The wood-paneled walls in Mary Moriarty’s office are bare, except for discolored squares where her predecessor hung portraits during his 24-year-run as head prosecutor in the most populous county in Minnesota.
Moriarty wants to replace the usually-stolid government office décor with art made by people in the community. But since she took office a few weeks back, she’s been busy trying to steer the 500-person strong office in a new direction.
“Historically, in the criminal system, we end up doing what's always been done,” Moriarty said. “There is a lot of research and data that shows us that what we have done in the past is not only not best for public safety, it is actually the opposite."
After the sometimes-contentious election she won in November by almost 16 percentage points, Moriarty wanted to dig into the work right away so she asked to be officially sworn in a day early.
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Moriarty’s opponent, Martha Holton Dimick, won the support of law enforcement unions and politicians like U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s Third District and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Holton Dimick also won the support of more than 30 senior Hennepin County attorneys, who signed a letter of support for Moriarty’s opponent during the campaign. Moriarty said she is dedicated to building connections with her critics.
“I have met with many people who didn't support me in the campaign. And frankly, the campaign is behind us,” Moriarty said. “My job is to be as effective as I can be, and that means building relationships with people."
But some of the reforms Moriarty’s promised may upset people she needs to work with as prosecutor. She’s vowed to keep a list of police officers who have not been reliable witnesses in court. Moriarty has also said her office will alert police departments when body camera footage shows misconduct or other questionable behavior from officers.
Moriarty said she’s already held about ten listening sessions with staffers in the county attorney's office, trying to learn about the culture of the office. She said she knows it won’t be easy, but that she’s dedicated to rethinking the mission of the office together with employees.
“I was talking to someone in the office who was talking about our role as prosecutors, ‘Shouldn't it be to punish?’” Moriarty recalled. “Is that our job? Or is our job to figure out what will be the best solution in this case to make the public safer?”
Beyond ‘tough on crime’
Moriarty's reform-forward message has led her to be lumped in with a group of so-called “progressive prosecutors” around the country.
What a “progressive prosecutor” means can be amorphous, said Benjamin Levin, associate professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School. It encompasses a group of prosecutors elected in the last decade who support everything ranging from declining to prosecute low-level drug cases to shifting more resources to going after abusive bosses or wage theft.
Levin said prosecutors have traditionally focused on crime rates and conviction rates. But these new prosecutors tend to have broader areas of interest.
“For example, if you have a progressive prosecutor, who has stated that one of their goals is to address racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal law, one of the ways of gauging success might not actually have anything to do with crime rates, it might have to do with with the race of people who are being prosecuted,” Levin said.
This can make progressive prosecutors susceptible to attacks from political opponents claiming that they’re soft on crime. Levin said even judges have served as barriers to some decisions by progressive prosecutors.
“One thing that we're seeing with the so-called progressive prosecutor movement is the limitations of some of that power, the way in which prosecutors rely on other actors in order to do their job,” Levin said. “In Philly, in San Francisco and elsewhere, police were very resistant to a newly elected [prosecutor], either because they feel as though the [prosecutor] is outwardly hostile to them, or that they're just skeptical about some of the changes taking place.”
Most prosecutor elections were uncontested until about a decade ago, Levin said. But he doesn’t see prosecutors’ offices going back to their traditional approach anytime soon. He sees the next generation of lawyers as people who pursue careers in prosecution not to punish, but because they’re interested in using “their power as prosecutors to do justice in some broader sense.”
From public defender to prosecutor
Moriarty didn’t take the traditional path to the county attorney’s office. She served in the public defender’s office for more than three decades, including six years as chief public defender. During that time, she was known for advocating strongly for racial justice, which earned her both admirers and critics.
Jared Mollenkof, an attorney and assistant professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, was mentored by Moriarty when he was working as a public defender in Nashville. He later jumped at a chance to join the Hennepin County’s public defender’s office when she led it.
"She was really vocal about how she saw racism affecting the criminal justice system in Minnesota,” Mollenkof said. “I think that that really unsettled a lot of people but for a Black man from the south, coming up to Minneapolis, that really mattered to me.”
