Hennepin County's chief public defender on leave, pending a review

A woman in a blue shirt and jacket at a microphone.
Chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty speaks after a June 3, 2019 sentencing hearing in Minneapolis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Hennepin County's chief public defender has been suspended from her job. Mary Moriarty isn't sure whether or when she'll be back.

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense released a statement from state Public Defender William Ward that Moriarty was on paid leave effective Monday “pending a review of issues that have been brought to the attention of members of the Board of Public Defense.”

Moriarty confirmed she received the letter Monday indicating her suspension was due in part to matters discussed with her at a board hearing last week.

She said that during the hearing she was accused of using inappropriate language, of being inflexible and fostering a culture of fear. She said the allegations and the suspension have taken her by surprise.

"If somebody is claiming there's a culture of fear, that's something that should be addressed immediately, I would think,” Moriarty said. “Nobody had ever had a conversation with me that there were any concerns of this nature.”

Moriarty has spent decades working as a public defender, according to a post on the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office website. Public defenders serve as attorneys for people with limited incomes who have been charged with crimes that might result in a jail sentence.

In the post, Moriarty said public defenders “need to seize this unprecedented moment in history to end mass incarceration practices by forcing our communities to see the humanity in our clients.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represented Minneapolis in Congress, said in a tweet Tuesday that Moriarty is “one of the most principled people I know. I’m concerned about her treatment; it appears connected to her advocacy for racial justice.”

Ward said there will be no further comment from the state office during the review.

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