Profile: Thiru Vignarajah, Candidate for Baltimore City State's Attorney
Vignarajah’s campaign video sounds like the trailer for a summer blockbuster movie.
“So we have to face facts, Baltimore is not the greatest city in America any more, but it can be," says Vignarajah in his campaign video with a full orchestra behind him.
He points to the staggering homicide rate, revelations of the Gun Trace Taskforce trial, and high recidivism rate.
“We can be so much more than the backdrop of the Wire, we can be so much more than a headline in the Economist or USA Today labeling us as the most dangerous, the most deadly city in the country," says Vignarajah.
The 42-year-old son of Sri Lankan immigrants is a Harvard-educated lawyer who clerked for a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York as well as for US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
He served as an assistant US Attorney in Baltimore under then US Attorney, now Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before joining former-Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein’s office. There he met Caroline Griffin, a board member with the Maryland Spay and Neuter Advisory Board.
Vignarajah had been assigned the case of a major dog fighting ring, an investigation that took over 18 months.
“He had never handled an animal cruelty case. He had never handled a dog fighting case. He had come from the US attorney’s office," says Griffin. "But he listened and he listened really closely.”
Vignarajah indicted 22 defendants, seized 225 dogs, and dozens of guns, rods, shock collars, whips, and chains.
“What was so striking to me is they had wire taps and confidential informants. It was a massive case," says Griffin. "And I really thought it was the city’s finest hour in the fight against animal cruelty.”
Griffin says that proves Vignarajah has the ability to combat the city’s homicide rate and to clean up the police corruption revealed in the Gun Trace Task Force trial.
It was those revelations, Vignarajah says, that bothered him about the direction State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office.
“One of the frustrations as I’ve watched as a candidate is to see the state’s attorney really have no handle on the magnitude of the problem created by these acute, extraordinary revelations of crime and misconduct in the federal trial," says Vignarajah.
While Mosby has said “thousands of cases” could have affected, Vignarajah and his campaign team compiled a list of 2322 cases that were compromised the GTTF trials. And another 2000 cases potentially compromised by the actions of the eight officers indicted in the GTTF case.
Stuart Simms, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney from 1988 to 1995, says Vignarajah has a point, but questions what sort of information is available to the state’s attorney’s office to determine an officer’s involvement in the cases that have been affected.
“There may be names on warrants, but there also may be other factors in which they may be engaged in cases not as the primary individual but the subsequent individual, and so that may take another layer of work and examination," says Simms.
Vignarajah says he has a plan to cut the homicide rate in half over the next three years. It involves placing prosecutors in police stations in high crime areas, focusing on high impact crimes like burglaries with finger prints, concentrating most of the office’s resources on major crimes, and lowering recidivism rates for inmates.
He also takes issue with his opponents, Mosby and Ivan Bates, for taking campaign donations from the bail bonds industry.
“I pledge that I won’t take any money from the bail bonds industry and that we would end cash bail," says Vignarajah.
While Bates has received roughly $10,000 from bail bondsmen, Mosby has not taken any money from them in this campaign season, according to their most recent campaign finance reports.
Money bail has come under fire nationally as a force creating a lucrative business for bondsmen while trapping some people accused of low level crimes in jail for months before their trials.
Johns Hopkins University Professor and author of Baltimore: A Political History, says bail bonds are like holding people for ransom.
“It automatically discriminates against people who are poor because they don’t have the credit to raise bail," says Crenson.
While poor defendants sit in prison, those with access to cash go free.
“If a dangerous person is able to raise enough money," says Crenson. "That person may be able to get out on the street again.”
Vignarajah says that by not taking money from bail bondsmen, he’s free of their taint.
“So I’m the only prosecutor who not only wants to hold people accountable and bring to justice violent repeated offenders," says Vignarajah. "But also wants to create the most progressive, transparent, and innovative prosecutor’s office in American history.”
That’s a pretty bold statement by the candidate, but the question is will the June primary voters think so?