Young Lawyers for Social Justice Report: Thiru Vignarajah’s Driving Record A Hot Mess!

The following is the beginning portion of a 45-page document presented to Bmorenews by the Young Lawyers for Social Justice. Therein is a characterization of Thiru Vignarajah that seriously questions his integrity and his track record. To boot, he’s among the most-ticketed drivers in the City. (5.25.20)

Vignarajah ran for Baltimore State’s Attorney against incumbent Marilyn Mosby and Ivan Bates in the 2018 Democratic primary. Vignarajah placed last despite loaning his campaign $250,000, only receiving 23 percent of the vote. He initially faced a challenge on the ballot, as opponents claimed he lived in Howard County, where he and his wife own a home with a homestead exemption. However, Vignarajah was separated from his wife and lived in a Baltimore condo he owned, and a judge threw the case out after Vignarajah provided evidence he did indeed live in the city. Vignarajah did not sit idly by for long, as he announced he would run for mayor in Apr. 2019.

He ran his 2018 campaign on his high profile prosecution record, which included murders and gang cases, and promised to drastically cut the murder rate, themes he appears to be duplicating for his current campaign for mayor. He also painted himself as a progressive prosecutor that would stop prosecuting drug crimes, reduce maximum sentences, and focus on violent crimes, among other things. He did hold some nonprogressive positions, namely supporting aerial surveillance and “predictive policing,” a practice called discriminatory by critics, and opposing independent prosecutors handling police corruption cases.

Vignarajah portrays himself and has generally been portrayed by the media as a successful prosecutor, but as chief of the major crimes unit, he oversaw and prosecuted dozens of cases against alleged BGF gang members that were widely deemed a failure, as a large percentage of the defendants went free, and of those convicted, only a handful received stiff sentences. In many cases, the defendants were only convicted of being a gang member, which only carried a five-year sentence, while they beat the rap on murder charges. Federal prosecutors would later come in and clean up the failed mess Vignarajah left behind, convicting many of the same individuals of more serious crimes.

Additionally, Vignarajah claims to have never lost a murder case that went to trial. This is far from the truth. While the defendants he prosecuted technically were convicted eventually, in numerous instances appellate courts reversed original trial court convictions and ordered new trials because of errors personally made by Vignarajah. In 2016, the Court of Special Appeals failed to grant gang member George Johnson a new trial, but did note that Thiru Vignarajah called a witness “in bad faith and improper purpose” because he knew that state witness Derrick Toomer, who was a co-defendant, would invoke the 5th amendment. The decision notes that the circuit court judge acted quickly so the jury wouldn’t be prejudiced. Toomer had his murder conviction reversed and received a new trial because Vignarajah and his co-counsel falsely stated multiple times there was DNA evidence linking Toomer to the crime. Appellate judges said, “The
prosecutor’s argument had no basis in fact. It is hard to say that the prosecutor’s argument did not mislead the jury.” In another case, murder convictions against Derius Duncan and Clifford Butler were reversed and remanded because a judge did not rule against a state motion that was “an affront to the notions of fair play and equity.”

Additionally, in a murder case against David Hunter, Vignarajah won a conviction, but failed to tell the defense a state witness once blamed another person for the crime. An appellate court noted that fact, but denied a request for a new trial, saying it wouldn’t have altered the outcome of the trial. In a side-by-side comparison, Vignarajah claims to have never dropped a case and claims a number of murder convictions, but doesn’t note that those included cases that were reversed – different prosecutors later secured convictions in new trials. Defense attorneys claim he did drop cases and would dump failed cases on other prosecutors to avoid ruining his own record.

