Minneapolis Prosecutor Who Pledged Change After George Floyd’s Murder Meets Resistance

Mary Moriarty, a former public defender, became Minneapolis’s top prosecutor last year after persuading voters shaken by the murder of George Floyd that she could improve public safety by reining in police misconduct and making the criminal justice system less punitive.

Turbulence quickly followed. The attorney general of Minnesota, Keith Ellison, a fellow Democrat who had endorsed Ms. Moriarty as she campaigned to be Hennepin County attorney, took over a murder case from her office last spring after concluding that it had offered an overly lenient plea deal to a juvenile defendant.

By fall, two judges took the unusual step of rejecting plea deals offered by Ms. Moriarty’s office, deeming them too permissive for violent crimes.

After Ms. Moriarty this year charged a state trooper with murder in the shooting of a motorist who drove away during a traffic stop, criticism mounted.

Several law enforcement officials questioned the strength of the evidence in the case and Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, as well as members of Congress from both parties, have voiced concern about the prosecution.

“Mary Moriarty has done one hugely positive thing,” said Chris Madel, a lawyer representing Ryan Londregan, the state trooper who awaits trial in the death of Ricky Cobb II. “She brought back bipartisanship to Minnesota in that people on both the left and the right agree she’s doing a terrible job.”

Ms. Moriarty is one of a handful of left-leaning prosecutors elected in recent years promising to overhaul justice systems by jailing fewer people, holding the police accountable for misconduct and reducing racial inequities. Some met strong resistance as they pushed to limit cash bail requirements and sought less severe punishments against certain types of crimes to reduce the prison population.

In 2022, voters in San Francisco recalled Chesa Boudin, the district attorney, as residents grew exasperated over property crimes and open-air drug dealing. In St. Louis, Kimberly Gardner, the elected prosecutor, resigned last year after a tumultuous tenure. But voters have sometimes stuck by the prosecutors, even as police unions, elected officials and others rallied against them. An effort by Pennsylvania lawmakers to oust Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney, fell short, and a recall bid of George Gascón, the district attorney in Los Angeles County, failed.

In Minneapolis, the prosecution of Trooper Londregan in the months ahead will be a new test of public sentiment in the city that set off a national outcry over racism and police misconduct following Mr. Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

In an interview, Ms. Moriarty, 60, said she was under no illusion that the vision she campaigned on would be easy to carry out. But the intensity of the pushback she has seen has been jarring, she said.

“I actually find it hard to believe we’re in the city where George Floyd happened,” she said. “It’s very easy to scare people with crime. It’s a tactic that people have used forever and it’s starting to work again.”

Ms. Moriarty began learning about law as a child while driving near their home in rural northern Minnesota with her father, a criminal litigator who played cassette tapes with lectures about the rules of evidence. After college, Ms. Moriarty briefly worked as a journalist before receiving a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

Kevin S. Burke, a former chief district judge who hired Ms. Moriarty as a law clerk, described her as a gifted trial lawyer who had a knack for nailing opening statements and closing arguments.

Rising through the ranks of the Hennepin County public defender’s office, Ms. Moriarty showed a creative streak. Once, she hired a local theater actor to teach lawyers how to connect with jurors and turn legal theories into compelling narratives.

Representing criminal defendants for decades convinced Ms. Moriarty that the court system was primed for punishment, too seldom offering tools to help people turn their lives around.

“My observation of some of the prosecutors here was that there was somebody called the perpetrator and somebody called the victim, and the victim had to be stereotypically pristine, and there was never any crossover,” she said. Her cases reflected a more nuanced reality, she said, including defendants who themselves had been victims of crimes.

In 2014, Ms. Moriarty became the first woman to lead the Hennepin County public defender’s office. She received accolades for going beyond routine criminal defense by helping clients find jobs, housing and medical care.

Her final year as chief public defender was rocky. In late 2019, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense suspended her and launched an investigation into her management style, citing an allegation from an employee that she had created a “culture of fear.”

Ms. Moriarty disputed that characterization and recalled the period as traumatic. She said she believed the investigation was instigated by sexism, her efforts to get raises for her staff and a tense exchange she had with a prosecutor over his use of the word “thug.”

Ms. Moriarty was reinstated but departed after it became clear the board would not retain her when her term ended. She left with a $300,000 settlement in which she agreed not to work as a public defender in Minnesota.