In 2019, Moriarty was suspended from her role in the public defender’s office allegedly for comments she made online. During the appeal, she clashed with the head of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, but the board voted not to renew her contract. They later settled with Moriarty for $300,000 but did not admit to wrongdoing.
Mollenkof remembers overwhelming support for Moriarty within the public defender’s office during that time. If she does face pressure from police or other powerful interests as she tries to remake the county attorney’s office, he believes people, including criminal justice reform activists, will rally to her again.
“She's got 31 years in this exact system with these exact police officers, knowing the dynamics of how these fights have played out in the past,” Mollenkoff said. “I think that there is immense value in the depth of her experience with all of these actors… she has learned a lot of really hard lessons over the years.”
Moriarty is known in legal circles as a smart attorney with a good grasp of the law. Her experience as a public defender is only going to benefit her new role, said Angi Porter, an assistant professor of law at American University Washington College of Law who has roots in the Twin Cities.
“It means that she has worked literally across the table, has been in conversations with folks who find themselves in the harrowing experience of having to be on the defendants side of the criminal justice system,” Porter said. ”With that brings so many lessons that just transcend the practice of law.”
Porter said Moriarty’s commitment to addressing racial disparities is particularly important in the state where George Floyd, an African American, was murdered by a white police officer.
Building trust between the community and the county attorney’s office will require a leader who approaches the role with “humility” as an act of service, lessons that Porter said Moriarty likely learned as a public defender. But she said the public should remember that prosecutors are just one piece in the criminal justice puzzle.
“We have to temper our expectations, because no one person can change an entire culture. But a leader can help initiate the movements that do and so the early stages of her transition into the role are going to be so important for that shift,” Porter said.
‘Obligated by the public to act ethically’
One test came at the end of Moriarty’s first week in office. A senior prosecutor had been caught lying to a judge on a case involving the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl by her adult cousin. Moriarty’s office decided the prosecutor had to be removed and that they couldn’t go forward with the case. She said it was a tough decision to drop the charges.
"In the end, there really was one way to be victim centered,” Moriarty said. “It's a hard one to live with, and I understand that, but I was elected by people to make those decisions in the way that we did.”
That incident doesn’t reflect on her entire staff, Moriarty said, but it is a sign that ethical practices need to be maintained in order to maintain the office’s credibility.
“If we engage in certain behavior, it is we who are preventing ourselves from being able to prosecute a serious case,” Moriarty said. "That is a failure to the victim. In that case, it is a failure to the public and the community in Hennepin County.”
Another priority for Moriarty is ensuring that her office is complying with the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to share evidence with the defense that could be helpful to their cases.
“Why is that important? Because why would we want to prosecute somebody who didn't commit a crime?” Moriarty said. “You can't make up for a wrongful prosecution. And if we're prosecuting the wrong person, the person who actually did it is still out there and may harm somebody else in the community.”
Moriarty is bringing in people with experience from other parts of the criminal justice system, and said she wants to look at her office’s practices on everything from how they regard a crime victim’s family to how they recommend probation. She wants to create a county unit to examine past convictions, explore more tools for restorative justice and partner with other organizations to support youth crime prevention efforts.
Moriarty is also bulking up her office’s community outreach efforts.
”The system is fairly mysterious to many people,” Moriarty said. “It's really important to me that people understand how it works because if they understand how it works, they can ask difficult questions — and they should be asking those questions.“
Moriarty said her approach to justice and equity was informed by her parents, who taught her to stand up for herself and others. She remembers going on a field trip in sixth grade from her small town of New Ulm to the Twin Cities. One requirement was that girls had to wear a dress rather than pants. She fought the policy with the support of her parents, and the administration made an exception for her.
Afterwards, her parents sat her down and asked her whether she thought it was fair that other girls weren’t also allowed to wear pants on the field trip. Moriarty’s family appealed the policy all the way to the school board.
”My parents were very good at getting me to think about how this impacts not only me, but other people? And how can I use my position of privilege to help influence how those decisions impacted other people?” Moriarty said. “That's how I grew up. And I continue to try to think about how I can live those values now.”