Meet the Candidates: Russell A. Neverdon Sr.

By Arianna Hayden

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Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, taken at a recent “West Wednesday” demonstration on behalf of Neverdon outside the subway station at North and Pennsylvania.

A large crowd gathered outside the subway station on the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue on a recent Wednesday, shouting “No Peace, No Justice! Justice for Tyrone West!” and trying to stop anyone who would listen to their cause. “Justice for all victims of police brutality!” they shouted, as Baltimore police officers watched nearby.

As they have every Wednesday since Tyrone West died in questionable circumstances while being arrested by police officers from the city and from Morgan State University in July 2013, these men and women protested against what they see as unfair police tactics that plague their city and expressed their support for a new Baltimore City State’s Attorney, someone who will bring justice to all residents of the city.

Months ago, when the race to be the city’s top prosecutor began, they stood on corners supporting Marilyn Mosby, an insurance attorney, against the current state’s attorney, Gregg Bernstein.

Now, however, they are supporting a different candidate, Russell A. Neverdon Sr., a defense attorney known most recently for defending Michael Johnson, the man suspected of killing Phylicia Barnes, a 16-year-old high school honors student from North Carolina who disappeared while visiting relatives in Baltimore in 2010.

“I think if Russell Neverdon is voted into office, he will bring transparency, equality. Everyone will be treated the same,” Diane Butler, the mother of West, said in an interview. “I believe that Neverdon will be fair to everyone.”

While Mosby is the Democratic candidate in the election on Nov. 4, Neverdon’s name does not appear on the ballot. He is running an uphill write-in campaign as an independent. “This is not a competition between me and her,” he said in an interview. “As far as I’m concerned, this is me fighting for my city. I’m running for Baltimore City. I’m not running against an opponent. This is about moving my city forward. I was born and raised here, and I just know what it can be when all cylinders are firing at the same time.”

He worked with Mosby early in her career, when she was a young assistant state’s attorney – and he was not favorably impressed. Of the prospect of her now heading that office, he said, “I don’t have that level of optimism that other people have.”

Neverdon, a spiritual man, said the outcome Tuesday is in God’s hands, but overcoming great adversity is nothing new to a man whose journey has been “from poverty to empowerment,” according to one prominent supporter, Doni Glover, the media personality and community activist.

Life for Neverdon and his twin sister, Robin, began in the neighborhood depicted in “The Corner,” the HBO miniseries about the ravages of drugs in West Baltimore. Neverdon has said that “because of conditions that were not ideal for children to be raised and unfortunately with parents who struggled with addiction,” they were reared by their grandparents in Ashburton, the northwest Baltimore neighborhood where many prominent Baltimoreans live, including former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and where current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake grew up.

While living with his grandparents, Neverdon attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school specializing in the sciences and engineering. After graduating, he went to Morgan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. After a stint in the Army, he earned a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia. In 1999, Neverdon opened his own practice in Baltimore, specializing in criminal defense, personal injury, civil litigation and family law.

Neverdon was part of a team of lawyers who represented Michael Johnson, who was charged with the murder of Barnes, whose body was found floating in the Susquehanna River nearly four months after her disappearance. After a highly-publicized trial that relied on circumstantial evidence, Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder, but the verdict was thrown out because of errors by Bernstein’s office. A new trial is scheduled to start in December, but Johnson has new lawyers and they have claimed that Neverdon gave Johnson bad advice in urging him to talk to the police. They are trying to keep prosecutors from using an incriminating statement in the new trial.  Neverdon has denied Johnson’s claim.

When he originally announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination last year, Neverdon said he would focus on “violence and repetitive violent crime.”

“As your state’s attorney,” he said, “I will create a transparent administration, creating accountability across the board. That accountability will also translate to equal justice for all citizens.”

He withdrew from the Democratic primary, apparently so as not to run the risk of splitting the black vote, and decided to run in the general election on Nov. 4 as an independent. But to receive a position on the ballot, Neverdon needed 4,160 signatures on his petition. Election officials rejected about 2,500 signatures, leaving him short and off the ballot. Using the slogan, “Our Fight for Baltimore is Never Done,” he has been educating voters about how the write-in process works, even recruiting the youngest of his six children, Grant, in a YouTube video

Referring to the position as “the minister of justice,” he has vowed to aggressively prosecute crime that “has left us terrorized and fearful to enjoy our way of life, our parks, our schools, our restaurants and our neighborhoods.” However, he also believes in exercising discretion and prosecuting fairly, especially when it comes to young people and first offenders of minor infractions.

“We have to return to a time when community was the driving force of our city, when there was trust in the criminal justice system, when people felt secure in their homes, neighborhoods and communities, when people believed the system worked and was fair and just and when community, the police and state’s attorney’s office worked as a team,” he said in his announcement speech.

Neverdon has adopted a campaign strategy known as TRACE, meaning: transparency, restoration of public trust, accountability across the board, community inclusion and involvement and equitable and efficient prosecution.

No matter what the outcome is Tuesday, Neverdon has vowed to continue advocating for “a balanced and equitable criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to the police department.” – one not prone to the “militant” and “Gestapo” tactics he sees now.

“We need the police. We need the very best from them,” he said. “But if you’re out there doing wrong, I’m going to push to get you out.  I believe the community should police itself, but law enforcement should enforce the laws.”

Should Mosby win, he said, “If she reaches across the table, I have no problem working with her. I’ll work with anybody if it means that we’re going to advance and empower the community and make our streets safe.”

Tawanda Jones, a sister of Tyrone West, likes that message.  “I’m looking for a state’s attorney to rebuild the trust that is missing in the city. We need to feel safe again. We need for everyone to be held under the same laws.”

Updated on November 2, 2014