Late in 2021, Ms. Moriarty launched a campaign to replace the county’s departing top prosecutor, laying out a platform that supporters saw as an answer to the outrage that followed George Floyd’s murder. She promised to create a unit to hold “officers accountable when they break trust and commit crimes,” and to steer more juvenile offenders into therapeutic alternatives to incarceration.

In 2022, Ms. Moriarty easily defeated a more conservative rival: a retired judge and former prosecutor who got the endorsement of the local newspaper and law enforcement unions.

Soon after she took office, critics emerged. Relatives of victims said they were dismayed by plea deals offered to minors charged with violent crimes.

Susan Markey’s brother, Steven, was fatally shot during a carjacking in 2019. Husayn Braveheart, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, was charged with murder.

After a judge rejected a plea deal offered by Ms. Moriarty’s office that would have spared the teenager from going to prison, Ms. Moriarty allowed Mr. Braveheart to plead guilty to attempted first-degree assault, a lesser crime, arguing that he had “made enormous strides” and responded well to treatment.

Ms. Markey called the outcome profoundly misguided and said Ms. Moriarty has continued to behave like a public defender.

“She became a prosecutor, but she’s continuing to utilize the same tactics and espouse the same views,” said Ms. Markey, who is a lawyer. “She’s a political idealist that doesn’t respond to outside feedback or facts that don’t align with her perspective.”

Last spring, Mr. Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, took over for Ms. Moriarty’s office in prosecuting a case in which Zaria McKeever, the mother of a baby girl, was fatally shot in her home in a Minneapolis suburb. The authorities said Ms. McKeever was targeted by a former boyfriend, who enlisted two teenagers to carry out the shooting.

Ms. Moriarty had intended to send one of the teenagers, Foday Kevin Kamara, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, to a two-year rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders. But relatives of Ms. McKeever viewed the punishment as too lenient and objected, and Mr. Ellison obtained the governor’s permission to take over the case. The teenager, now 17, has since pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and prosecutors say they will seek to keep him in prison until he is about 23.

Now questions have emerged over Ms. Moriarty’s decision this year to charge Trooper Londregan with second-degree murder.

In July, state troopers pulled over a vehicle driven by Mr. Cobb along Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. During the stop for driving without working taillights, the troopers determined that Mr. Cobb was subject to arrest over a suspected violation of a restraining order involving a former romantic partner, officials said.

Body camera footage captured Trooper Londregan, who is white, and another trooper reaching into the vehicle in an effort to take Mr. Cobb, a 33-year-old Black man, into custody. Almost immediately, Mr. Cobb’s vehicle appeared to lurch forward, and Trooper Londregan fired his weapon twice. The troopers tumbled to the ground and the car sped away before coming to a stop a quarter of a mile away. Mr. Cobb, who was shot in the torso, died at the scene.

Mr. Madel, Trooper Londregan’s lawyer, said the trooper believed that he and his partner were at risk of serious injury or death when he fired his weapon, making the officer’s use of force lawful.

Court filings show that Ms. Moriarty’s office retained an expert on questions of police use of force, but it stopped working with him after the expert, based on preliminary evidence, suggested that the trooper may have acted lawfully.

Ms. Moriarty said the charges against Trooper Londregan are justified. She added she decided a use-of-force expert was not needed after prosecutors concluded that the troopers had acted in a way that was contrary to their training for such situations.

Marvina Haynes, who leads an advocacy organization that fights wrongful convictions, said the prosecution of Trooper Londregan sent a powerful message. “It’s critical to let law enforcement know that this isn’t the Wild West and that this isn’t an open battlefield,” she said.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association issued a statement calling the case an “unjust prosecution” and urged the governor to reassign it to the attorney general. Governor Walz said he, too, had concerns. Six of Minnesota’s eight representatives in the House of Representatives — including two Democratscriticized the prosecution.

Brian O’Hara, chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, said that the case has cemented a view that many police officers have long held about Ms. Moriarty.

“They already believed she would overcharge a cop and undercharge someone who is out there doing violent crime,” said Chief O’Hara, who acknowledged a strained relationship with the top prosecutor. “All the cops talk about it.”

T. Anansi Wilson, a Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor who leads the Center for the Study of Black Life and the Law, said he was skeptical when he first heard Ms. Moriarty speak about overhauling criminal justice as a candidate.

Still, he said he had grown to admire her determination to follow her conscience even as backlash mounted.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had in our lives prosecutors that are willing to say: ‘What about all the people I’m throwing in jail?’” he said. “They’ve taken Black Lives Matter and they’ve actualized it.”

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