Thiru Vignarajah

Thiru Vignarajah
  • Democrat
  • Age: 41
  • Residence: Federal Hill, Baltimore

About Thiru Vignarajah

Education

After a great education from local public schools—Edmondson Heights Elementary, Johnnycake Middle, and Woodlawn High School—I had the privilege to study at Yale College and Harvard Law School, where I served as President of the Harvard Law Review. I’ve always known how important education is. My parents are retired Baltimore City public school teachers—my mom started teaching at Poly in 1970 and finished teaching at Morgan State; my father spent nearly 40 years as a city teacher, from Edmondson and Western to Digital Harbor and Douglass. He retired last year as the oldest teacher in Maryland, at the age of 80. I have tried to pay tribute to my parents, teaching crime policy and constitutional law at Johns Hopkins University, University of Baltimore School of Law, and Maryland Law School, where I have repeatedly received the award for outstanding professor of the year. I have also helped coach debate at Frederick Douglass High School, where my father taught years ago.

Background

I am a proven prosecutor and have devoted my career to public service. I have a plan to cut murders in half in three years, and I have the experience and track record to get it done. Immediately after law school, I served as a law clerk to Judge Guido Calabresi, a federal appellate judge, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer on the United States Supreme Court. I have since served as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, as head of the Major Investigations Unit in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, and most recently as Deputy Attorney General of Maryland. I am the only candidate who has personally tried murder, wiretap, and gang cases, and I’ve tried those cases at the state and federal level. A veteran homicide detective once described me as “the best prosecutor the city has ever seen”—I was also honored when a former police commissioner said the unit I led handled the “toughest cases against the city’s worst criminals.” And during my tenure in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, we brought murders down to the lowest rate in decades.

Questionnaire

Jump to:
1
Nolle prosse
What specifically will you do as state's attorney to minimize the number of cases that are nolle prossed?
Vignarajah: The current State’s Attorney is struggling to manage a high volume of cases, and prosecutors are routinely reviewing cases after they indict them instead of before. That is the first thing I will change. As a federal prosecutor, I was required to write a charging memo and get my supervisor’s approval before taking an indictment to the federal grand jury. As head of Major Investigations in Baltimore City, I imposed a similar requirement. There are certainly instances where additional information or a case development requires a change of course, but dropping a case after indictment should be the exception, not the norm. We will also cooperate and collaborate better with our police and community partners. When we decline to indict a case, we should say why—and when we drop cases, we again should explain why. That is not for the sake of pointing fingers, but in the spirit of learning to avoid unnecessary mistakes.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
2
Police trust
Given your professional experience, do you trust the Baltimore Police Department?
Vignarajah: The overwhelming majority of police officers in Baltimore are trying to do their job, build strong cases, and get home safe. As the Justice Department noted, however, there are systemic deficits in performance and training in Baltimore. The relationship between police and prosecutors must be built upon mutual respect and trust. That means police must know that part of a prosecutor’s job is to hold them accountable, whether they are cutting corners or committing crimes. But the question shouldn’t just be whether I trust them: it’s whether the community does. With violent crime at an all-time high, communities across Baltimore need a police force they can trust. Citizens feel besiegedso do police. To restore integrity, we do not need to dismantle the police department. But we do need to rebuild how we hold police accountable. Because the current system is simply not working. It is too slow; it is too secretive; and it has sown massive injustice. We are not, however, just going to complain about the mess, we’re going to clean it up. I will create a first-ever Civil Rights Division that will root out corruption, curb overtime abuses, ensure community input, and assist with police training when it comes to use-of-force and constitutional policing. We cannot rebuild trust overnight, but we have to start trying today.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
3
Gray prosecutions
How do you evaluate the charging and prosecution of the officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest?
Vignarajah: It can be unfair to second guess another prosecutor’s decision on a specific case because no one knows what was known or when. But, as a general matter, if a prosecutor is considering charging six individuals with serious crimes from misconduct to murder, based on a novel and untested legal theory, in a case that our city will treat as a referendum on police accountability, that investigation cannot be done right in two weeks. The good news is we know it can be done right. As we saw from the recent federal corruption trial, when prosecutors and police work together, we can build rock-solid cases that stand up in court against cops who have become robbers. There have now been over 1,000 murders since Freddie Gray’s death. His legacy shouldn’t be a city in crisis. We could have set the gold standard for how to investigate an in-custody death. Instead we saw what not to do. In the wake of his death, may we learn, rebuild, and heal – that is a legacy we can all embrace.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
4
Prosecutor retention
What would you do to attract and retain experienced prosecutors?
Vignarajah: Serving as a prosecutor in Baltimore City was, for me, the honor of a lifetime. Right now, Baltimore needs a State’s Attorney’s Office full of prosecutors who feel the same way. Our crisis of violent crime has to be a lightning rod to attract the best talent from around Baltimore and across the country. At the same time, to ensure a strong prosecutor’s office and seasoned public servants, we will seek federal grants to raise salaries and establish world-class training. In addition, I have pledged that Assistant State’s Attorneys will not be hired or fired based on political allegiances. Career prosecutors have enough to worry about without having to choose between making a living and speaking up for what they believe in. With a change in culture, vision, and resources, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office can become the premier prosecutor’s office in the country—our present crisis demands it, and the citizens of Baltimore deserve nothing less.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
5
Officer do-not-call
Do you plan to maintain a "do not call" list of police officers who aren't reliable witnesses?
Vignarajah: Maintaining a “do not call” list is a blunt instrument for an issue that requires nuance. All witnesses, whether they are police officers or civilian bystanders or forensic experts, have strengths and weaknesses. If a police officer has lost his or her credibility to the point where they cannot be called in any criminal case, the solution is not to let them keep earning a paycheck doing a desk job instead of patrolling the streets. Conversely, if an officer has made a professional error—a mistake that has to be disclosed to defense counsel and may rightly be the subject of cross-examination—that does not necessarily mean they cannot ever be called as a witness again; that situation requires full constitutional disclosures, trial preparation, close supervision, and better training going forward.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
6
Repeat offenders
What will your approach be to dealing with violent repeat offenders, and how will that differ from previous efforts?
Vignarajah: Effectively prosecuting repeat offenders is the cornerstone of my plan to reduce violent crime. Here’s what I will do different:
  1. Match community policing with community prosecution. Instead of having units and divisions dedicated to different offenses, prosecutors should first be organized by police district, so they learn the neighborhoods, the patrol officers, the street intelligence, and the gangs and individual characters driving violence in the neighborhoods where they handle cases.
  2. Develop proactive gang prosecutions focused on communities most ravaged by violent crime. Currently, prosecutions in the State’s Attorney’s Office are entirely reactive. It wasn’t always that way. In 2014, my unit alone brought a dozen multi-defendant cases. In the past three years, the current State’s Attorney has brought one. Those cases made a big difference in places like Barclay and Cherry Hill, leading to dramatic reductions in violent crime.
  3. Build better cases, with a special focus on high-impact prosecutions like gun crimes, burglaries, and carjackings. Prosecutors cannot focus only on cases for the cameras. There are thousands of important cases where violent repeat offenders are enjoying the windfall of an unwarranted dismissal or a botched prosecution.
  4. Involve prosecutors in developing comprehensive reentry plans for individuals who are at greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence. To shut the revolving door of prison, prosecutors have to pay attention not only when a violent repeat offender commits his latest offense, but also as they are returning to Baltimore before they commit their next crime.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
7
Accountability
What will you do to ensure the public can accurately judge the effectiveness of city prosecutors in securing convictions?