Vignarajah was publicly embarrassed when he was duped by a woman working undercover for Project Veritas at an Attorney General’s conference in New York City in 2015. Vignarajah, who was married while this was occurring, was secretly filmed by the woman in several situations, including a few awkward hotel encounters. During the encounters, Vignarajah is seen saying he is only still married so as to not upset his parents, and later asks the woman to delete sexually explicit text messages he had sent (the videos show the actual alleged messages). He is also seen giving the woman information about the state joining a coalition backing new EPA rules, information that had not yet been made public at the time (his boss would later defend him, saying he
hadn’t divulged anything secretive), giving his opinion that all guns should be banned, and even saying he didn’t know how to do much of his job and was essentially faking his way through it. Vignarajah has brushed off allegations he was acting inappropriately, noting that the organization is known for doctoring videos or manipulating them out of context. Furthermore, he promised he would not stand for sexual harassment. The video also claimed that he advanced the careers of women in his office that he had or was trying to have romantic relationships with, a claim he also denied. However, two individuals who claimed to have worked with Vignarajah called into a local radio show in 2018 and blasted Vignarajah for his known mistreatment of women. Local attorney
Jeremy Eldridge claiming he knew at least three women who said Vignarajah was abusive and sexist toward them, but they were afraid to come out because of possible retaliation. Another attorney claims he acted unethically with young female interns, and that his behavior was widely known in the office.

While Vignarajah doesn’t have any known criminal history, his driving record is not something to be proud of. A car that is currently registered in his name has been cited in Baltimore for parking, red light, or speed camera violations 16 times since Oct. 2018. A number of these violations racked up late payment penalties, and some have still not been paid, as the vehicle lists a $431 open balance for fines. He also accumulated eight traffic violations from 2000-2011, which included multiple speeding citations, and driving with a suspended/expired license. Most seriously, he was cited in North Carolina in 2005 for reckless driving to endanger. He failed to appear for his initial court date, later pleading guilty, to which he received 18 months of probation and hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs.

He is listed as an attorney of record for Safehouse, a nonprofit that recently gained approval to open the first safe injection site in the country where people can use illegal opioids under medical supervision. Interestingly enough, his firm (but not him personally) is defending Purdue Pharma in opioid cases. Vignarajah was also instrumental in drafting a report for the University of Maryland regarding the football team and the death of a football player, and was a big part of a DLA Piper team in a failed application by the firm to be an independent monitor of the Baltimore Police Department consent decree.

Vignarajah raised $20,000 at a Houston fundraiser thrown by John Arnold, a former Enron trader who walked away with an $8 million bonus days before the company collapsed. Arnold has since become a prolific political donor, and has committed a substantial amount of money to public pension reform movements. He also funded the controversial pilot aerial surveillance program in Baltimore, which Vignarajah strongly supports. Vignarajah denied any linkage between support from Arnold and his own views on aerial surveillance.

Vignarajah raised $545,000 during his first run for office in 2018, but $250,000 of that came from a personal loan he made from the campaign. Not including his own money, he raised about 80 percent of his contributions from individuals or entities outside of Baltimore. He has also had to pay $60 in fines since Aug. 2018 for filing three separate reports late.

Prosecutorial Problems

Thiru Vignarajah has spent the majority of his professional career as a prosecutor for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, Maryland Attorney General, and the United States Attorney’s Office. Vignarajah has drawn high praise for his skills from his former boss Rod Rosenstein, federal judge and other attorneys. Vignarajah has won a number of high profile cases, but a deeper look at his record reveals a couple major flaws: he is not the progressive prosecutor he says he is, and his prosecution tactics/strategies led to a number of murder convictions being reversed and remanded for new trials, with appellate judges using phrases like “bad faith and improper purpose” (a case that was not reversed but in which judges attacked his tactics) and “mislead the jury” in their
decision. Defendants in such cases were later convicted again, but with different prosecutors taking the helm. Vignarajah was also head of the major crimes unit in the State’s Attorney’s Office and prosecuted dozens of BGF gang members in what was seen as a failure, as many of the defendants went free, and of those convicted, all but a few were found guilty of softer charges with light prison sentences while beating murder charges. Federal prosecutors have since come in and put away many of these individuals.

