson, an assistant attorney general and another former city prosecutor, went on Facebook to corroborate Ms. Hampton-El’s account. Ms. Wilson wrote that she was seated at the banquet with Ms. Hampton-El. “I was facing the dais when [Ms. Mosby] made the throat-slitting gesture but the reaction at my table was immediate. Those facing her immediately commented and I was right across from Syeetah [Hampton-El] and could see her face and reaction.”

Ms. Wilson also posted that, at the end of the event, another assistant state’s attorney texted Ms. Mosby about the alleged incident. Ms. Wilson wrote that Ms. Mosby responded with words to the effect “that bitch [Ms. Hampton-El] is gone.”

The trial at which the testimony occurred was the result of the claim by former city assistant state’s attorney Keri Borzilleri that she was unlawfully fired by Ms. Mosby because of her support of Mr. Bernstein. Ms. Borzilleri’s lawyer argued that the throat-slitting gesture was evidence of Ms. Mosby’s inclination to retaliate against lawyers in her office who supported her opponent.

Although employees in the office serve at-will, they may not be terminated for exercising their constitutional right to campaign for candidates of their choosing. Ms. Mosby stated that Ms. Borzilleri was let go because she lacked empathy for crime victims.

The jury found in Ms. Mosby’s favor. The verdict says nothing, however, about who was telling the truth about the alleged throat-slitting gesture. It is possible that the jury believed Ms. Mosby’s denial. It also is possible that the jury discounted the significance of the alleged gesture to the case.

This much is certain, however: Lying has brought the criminal justice system in the Baltimore to its knees. Lying is what enables all other types of corruption to flourish.

The judicial system depends upon truth-telling to function properly in both criminal and civil cases. Witnesses testify under oath and may be prosecuted for perjury if they lie.

The system ultimately will be destroyed if the obligation to testify truthfully is not enforced. To ignore an allegation of perjury against a sitting state’s attorney would send a terrible message in a city that already has a reputation for two standards of justice, with one standard for the powerful and another for the powerless.

The jurisdiction of the state prosecutor over the allegations is doubtful because it extends to perjury by public officials only if the perjury is committed in the course of another crime within the state prosecutor’s jurisdiction. The attorney general can investigate if directed to do so by the governor or General Assembly. And if the governor has not already done so he should order the attorney general to begin an investigation immediately.

If the investigation exonerates Ms. Mosby, fine. According to Ms. Wilson, there were other witnesses at the table at which she and Ms. Hampton-El were seated. If those witnesses didn’t see what happened, it will remain Ms. Hampton-El’s word against Ms. Mosby’s, and that likely will be the end of it.

Ms. Mosby should welcome an investigation in the interests of removing any cloud over her office. Ms. Mosby has made it abundantly clear that special treatment has no place in the criminal justice system, and that her office will not treat police officers as if they are above the law. She can set an example by insisting that the same principle be applied to her.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on April 4, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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