Sunday Commentary: Newsom Has a Chance to Change the Direction of Criminal Justice in California

Adam Schiff – Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By David M. Greenwald

Bill Lockyer.  Jerry Brown.  Kamala Harris.  Xavier Becerra.  What do they have in common?  They are all Democrats.  Most would consider them liberal.  They were all attorneys general.  And none of them pushed forward any sort of criminal justice reform because all of them were career politicians, most of them using the position as a stepping stone to further their careers rather than a position to enact change.

Brown used it to re-launch his career and get a second tenure as governor.  Kamala would become senator and now vice president.  And Becerra has been appointed to HHS in the Biden Administration.

With his confirmation completed last week, the AG position is open and Governor Newsom has a chance to remake criminal justice in California.

Some of the prominent names listed: Adam Schiff, Contra Costa DA Diana Becton, Assemblymember Rob Bonta, Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.

Of those names Becton and Bonta would bring a reformist mindset to the position.  But most likely we are looking at a career politicians—either Schiff who wants to be a senator, or Steinberg who is looking for a second career at the age of 62 after being termed out of the legislature and serving as Mayor of Sacramento the last several years.

In recent weeks we have been reminded of the failures of Xavier Becerra.

Earlier this week, Pete Hardin announced he would be running for DA in Orange County.  One of the speakers was a man named Paul Wilson.  Wilson’s wife was one of the victims gunned down in the Seal Beach massacre in Orange County by Scott Dekraii.

He explained how he was an ardent supporter of the death penalty, who believed that if any crime was worthy of that ultimate penalty, the massacre was one of them.

“No one wanted the death penalty more than I did,” he said.  “The Orange County prosecutors assured me that nothing would get in that way.  For the next six years they watched a slam dunk case unravel as the public defender who represented my wife’s killer, presented a never-ending stream of lies by the prosecutors and law enforcement.”

Wilson’s is an amazing story as he went from hating Scott Sanders to recognizing that the DA’s office and sheriff’s department had perpetrated the worse crime here.

“After years of watching the cheating and corruption of the Orange County DA, I learned the death penalty does not work for victims,” he said.

“The behavior of the prosecutors was so bad that the entire district attorney’s office was removed from the case,” he said.  “The only time a DA’s office has been recused from a capital punishment case in the history of California.”

Wilson didn’t get into the details of what happened in this case.  But the Orange County Sheriff’s Department would plant informants next to people like Dekraii, informants who would talk them up and get them to talk about their cases and make incriminating comments.  Or probably, outright invent testimony in exchange for leniency or other favors.

They did this over and over again.  They hid the documents from the defense—a violation of the defendant’s right to exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland.  They got statements from defendants represented by counsel in violation of the right to an attorney and Miranda fights.

And they hid this over and over again from the defense.  Scott Sanders only found this out by sheer accident—it took him years to unravel the mystery.

Finally the the judge recused the DA’s office for bias and then threw out the death penalty.

And every step of the way the AG—whether it was Kamala Harris or Xavier Becerra—fought it.

The same thing has happened in the case out of San Luis Obispo that we have been covering.

A judge recused the San Luis Obispo DA’s office from prosecuting a high profile case involving a protester due to bias.

In a rare, five-page ruling, Judge Matthew Guerrero disqualified the DA’s office, citing a September 4 campaign fundraising request that attempted to capitalize on the prosecution of the case, making prejudicial comments about the defendants and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The judge ruled: “The September 4, 2020 email establishes a clear conflict of interest.”

First, he writes “by delivering this fundraising email to potentially tens of thousands of people immediately after the filing of charges, Mr. Dow sought political and professional benefit and campaign contributions in conjunction with the prosecution of the above-entitled cases. This creates bias towards charging and the particular outcome, which makes it unlikely that the defendant will receive fair treatment during all portions of the criminal proceedings.”

Second, he says “the statement used inflammatory terms such as ‘anarchist,’ ‘crazy’ and ‘wacky.’ which is an extrajudicial statement made to potential jurors in an attempt to sway them and get them to make a financial contribution. This interferes with the Defendants’ right to a fair trial.”

The remarkable thing is that, first, the AG’s office led by Becerra fought the judge’s ruling and, second, they have not just dismissed the case outright.  We are talking about a non-violent incident that resulted in just one piece of property damage—a skateboard to a rear window of the car, with clear mitigating circumstances and a witness who did not want to pursue criminal charges.

Last week an Appellate Court declined to hear the appeal.

Curtis Briggs, who represents Tianna Arata, told the Vanguard Thursday, “Dow and the Attorney General misread the black letter of the law.  It was a very simple issue and both of these prosecutors were mistaken.”

He added, “I’m not surprised at this result.”

Brian Ford, one of the defense attorneys, added, “We feel strongly that Judge Guerrero’s order was necessary and proper—this unlawful prosecution must be stopped! Dan Dow’s office cannot be trusted to prosecute any case involving Black Lives Matter because of his personal bias and racial-political animus.”

Again, the judge’s ruling here was definitely called for—why is the AG doubling down on the prosecution?

California needs an AG who will hold people like Dan Dow and Tony Rackaukas and Todd Spitzer accountable, rather than people like Tianna Arata.

Newsom has a chance to the change the trajectory of criminal justice reform with this appointment, but if he chooses Schiff or Steinberg, it will be more of the same—career politicians looking to use the position to advance their political careers rather than change the California carceral system.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Don Shor

    Newsom has a chance to the change the trajectory of criminal justice reform with this appointment, but if he chooses Schiff or Steinberg, it will be more of the same—career politicians looking to use the position to advance their political careers rather than change the California carceral system.

    An ambitious politician who recognizes increasing public support for policing reform and accountability would be perfectly capable of enacting criminal justice reform. An activist AG who has no broad base of support would be more likely to immediately face a firestorm of opposition and wouldn’t have the alliances built over their career that would help to weather that storm. An ambitious politician who has strong fundraising abilities (Schiff) could fight back and would have the political skills to get the things done that you want.

    I think your criticisms are misplaced and probably not politically pragmatic.

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