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Mary Moriarty pledges transparency when she becomes Hennepin County attorney

MINNEAPOLIS – After more than three decades as a public defender, Mary Moriarty will be on the other side of criminal cases come January when she is sworn in as Hennepin County attorney.  

She won the race for the top prosecutor in the state's most populous county by 16 points in last week's election, defeating Martha Holton Dimick, a former prosecutor and district court judge.

A year after Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot measure to replace the police department with a new agency, her victory is a win for progressives seeking changes in the criminal justice system, especially after George Floyd's murder.  

"The things we have been doing haven't kept us safer and the things I plan on doing will keep us safer and create a more just system," the former chief public defender of the county said.  

Moriarty ran a campaign focused on criminal justice reforms that she hopes will diminish racial disparities within the system. She believes her experience as a public defender gives her a "broad view of how the system works" and will help her succeed.   

A campaign promise she vows to deliver is public transparency.

"I want the public to understand what the office does, what the policies are, because they should be part of this. They should be in partnership with us. And to do that they have to understand what's actually happening," she said.  

In an interview with WCCO Wednesday, she said she would prosecute police officers who commit crimes and would not refer the case to other county attorneys or the attorney general's office, which happened in the high-profile cases of Kim Potter and Derek Chauvin – though she didn't rule out working in collaboration with Attorney General Keith Ellison on such cases. 

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Mary Moriarty CBS

"One of the reasons those cases did [refer to the attorney general] was because of a lack of trust in the Hennepin County attorney's office, so I'm hopeful to be able to change that," she said.  

Her work over the next few months, she said, will focus on forming relationships with people in communities across the county to build that trust. That includes meeting with police chiefs, which she said happened before the election.  

State data show violent crime spiked 24% in the seven-county metro last year. The county attorney's office is a key piece of the criminal justice system with discretion over what to prosecute, and in Hennepin County, it has come under fire the last few years with public safety in the spotlight. 

A group of mayors sent a letter to outgoing county attorney Mike Freeman earlier this year, imploring that he revisit some of his policies and get tougher on crime. They wrote that there is a "sense of lawlessness and lack of accountability that is stemming from criminals who commit crimes and then are being turned back to the street in short order – with little or no consequence – and that conduct is repeated." 

When asked how she addresses accountability concerns, Moriarty said she would let the data guide her decision-making and expressed a willingness to work with law enforcement on the issue.  

"Perception of crime is important. People need to feel that they can be safe. And we also need to be looking at what the actual problems are," she said. "And so what I said to the police chiefs is we're gonna sit down, we're gonna look at the data, and if people are getting out and committing new violent offenses, obviously that isn't working and we need to do something different. But if that's not what's happening, then we need to stop that narrative and figure out what the actual problems are and work together on them." 

In that same letter sent this past January, the mayors of Crystal, Maple Grove, New Hope, Minnetonka, Brooklyn Park, Hopkins and Plymouth asked Freeman to reconsider bail reforms the county attorney's office implemented in early 2021. Under that policy, there are 17 felony crimes for which bail is not requested by prosecutors.  

Moriarty suggested leaving that policy in place, and said she'd consider bail on a case-by-case basis by looking at their ability to pay. 

"A big issue we need to address is that it's wealth-based," she said. "You could have two people who committed a very violent crime and the person who has money, or family that can pull together bail, can get out and the person who does not have that stays in, so that's a problem. It has nothing to do with risk. It has to do with your access to resources." 

Data from the Hennepin County attorney's office shows it submitted charges in 59% cases over the last five years and declined to charge in 23%. Other cases were diverted.  

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