A former Baltimore prosecutor has filed suit in federal court claiming Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby fired her and five others illegally, because they supported former State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein in the Democratic primary election.
Keri Borzilleri, who prosecuted shooting and drug cases under former State's Attorneys Patricia Jessamy and Bernstein, says her Jan. 9 dismissal was humiliating and damaged her career. The suit also says Mosby's firings contributed to the city's crime spike. Borzilleri is now a supervising assistant state's attorney in Prince George's County.
"Neither Ms. Mosby nor her office has offered a coherent explanation for why these prosecutors were fired," the suit says. "In an interview with Ms. Mosby on January 21, 2015, Sheilah Kast from Baltimore's NPR news station directly asked Ms. Mosby how many prosecutors she had dismissed. Ms. Mosby first stated that she would not 'talk about personnel issues,' but went on to elaborate that 'with any administration there's change' and, among other analogies, likened her firing of career prosecutors to what happens 'when football teams change coaches.'"
But Maryland law doesn't allow for that, the suit says.
"There is case law that says even if you are an at-will employee you cannot be fired for unlawful reasons," Stacey Grigsby, a lawyer with Boies Schiller & Flexner who is handling the case pro bono, says. "Public employees have a near absolute right to conduct any political activity or express any political opinions."
Grigsby cites a 2009 case decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals. In Newell v. Runnels, the court held that an incoming state's attorney in Carroll County had illegally fired three long-term employees for supporting the incumbent.
Borzilleri worked as a community prosecutor, attending community meetings and working to build ties between communities, police, and prosecutors. She hosted a Bernstein fundraiser at her house and put a Bernstein sign on her lawn but did not contribute any money to the campaign and held no official role in it.
Still, the suit says, Mosby found out about the support—probably from Janice Bledsoe, who she was Facebook friends with. Bledsoe is one of the two main prosecutors of the police charged in the Freddie Gray case. Bernstein had fired her in 2012 for murky reasons, and she supported Mosby in the election.
A few days after Mosby took office, an aide asked Borzilleri about her support for Bernstein, the suit says. She was fired a day later, along with several other prosecutors. Two prosecutors were dismissed in the middle of criminal trials.
In one of those cases—before Judge Barry Williams, who now presides over the Gray-related cases—a career criminal named Dontae Small saw his gun and assault charges dismissed because the new prosecutor asked for a postponement so they could learn the case.
"Nine months later," the complaint says, "Dontae Small was arrested on charges of stealing a car at gunpoint, which he allegedly drove through a guarded checkpoint and crashed into a fence at Fort Meade, a secure facility. When asked by The Sun about the dismissal of Dontae Small's case, the State's Attorney’s Office did not issue a comment."
Small has been arrested four separate times and faces charges in three cases since the January dismissal.
The suit claims that "no fewer than five individuals who murdered someone in the City of Baltimore were previously released in cases under Ms. Mosby's administration," and that prosecutors were eliminated or quit while Mosby built up her public relations team.
"In fact, Ms. Mosby's office expanded and reconfigured the physical space of the office reserved for the executive team, reassigning offices that once were allocated for prosecutors into offices for members of her public relations staff," the suit says.
Mosby has been accused of political motivations in these firings, and in the prosecution of the six officers in the Freddie Gray case.
Grigsby says she included these details "just to show that there is evidence that the motivation [for Borzilleri's firing] was not a change in the needs of the office. It goes to the fact that that office needed prosecutors when that prosecutor was fired."
City Paper forwarded a copy of the complaint to Mosby's office, which nonetheless declined to address allegations in the suit.
"We have not yet seen a copy of this alleged complaint but we refuse to be distracted by disgruntled employees or frivolous law suits," Rochelle Ritchie, a Mosby spokeswoman, emailed back. "Our record of pursuing violent offenders speaks for itself, specifically our 75% homicide conviction rate. The prosecutors in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office are hard-working, talented and committed public servants and we will continue to focus on taking violent offenders off the streets and pursuing justice for victims of crime."