While Vignarajah is running as a reform prosecutor who will focus on major crimes and end discriminatory practices, he is most well-known for prosecuting the post-conviction case of Adnan Syed, the “Serial” star who has become somewhat of an icon of wrongfully convicted individuals. Vignarajah fought the case at every step of the way in post-conviction hearings between 2015-2018, even continuing on the case pro bono after he left the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in 2016. Though an appellate court at one point granted Syed a new trial, Vignarajah successfully fought it. He has claimed that any new arguments are “meritless” and that permission to bring forward an alleged alibi witness would have been “inconsequential theater and not in the interest of justice.”

He said the evidence was “overwhelming” as to why Syed was convicted. When he appeared before an appellate court just months before he announced his campaign for State’s Attorney, he warned the judges of the “dangers of second-guessing.” Vignarajah has defended himself by saying while he may not have been popular, what is popular is not always justice.

Failure on Gangs

Vignarajah was Chief of Major Crimes Unit during failed prosecution against BGF Gang Members. Thiru Vignarajah was chief of the major crimes unit in Baltimore when they indicted 48 members of the BGF gang in 2013, in which more than a quarter of defendants went free. Of those convicted, only three received a sentence of more than five years. Thiru Vignarajah is listed as an attorney of record in nearly all of these cases.

Black Guerrilla Family gang members dodge lengthy prison sentences

Two years after authorities stood in an East Baltimore park and said they had launched a massive strike to “cut out the heart” of the violent Black Guerrilla Family gang, they have little to show for it. Thirteen of the 48 defendants charged in November 2013 went free, with a jury finding the reputed leader of the gang, Gerald Johnson, not guilty of all charges.

Of those convicted, only three received a sentence of more than five years. Most of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

David Hunter received the stiffest sentence, getting two life terms plus 40 years following two trials. Two other men, Wesley Brown and Montell Harvey, received sentences of 10 and eight years, respectively. The average sentence for those convicted and sentenced besides Hunter: two-and-a-half years.

Prosecutors have noted that several of those who pleaded guilty to the charge of being a gang member agreed to onerous probation terms, requiring them to stay away from other members or face prison time. (Baltimore Sun, Nov. 4, 2015)

Two years ago, Vignarajah was head of the Major Investigations Unit of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office. He worked for Gregg Bernstein at the time. Police and prosecutors were preparing one of their biggest gangbuster cases in memory — a full-scale attack on the violent Black Guerrilla Family on the east side of the city.

In November 2013, Bernstein and then-police Commissioner Anthony Batts gathered the press near a playground in a place called Mund Park on Greenmount Avenue and announced the indictments of 48 people. It was a big deal.

Bernstein described a “violent, years-long campaign” to avenge the killings or shootings of BGF members, silence those suspected of talking to police or exact punishment for internal code violations. One of the victims had been a man who dared open a rehabilitation center near a BGF drug corner.

Bernstein said a crew that operated along Greenmount Avenue had carried out dozens of attacks.

More specifically, in a relatively small area bounded by Guilford Avenue, 25th Street, Lanvale Street and Mund Park, there had been 52 shootings in a six-year period, 30 of them homicides. Most of the killings had occurred in the three years before the indictments.

“It was a reign of terror,” says Vignarajah, a former federal prosecutor who had clerked for a Supreme Court justice after graduating from Harvard. “It was one of the most violent areas in the history of the city, ruled by one of the most ruthless gangs in the history of the city.”

Several of the suspects had a history of arrests for murder, robbery and drug charges that had been dropped or resulted in short sentences. This time, most of the defendants faced charges under the state’s gang statute, which had been used only three times in Baltimore. Bernstein expressed the hope that the gang law would make a difference in prosecution.

The case was impressive because of the number of defendants. But the timing was important, too, coming as several redevelopment projects were getting underway or being completed in side streets along Greenmount Avenue. That’s why, with sound prosecution, I thought the big BGF bust could be a tipping point for the area. (Baltimore Sun, Sep. 20, 2015)

The conviction of Hunter was one of the few bright spots in the sprawling case, which was designed to show how city prosecutors could effectively tackle gangs.