Vignarajah: To make sure the public can hold us accountable, I have pledged to create the most transparent prosecutor’s office in American history. Here is what that will look like:

First, we will release 100-day plans every 100 days. At the end of each 100 days, we will release a report on what we have accomplished and where work remains. Those reports will include an analysis of key indicators including, for example, felony conviction rates, rates of dismissed cases, homicide clearance rates, average sentences by offense, and the rate of remand for juveniles charged as adults.

Second, each week, we will make available online a downloadable index of resolved and pending cases so the public can see for itself the status of cases and how cases have been resolved.

Finally, to give the public additional insights about how cases are investigated and prosecuted, for certain cases of public importance (e.g., police-involved fatalities), we will permit, with certain conditions, a member of the media to be embedded in the investigation.

We cannot diagnose what is wrong without data and transparency; we cannot see where we are making progress and where we are falling short without public accountability; and we cannot restore the public’s faith in the criminal justice system unless the public believes we have nothing to hide and that our primary interest is the common good.

SHARE THIS ANSWER
8
Witness cooperation
What can the state's attorney do to overcome the reluctance of many witnesses in Baltimore to cooperate with police and prosecutors and to testify in court?
Vignarajah: There is lot of work to be done in the long term to restore the community’s faith in criminal justice. Returning to a community prosecution model, which was dismantled by the current State’s Attorney, will help. So will securing additional funding from federal, state, and local sources to assist witnesses with trauma counseling, relocation, substance abuse treatment, etc. But more funding is the beginning, not the end, of the solution. Witnesses will not come forward if they are not convinced that the leap of faith we are asking them to make is worth it, that the cases in which they are agreeing to testify are not going to be carelessly dropped or routinely lost at trial. We have to do better in court if we are going to ask for more from our witnesses. Prosecutors also have to learn how to build relationships and earn the trust of witnesses, so that witnesses know they will be treated with respect and that their fears are being taken seriously. As a prosecutor—at the federal, state, and city level—a reluctant witness was nothing unusual. But, in partnership with law enforcement, we gained their trust. One witness at a time, one case at a time. Fighting crime is a marathon and a sprint. While we cannot lose sight of the long-term work that must be done, training prosecutors to immediately earn the trust of individuals in the community is also part of what we must do.
SHARE THIS ANSWER
9
Special skills
What do you bring to the table that Baltimore needs that the other candidates don't have?
Vignarajah: I am a proven prosecutor and the only candidate who has been a prosecutor at the city, state, and federal level, serving most recently as Deputy Attorney General of Maryland. Unlike my opponents—who have primarily been on the criminal defense and civil litigation side—I am also the only candidate who has personally tried murder, wiretap, and gang cases as a prosecutor. I also have the boldest and most concrete plans, along with the experience and track record to get it done. I’m the only candidate who has pledged to cut murders in half in three years and to end cash bail, mandatory minimum sentences, and the school-to-prison pipeline. I know what works—we did it before when we achieved the lowest crime rates in decades, and we can do it again. No other candidate has as much management experience, nor the crucial personal relationships with key federal partners and law enforcement agencies. Finally, Baltimore is in my blood. I am the only candidate who is from Baltimore, the proud product of local public schools who became president of the Harvard Law Review, whose parents devoted their lives to public service in Baltimore, and whose own career has been dedicated to public safety here. This is the most important election for State’s Attorney in a generation. And, for me, this is not a career move, it is my calling.
SHARE THIS ANSWER

Election Coverage

    Help support our election coverage. Get 4 weeks of unlimited access for only 99¢. Subscribe