Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Mary Moriarty noticed that the criminal justice system operated in black and white terms during her seven years as chief Hennepin County public defender. But, she realized, the line between a perpetrator and a victim was blurrier than most people assumed.

If elected, Moriarty, 58, said she’ll reform the public safety system so it’s trauma-informed and driven by data. She wants to improve support for sexual assault victims by preparing them better to testify at their assailants’ trials. Moriarty also supports restorative justice, which encourages meetings between victims and defendants. 

“I bring in over 20 years of actual trial experience—sitting in the courtroom in Hennepin County, watching what prosecutors did on a day-to-day basis, watching body cam and other video from police departments around Hennepin County,” said Moriarty, who worked in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office for years before leading it.

As chief public defender, Moriarty led the largest public law office in the state second only to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. She said she shifted the culture in the county public defender’s office from lawyer-centered to being more client-centered. Moriarty attended Macalester College and graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1989.

Moriarty said she’s noticed a narrative with police and media that the county attorney’s bail policy is allowing people on violent crimes to get out. She noted the bail policy is for first-level offenses like property crime. 

Sahan Journal recently spoke with Moriarty about her campaign. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What should people, especially immigrants and people of color, know about the Hennepin County attorney and how the role impacts them? What about young people going through either the juvenile justice process or child protection cases?

The county attorney’s office is the most powerful office in the system–more powerful than the judge. They decide who to charge, who not to charge, what to charge them with, whether to ask for bail, whether to offer them diversion, what to offer them. Because those are subjective decisions and everybody has unconscious bias, there are going to be racial disparities. But to my knowledge, we don’t have those numbers, and I would keep those numbers on race data and gender and put in policies that would keep that from happening.

When I was at the public defender’s office, I made the decision to hire an immigration lawyer. I also wrote a policy requiring all of our lawyers to screen every client for potential immigration consequences. The county attorney’s office does not have a policy about immigration, so public defenders would approach individual county attorneys and ask for some type of resolution that would allow the person to stay in the country. And because there was no policy, it just depended on which county attorney you had, which is not okay.

Many of our clients at the public defender’s office were a parent of American-born children–their families were here, they hadn’t been to the country they might be deported to in years, or they were fleeing violence in that country. 

Another part of the system that’s really important is child protection. We know that there’s just huge racial disparities in kids of color getting taken out of families. That’s something that we’ll be looking at. Youth are really important and we need to address their trauma. We also know that the racial disparities in youth that get diversion programs, there are high racial disparities, so we need to fix those. 

In terms of addressing violent crime, one of the big things we have to do is do a much better job of working with youth. We are failing youth in the juvenile justice system, because we don’t approach it from an adolescent brain development perspective. In other words, anybody with kids knows that kids’ brains are not fully developed until they’re 25 or older. And that means that they make impulsive decisions, they’re really susceptible to peer pressure, and they engage in risk-taking behavior, and we don’t address that in the system at all.

We don’t have trauma-based programs, and we closed the county homeschool without really having any other options. We need to build out group homes where youth can get services, treatment, mental health therapy–all of that. Those group homes can be varying levels of supervision.

Let’s bring the services to them, that way they’re developing relationships with people in the community, and when they get back into the community, it’s not going to be as hard. We have to invest in the resources that will help youth not engage in that kind of behavior or if they do, trying to make sure that they don’t continue to cycle in and out of the system.

How do you plan to address racial equity issues in prosecution?

I’m very interested in data. For example, the marijuana sting from about five years ago that [Minneapolis police] was doing downtown–our office was collecting those cases. The county attorney’s office was charging those clients with felony drug sales even though we were talking about really small amounts of marijuana.

We discovered that 46 out of the 47 people were Black, and the county attorney’s office claimed that they didn’t know that. That is unacceptable, first of all, that they said they had no idea. There has to be some system in there. Second of all, I would never charge somebody who had a petty misdemeanor amount of marijuana–who was approached by a police officer and asked to sell it–with a felony drug sale.

We did a lot of work when I was chief public defender on traffic stops. We know we have huge racial disparities and traffic stops, but due to the work we did at the public defender’s office, we also know that for every Black driver stopped for a minor violation and searched, the police found a gun in less than half of 1 percent of the cases. So that means 99 and a half percent of Black drivers were pulled over, searched, and had nothing.

