Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty ’86 is working to eliminate racial bias in the judicial system.

By Jennifer Vogel

In a well-lit community room in South Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood, 30 people are eating mashed potatoes from paper plates while Mary Moriarty ’86, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, explains how racial bias distorts the criminal justice system. Audience members, a mix of black and white, are throwing out so many questions that Moriarty isn’t getting far into her slide presentation. On the wall, a map shows that Minnesota’s incarceration rates are some of the most disparate in the nation.

“African Americans are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites,” says Moriarty, who speaks with the confidence and directness of a skilled criminal defense lawyer, which she was before taking the helm of the state’s largest public defender’s office in 2014. As Hennepin County’s first female chief public defender, she oversees 140 attorneys, who handle some 45,000 cases per year. She also instructs public defenders across the country on how to make opening and closing arguments, evaluate forensic evidence, and combat racial bias.

“Why is that?” a woman asks. Moriarty spends the remaining 90 minutes unpacking racial profiling by police, bias among judges, “white fragility,” the fact that white jurors view black defendants as more dangerous, and the proliferation of “pretextual stops”—or pulling someone over for a broken taillight when an officer really wants to look for drugs. “There are two different realities in this country,” she says, “one for black people and one for white people.”

It’s not a comfortable conversation to be directing, but for Moriarty, addressing racial bias is part of her mission to change the system, which matters greatly to her clients. While Hennepin County’s population is 75 percent white, only 37 percent of the county’s “disposed of” cases involve white defendants. “Things don’t change because a handful of people say, ‘this is a problem,’” she tells the crowd. “We all have to participate in the change.”

“It’s very difficult in Minnesota,” says Moriarty, from her 14th floor downtown Minneapolis office. The furnishings are spare, a few framed civil rights posters on the walls. For her, the job is clearly not about personal aggrandizement. “We tend to think of ourselves as progressive, which we are in many ways, and that racism is something that happens in Mississippi or Alabama. I have found that it’s more difficult to talk about race here than it is in the South.”

Moriarty has provided implicit bias training to her staff attorneys, screened the documentary 13th, which draws a line from slavery to mass incarceration, and brought in an expert to help lawyers strategize ways to talk to jurors about race. She has worked to build an atmosphere of camaraderie and collegiality among public defenders, which makes these efforts all the more fruitful.

Longtime Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke, who has known Moriarty since she clerked for him, considers her a good chief for the Fourth District. “Mary has a vision of what she thinks a good public defender’s office should be and she is very good at getting people to buy into her vision.”

“If you look at how you build trust in a justice system among African Americans and other minorities, Mary conveys, ‘I care about you as an individual and person,’” says Burke. “Over time, if you get enough lawyers like Mary, the public starts to see the justice system as less callous than we get painted sometimes.”


The Young Moriarty

Moriarty grew up in the small Southern Minnesota city of New Ulm. Her mom, Linda, a former English teacher, and her dad, Patrick, a public defender, set ambitious civic and intellectual standards for her. Patrick introduced Moriarty to police officers in the grocery store and took her to the jail to meet clients. In a small city, “you can’t not know the prosecutors and judges and police officers and sheriff,” she says. “That was good because I could see them as human beings.” Running errands with her dad meant being subjected to cassette tapes on legal strategy. “So, unlike most children, I grew up listening to the Ten Commandments of Cross Examination, which probably gave me a start on my legal career.”

As a kid, Moriarty read every Hardy Boys mystery. For Christmas one year, she asked for The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which includes step-by-step instructions on various sleuthing techniques. She spent a lot of time dusting her parents’ wine glasses for fingerprints. So began her lifelong interest in forensic evidence.

Today, Moriarty is considered a national expert on the subject. She co-chaired “pattern evidence day” at a forensic college for public defenders in New York City. More recently, with the use of DNA evidence increasing in courtrooms, she brought in experts to teach her staff about it. “Most lawyers are afraid of math and science,” Moriarty says. “I wanted a culture in which people understood DNA and weren’t intimidated by it.”

A New Ulm nonprofit that recently inducted her into a local Hall of Fame described the young Moriarty as “a quiet leader, speaking up when something seemed unfair or when she felt situations could be improved.”

Yet Moriarty considered herself an introvert and a bit of a misfit. In the sixth grade, she recalls, her class scheduled a field trip to the Twin Cities. The hitch was that girls were required to wear dresses. “I didn’t own a dress, didn’t want a dress,” she says. “So I complained to my parents and we talked about it. They went to my teacher, and ultimately it went to the school board.” Moriarty was exempted. But that wasn’t good enough. Her parents went back to the school board and obtained exemptions for all the girls, as long as they had notes from their parents.

Moriarty worked briefly as a reporter before enrolling at Macalester, where she played softball and basketball and majored in history and political science. It was at Mac, she says, that “I started to believe I could thrive academically. I was constantly challenged to think about the ‘why’ of things.” Soon after graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1989, she began working as a Hennepin County public defender.

Moriarty had been on the job for less than a year when she landed a case that would go to the U.S. Supreme Court. It involved a man who was patted down by a Minneapolis officer, who claimed he could feel through the man’s jacket that a small lump was crack cocaine, justifying a search. Moriarty argued that the officer couldn’t have identified the drugs by feel, thereby making the search illegal. The Court ruled that the search went beyond the limits of a lawful pat down.

Unfortunately, Moriarty, suffering from a sports injury, wasn’t there to hear the arguments. “Ridiculously, I was so new that I thought, ‘This is great, I’m going to enjoy this every year.’ It was just like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go next time.’ It’s kind of embarrassing.”


Training the Next Generation

It’s that confidence braided with humility that makes Moriarty such a good lawyer and teacher, says Jon Rapping, founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains public defenders. Rapping met Moriarty years ago at a trial school in Ohio. “Of everyone there that week, no one impressed me more than Mary,” he says. “Being a good lawyer and being able to teach others to be good lawyers are two entirely different skill sets. She is an amazing lawyer, I’ve learned since. Also, she is really good with young lawyers. How you encourage them while helping them recognize their deficiencies requires a gentleness, sensitivity, and understanding that not all lawyers have.”

When Rapping later founded Gideon’s Promise, he asked Moriarty to join its teaching faculty. “We have lawyers who are trying to figure out issues around race and gender and how you work in a good old boys’ network,” Rapping says. “We’re attracting folks who see this as cutting-edge civil rights work who are coming to the least-progressive places and trying to survive. That takes role models. Mary is phenomenal at that.”
Working with the organization has “changed my life,” Moriarty says.

Back in South Minneapolis, Moriarty is explaining why poor defendants, who are often minority, plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to get out of jail and avoid bail they can’t afford. “Many of us would say, ‘I’d never plead guilty to something I didn’t do,’” she says. “But we have an expectation the system is going to treat us fairly. A lot of people of color have no reason to think that.

“A lot of our clients have no reason to trust the government or our lawyers,” she says of public defenders. “There is a high hurdle there.” It’s a hurdle Moriarty has the fierceness to clear.

Reporter Jennifer Vogel has written for City Pages, Minnesota Public Radio, The Rake, and many other regional outlets.

August 1 2017

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