Friday, August 5, 2016

Another Loss for Baltimore

When I read that Lisa Phelps had resigned from the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, I nearly cried.

Phelps is a wonderfully talented attorney who once told me (to my great joy) that she was a "lifer" - a career city prosecutor.  Talented "lifers" aren't easy to come by.  The best prosecutors tend to move on to the more lucrative private sector or the federal government after gaining experience in local criminal courts.  

Phelps was rapidly promoted within the office, so fast that it wasn't fair to her.  With high turnover during the first few years of her tenure, she moved up to felony jury trials before having the grounding most attorneys need to feel comfortable and competent.

But Phelps was up to it.  And by the time she resigned she was one of the few prosecutors I have known who could handle any case, however challenging, however complicated, however horrifying. The citizens of Baltimore were in the best of hands with Phelps on the job, trying to put away a dangerous criminal.

When her boss, Marilyn Mosby, announced that Phelps would lead the 'clean team' in the Freddie Gray police officer trials, I was surprised. Phelps was supposed to try the cases against Garrett Miller and William Porter, who had been forced by Mosby to testify against other officers. Phelps had to ensure that she did not use their prior testimony against them while still convicting them.

If anyone could do it Phelps could, which is undoubtedly why Mosby chose her.  My surprise was that Phelps thought a crime had been committed.  As it turns out, she didn't.

Professor John Banzhaf of The George Washington University wants to take credit for Phelps' resignation.  Banzhaf filed a complaint against Mosby with the attorney grievance commission and suggested that Phelps responded to his threat of disbarment.

Had Phelps resigned for that reason, it wouldn't be to Banzhaf's 'credit.' Baltimore just lost an extremely competent, highly dedicated, utterly professional prosecutor.  The opposite, in fact, of Mosby.

I haven't asked Phelps - she didn't make a public announcement and I don't intend to urge her to - but I know her character well enough to know that she didn't need Banzhaf to tell her her duty.  Forced by Mosby to take on a case no ethical prosecutor could try, she faced up to Mosby, unlike the toadies Mosby surrounds herself with during her press conferences.  (Anyone catch her rudely waving two of them to stand behind her before her rant against the criminal justice system?)

Phelps was supposed to try Miller and Porter.  Mosby dropped the cases. I can put two and two together. Perhaps Mosby also realized that the end had finally come, but I believe that Phelps helped her reach that conclusion.  It took a hell of a lot of guts to sacrifice one's job after 15 years of service and only 5 years away from a possible pension.  And sacrifice she did, because no one can work with Mosby after crossing her.  Mosby proved that when took her oath of office and immediately fired prosecutors she didn't like when they had been her co-workers.  

Mosby wrecked trust in the criminal justice system, undermined her own credibility, and helped to  drive up Baltimore's murder rate with her unfounded prosecutions. Now she has sabotaged her office's ability to take on tough cases with the loss of Phelps.

But Phelps keeps her conscience and her courage.  She was recently nominated for judge in Baltimore County, a job no one deserves more and I hope she gets. In the meantime, I am mourning the loss of one of the best advocates this city ever had.

Thank you, Lisa.