As the cases have played out in court, few of those accused received lengthy prison sentences. And Gerald Johnson, the gang’s alleged leader, was found not guilty on all the charges he faced. (Baltimore Sun, Nov. 26, 2015)

Criticized by Former Baltimore Police Officer for Being Major Part of “Racist” and“Error-Ridden” Gang Database

In Jul. 2018, a former Baltimore police officer criticized Baltimore PD’s gang database, which he called “racist” and “error-ridden.” The police officer directly criticized officials involved in the database, including Thiru Vignarajah.

In early 2013, I became the gang liaison officer for the Baltimore Police Department’s Northern District. (I worked for BPD for 18 years and quit in July 2017.) Batts created the position so that districts could share intelligence about gang members. Each of the nine police districts had at least one gang liaison officer. Part of my job was to identify suspected gang members, validate them and then enter their names into the department’s gang database. I looked at supposed gang identifiers like tattoos, certain colors of clothing or accessories, hand signals, street associates, or if someone had ever been arrested with other validated gang members. Meeting all of the criteria wasn’t required for validation.

Any two were all it took to be deemed a validated gang member in the database, and meeting just one of the criteria was enough to be entered as an associate, someone who isn’t necessarily an active participant in the gang’s daily activities.

If someone admitted to being a gang member, that was enough to validate them in the database. Also, if a credible source like a confidential informant provided information that someone was a gang member, that was also enough to validate.

The more I used the gang database, the more inaccuracies I found. People appeared in it multiple times, sometimes validated as belonging to different gangs. Some were entered initially as associates and then later as validated members, without the older records being deleted. Misspelled names and incorrect birth dates were common, the kind of sloppy and lazy police work that could result in the wrong person being labeled a gang member or an actual gang member slipping by undetected.

I entered around 50 new people into the database, either as validated members or associates. There were obvious and enormous racial disparities. Almost everyone I entered into the database was African American, as was the majority of the existing database. The few exceptions were white males who had been validated as members of Dead Man Incorporated (DMI), a white prison gang that began in Maryland as allies with the BGF. Ironically, while BGF dominated most of the headlines, DMI pretty much stood alone when it came to acts of violence, operating within the penal system as a for-hire group of hitmen.

Then, in April 2013, federal authorities announced a sweeping indictment of 13 guards and incarcerated BGF members at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), on charges including bribery, extortion, money laundering, and drug smuggling. The BCDC indictment was headline-grabbing news in Maryland. Rumors began to circulate throughout BPD that the city didn’t want to look like it couldn’t handle the growing BGF problem. We heard that Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein and Commissioner Batts wanted their own BGF investigation so the Maryland Gang Statute could be used to charge several alleged BGF members as part of a larger conspiracy.

Under Maryland Criminal Law Code 9-801, a gang is defined as “a group or association of three or more persons,” with a command structure, who engage in criminal activity, either individually or collectively, and have the commission of a crime as one of their primary goals. Batts and Bernstein decided to concentrate on a “bubble” or “regime” of the BGF that had been active in the Greenmount West section of Baltimore dating back to 2005. The goal was to connect several prior and recent acts of violence to the group and charge them as a group for everything from dealing drugs, to robbery, to murder. A joint task force composed of BPD gang officers, homicide and shooting detectives, and ATF agents was created in June 2013. Leading the investigation was the
state’s attorney office’s Major Investigations Unit, which at that time was headed by Thiru Vignarajah, who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for Baltimore state’s attorney. Vignarajah is perhaps best known outside Baltimore for defending the conviction of Adnan Syed, subject of the “Serial” podcast’s first season, on behalf of the Maryland Attorney General’s office. Syed’s case is still in limbo, but Vignarajah, now employed with the law firm DLA Piper, continues to controversially lead the State’s appeal efforts.