Media Watch: Why are Reporters Missing the SAO Story?
A number of high-ranking departures at SAO point to a void in reporting on the powerful agency.
In recent months, a large number of key personnel left the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, mostly unannounced and unreported. These include Tony Gioia, Chief Counsel since 2016 and longtime Assistant State's Attorney (ASA); Melba Saunders, Media Spokesperson; Patrick Jennings, Chief of Felony Narcotics; Lisa Smith, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs; Sharon Holback, veteran Homicide ASA; and Deborah Warner, Deputy Director of Crime Control and Prevention, including youth programs.
This list doesn't include all of the veteran and high-ranking prosecutors that left recently. It doesn't include, for instance, three prosecutors that were elected as State's Attorneys in nearby counties nor the several colleagues who left to join them in their new offices. A source provided a list of 20 notable departures this year. Today, many prosecutors running divisions or handling homicide or major cases have much less experience than they would have had historically or even under Mosby's first term.
That media did not cover these departures is surprising, considering that prominent departures in city agencies are typically news stories. The departure of Saunders' predecessor was a story. It also made news as various prosecutors left or were let go after Mosby's first election in 2015.
A bit of background on reporting about SAO: Typically, SAO tends to get less coverage than BPD and City Hall. This is particularly true under Mosby's reign, as her office does not engage with the press often.
During Mosby's first term, SAO received quite a bit of negative local press; her office's relative media silence contributed to this. During the trials of six officers in Freddie Gray’s death, the Sun's Justin Fenton published a number of articles about motions filed by the defense team. Many of these were strategically filed to help get negative information about SAO into the press, as was discussed in court. Likewise, a 2017 story about BPD officers caught planting evidence on body worn cameras (BWC) was given an interesting twist by the Sun after it broke: It ended up being largely a story about SAO screwing up. Stories emphasized that it was still to be determined whether or not the BPD officers were planting evidence or legitimately "recreating discovery" for the cameras (not a legitimate policy). Meanwhile, stories and tweets accused SAO sharply of knowing about the video and not disclosing it, not sharing information with defense attorneys, and so on.
The Fenton/Kevin Rector era of reporting and commenting on crime was marked by several such moments, where police officers that were implicated in wrong-doing were given the benefit of the doubt while SAO was expected to have known and reported on them or handled cases better. The point is not that SAO has been blameless, rather that somehow the original sins they may have helped conceal received less of a critical examination. Rector still shows teeth in his attacks on Mosby/SAO in a way that he never has for any BPD leader.
Recently, however, key SAO stories seems to be missing from headlines altogether. There has been scarce reporting on departures. There has also been scarce reporting on the slow-to-dead pace by which SAO's Conviction Integrity Unit is handling GTTF cases. Media has not followed up on anecdotal reports from defense attorneys that the office is not actively pursuing justice for GTTF victims. It is missing other blatant evidence:
Deputy ASA Bledsoe is overseeing GTTF conviction integrity. Her name has been added to GTTF cases on Maryland's case search database. Here, she indicated that she may not be that proactive in her role. SAO's effort to overturn marijuana convictions overshadowed the office's lack of effort here.
There are a few main reasons for the slowdown on reporting on SAO:
1) Fenton and Rector have backed away from as much daily crime reporting for the Sun. Criminal justice is now also being reported on by Jessica Anderson and Tim Prudente, mostly, and sometimes Jean Marbella, all of whom have less experience on the beat. Baltimore Sun stories lately about crime in Baltimore can best be described as odd, vague, and (directly or indirectly) pro-FOP. Sources have been limited to FOP and its allies, some disgruntled anonymous officers still at BPD, and (for some reason) a police consultant outside of Baltimore. SAO is getting almost no coverage.
2) It would seem that fewer disgruntled former ASAs and Mosby opponents are leaking stories since she won the last election. The latest round of people leaving her office have been less outspoken than the first round. Many of them stuck around for awhile or were given jobs or promotions by her office.
3) Mosby has been collecting political wins lately. She won her re-election last year. She won the lawsuit against her office filed by former ASA Keri Borzilleri. SAO won the murder cases against Keith Davis Jr. and Keon Gray, among others. Mosby garnered mostly positive national press for pursuing marijuana decriminalization. She was successful in lobbying to get a new BPD appointment rescinded for a woman that had challenged her ethics in court. Also, new City Hall leadership includes people that have been her allies (or at least not detractors).
Put simply, Mosby has consolidated power. With so much city turn-over, she is one of the longest standing high-ranking authorities in the city. While almost her entire command structure has turned over at least one time since she took office, her top deputies, Bledsoe and Schatzow, have also remained in their powerful roles. New police and other leaders must work with them.
This is all the more reason that whatever investigative reporting is going on Baltimore should also be focused on what is happening in SAO. Unfortunately, when power consolidates, media tends to follow.
See also: my 2020 article on Mosby and national media in FAIR.