In pretty much every area at the county attorney’s office, we have to be collecting data, we have to be analyzing it from race and gender perspectives, and we have to be putting in place policies that will try to eliminate that.

If Roe V. Wade is overturned, do you plan to prosecute abortion cases in Hennepin County?

No. It certainly will have an impact on other states, and we know that other states are trying to get legislation that would prosecute people for coming to another state to get an abortion.

You never know what will happen here. We do have some laws in place that’s helpful.  Whatever happens, I will not prosecute abortion cases or providers that protect people’s right to reproductive rights.

How do you plan to address rising violent crime while also implementing criminal justice reform measures, if that’s a priority for you?

We can’t address violent crime unless we have reform. If you look at the numbers for carjacking, for instance, [Minneapolis police] was arresting 10 percent of people who are carjacking in Minneapolis. County-wide, it was 24 percent. One of the things we have to look at is what’s happening in those other 90 or 76 percent of cases, because the county attorney can’t hold anybody accountable unless they’re apprehended by the police. Why are the closure rates so low? 

I’m a big database person and if those people are continuing to commit violent crimes, then obviously what they’re doing at the county attorney’s office isn’t working. But we actually don’t have that data. Nobody’s been telling us that data. 

I am also a big believer in the Office of Violence Prevention through the public health department in Minneapolis. They really have only been funded for the last maybe three years and they only get a fraction of the money that they need. This also takes time–to train people and build out these services, and it’s going to take a while.

What role should the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office play in reviewing and prosecuting officer-involved killings?

The county attorney’s office right now has an agreement with other county attorney’s offices to send cases where law enforcement has killed someone. I don’t agree with that.

For instance, the Dolal Idd case was sent to the Dakota county attorney and the Winston Smith case was sent up to the Crow Wing county attorney up in Brainerd. Nothing against those two county attorneys, but the people of Hennepin County did not elect them to make those decisions.

Transparency, accountability, and accessibility in the community is really important to me. If I am elected as a county attorney, I need to be making those decisions. Not a county attorney who can’t be held accountable by the people in Hennepin County. Now, I also understand fully that there’s a lot of mistrust with the county attorney’s office right now. Would that change if our office was handling those cases? Maybe, maybe not.

There are places to partner with our [Minnesota] Attorney General Keith Ellison, who’s done a really good job on those cases, but he also doesn’t have the resources. He has asked the legislature for more resources to be able to hire people to help with those cases not only in Hennepin County, but in more complicated cases throughout Minnesota. And he has not received those resources. 

How will you vet police testimony and evidence in cases presented by Minneapolis police in light of the Jaleel Stallings case?

When I was chief public defender, there was a police officer from Corcoran. He had six cases thrown out by five different judges for violating people’s constitutional rights. Two of those judges found that he lied under oath. And in the sixth case, the public defender asked him, “Are you aware that you’ve had five cases thrown out for violating people’s constitutional rights?” And he said, “Yes I am, but I disagree with their decisions.”

Afterwards, supervisors from the county attorney’s office had a meeting with supervisors from the public defender’s office who said, “What are you going to do about this guy?” And their answer was, “We’re not his employer.” That’s simply not acceptable. 

It’s the job of the county attorney to decide whether to bring that case or not. The Jaleel Stallings case is a good example of why the trust in the county attorney’s office is so poor.

I don’t know how they could have made the decision to charge Jaleel Stallings with attempted murder and not charge either one of the two officers for committing what was a first-degree assault [on Stallings]. They fractured his eye socket. You can see on the video that he has given himself up–he’s lying face first on the ground, he’s tossed the gun–and you see one cop running across the parking lot and kicking him in the face. Then you see two cops beating him for 30 seconds. I can’t believe that that was an objectively reasonable use of force. Vetting is easy in that case–just look at the video. 

After Jaleel Stallings was acquitted, the county attorney’s office tried to prevent the video from becoming public, and they failed. And so now we’ve all seen it. And I know that various media have reached out to the county attorney’s office to get a statement and we still haven’t heard anything from the county attorney’s office. If I was county attorney, I would take accountability for decisions that the office made. 

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.