Two Prosecutors Running for LA District Attorney Clash over Criminal Justice Reform

George Gascón at a candidate’s forum in February

By Julian Verdon

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey and her office face more criticism from her primary Democratic challenger, George Gascón, who described her and her office’s record on overturning wrongful convictions as a “horrific injustice.”

Lacey is LA’s current District Attorney and has faced many recent criticisms, such as siding with the LAPD on alleged police misconduct.

Gascón is San Francisco’s former District Attorney from 2011 to 2019, who many have touted as progressive, and has a history in law enforcement. However, some have criticized him for doing similar things he had said about Lacey.

Gascón decried Lacey’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU) for receiving 2,000 innocence claims for the past five years, but they have only reviewed 350 and released four people. The criticism came after the release of Derrick Harris, who wrongfully served seven years in prison for armed robbery.

Gascón cited another case where Lacey’s office failed to overturn a wrongful conviction on time.

“It’s the reason men like Ruben Martinez, Jr., spent seven additional years in prison after DA Lacey was notified of his innocence by homicide detectives. That is an injustice of epic proportions,” argued Gascón.

Gascón said one of the primary reasons for the failure to overturn convictions was Los Angeles’ CRU’s makeup, explaining, “Despite being the largest DA’s office in the nation, the Los Angeles CRU is staffed with just three attorneys, all of whom are career prosecutors. Best practices dictate that such units be staffed with attorneys who have criminal defense experience, not attorneys who have spent their career pursuing convictions.”

Gascón insinuated that filling a CRU with career prosecutors poses a conflict of interest.

Someone who views themselves as on the prosecution side rather than as a third party may possess an inclination to favor law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office, said Gascón, adding that attorneys with a history of criminal defense would be better, although this could run into a similar conflict of interest problems in favor of the defense.

Moreover, other cities like Philadelphia and Boston have seven and nine attorneys on their CRU, he said, noting that LA’s CRU has only three, suggesting it cannot handle the number of innocence claims due to a lack of human resources.

Gascón said that his policies would be different if he were elected as LA’s District Attorney.

“Taking away an innocent person’s liberty is perhaps the greatest injustice of all, and the gatekeepers to our system of justice have a moral obligation to expeditiously right that wrong. If elected, the Conviction Review Unit will be expanded to ensure innocence claims are reviewed expediently and thoroughly. This is yet another area where the District Attorney has shrugged off the sense of urgency that the pursuit of justice fundamentally requires,” he said.

Gascón’s criticisms on wrongful convictions came just days after a debate both he and Lacey had on ABC7, which discussed criminal justice reform. During the event, both Lacey and Gascón criticized each other for going soft on police officers.

During the debate, Gascón said Lacey received millions of dollars from police unions and went soft when prosecuting police officers.

“She talks about me being soft on employees. This is when the reality is that law enforcement is supporting her because she looks the other way,” said Gascón.

Yet Lacey had a similar criticism of Gascón when it came to law enforcement misconduct.

“He was known for going easy on the discipline of officers. He was chosen deliberately to be the one who decides discipline,” said Lacey of Gascón’s career as an LAPD officer.

Gascón also faced backlash for not prosecuting two police shooting cases in San Francisco when he served as the District Attorney.

Both acknowledged that systemic racism is a big problem when it comes to policing and prosecuting people. Lacey advocated for better-trained officers, laws and legislation that forbade racist conduct, and hiring the right people to become police officers.

Gascón argued for diversity among the police and using technology to “take the race out of the decision-making process for prosecutors.” Apparently, San Francisco’s DA office uses an AI system that helps prosecutors examine crimes without knowing the race of those involved with the crime.

Despite Lacey’s and Gascón’s similar policy positions and criticisms of each other, Gascón has been endorsed by many progressives and left-leaning organizations such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and the LA Times.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti also changed his endorsement from Lacey to Gascón. Garcetti faced heavy scrutiny during the George Floyd protests when he expanded the LAPD’s budget.

The American Criminal Justice System and the advocacy for its reform have weighed heavily on the national conscience, especially during this 2020 election year. Therefore, wrongful convictions are in the public spotlight lately.

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) released a study on the database for all false convictions in the US since 1989. Some of the aspects of the study revealed startling information.

The NRE stated that about half of those released for a false conviction never receive compensation. Many falsely confessed to their alleged crimes because of prosecutorial pressure. And that all exonerees have spent around 20,080 years behind bars collectively.

However, one of the most startling revelations is that NRE acknowledged that they cannot still account for many of the false convictions because of how states count them, and they keep finding more every time they look.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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