Yesterday, while thinking about the race for Los Angeles District Attorney, I happened to reread the following statement written by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater this past March. Prater wrote it as part of a press release he put out after he very publicly fired a couple of his longtime Assistant DAs. It seems that the two ADAs failed to disclose to the defense counsel in a first degree murder case a potentially exculpatory statement made to them by an important witness.
Here is what Prater wrote:
Prosecutors must be different than any other type of attorney. We are not simply advocates, but are charged with a ministerial duty within the criminal justice system. We are duty-bound to seek justice, period. That duty includes protecting the constitutional and substantive rights of criminal suspects and criminal defendants, We must never abrogate that duty to the justice system that we are privileged to serve.
“We are duty bound to seek justice, period.”
Indeed. The prosecutor’s job is, in fact, very different from that of a defense attorney, whose task it is to put on the best possible case for his or her client, guilty or not.
The sacred task for a DA’s office—any DA’s office—is “to seek justice, period.” End of story. There is no wiggle room in that mandate.
Yet too often of late it seems that prosecution is a competitive sport and seeking justice takes the hindmost if it conflicts with….you know…winning.
Surely, we want LA’s chief prosecutor to be tough, when toughness is called for. We want someone who isn’t afraid to go after lawbreakers fairly but aggressively, when need be, even when it’s politically unpleasant to do so. And, we want our DA to have public safety firmly in mind.
But we also want a DA who will empower his or her deputies to drop a case that turns out not to be righteous—even if it is winnable.
We want a DA who thinks long and hard before direct filing on a teenager as an adult, even for serious crimes, remembering that the juvenile justice system was founded more than a century ago on the precept that kids are different than adults; they are still forming, and they can be redeemed.
We want a DA that won’t press for all juvenile “wobblers”—charges against kids that could be designated as either misdemeanors or felonies—to be shoved to the felony side of things, just because the DA’s can, thus closing out the dreams of, say, joining the U.S. Navy, for an otherwise decent kid with no priors, as I saw done not too long ago in a situation where nobody gained, everybody lost. And they didn’t have to.
We want a DA who doesn’t always push for the maximum bail, the maximum sentence, the maximum enhancements for that sentence—-just because, like Mt. Everest, those legal possibilities are there.
And so on.
Seek justice, period.
So in the light of all this, whom should one vote for?
WitnessLA’s choice is Jackie Lacey, who is also Steve Cooley’s choice, and was his senior deputy. She’s bright, experienced, very capable, personable, and seems to have moved in a more progressive direction over the years. The LA Times, whose editorial board has spent a lot of time interviewing and just generally thinking about the various DA candidates, has endorsed Lacey. Their endorsement editorial and Jack Leonard’s story on the candidates’ collective move away from a one-note tough-on-crime message is worth reading.
Lacey’s had a stumble as a candidate, as the LA Weekly and the Times note. (We’re still a bit bothered by Lacey’s my-diving-blood-sugar-made-me-do-it excuse for a union busting-sounding statement she made at a 2009 hearing then later tried to walk back.) But nobody on the list is without stumbles, and most of the social justice types we asked were, like WitnesLA, firmly going for Lacey.
She’s long been a fan of alternative courts, the women’s reentry court, veterans’ courts, and so on. And seems to understand that, for many offenses, there are more constructive courses of action for all concerned than simply tossing everybody in prison for extended periods.
At the same time, she gets along well with law enforcement, but doesn’t seem to be too beholden to them.
THE DANETTE MEYERS OPTION
The California Democratic Party, a bunch of key democratic clubs, and others have endorsed Danette Meyers, who is not bad either. She is also endorsed by the deputy district attorneys’ union (the former heads of which loath Cooley, and Lacey, by extension).
Meyers too is experienced and capable. Yet Lacey appears stronger. I was, for example, put off when, in a video interview with the LA Times, Meyers was asked her opinion about realignment and she gave some dippy answer about getting victims of crime more money, which had zero to do with the topic at hand, and simply made her sound unprepared, uninformed, and pandering—not an encouraging sign. Realignment is not as sexy and sound-bite ready as, say, the death penalty. But however well or poorly it is handled by the various agencies that have a part in it—the DA’s office included—will have great impact on the county, and it behooves a DA candidate to get his or her facts straight.
Lacey, by contrast, was far better prepared and more knowledgeable in her answer, which she has since improved upon and expanded—moving distinctly away from Cooley’s unhelpful the sky is falling stance on the issue.
All that said, Meyers is a candidate with many strong qualities who is worth a look too.
Rob Greene has a good rundown on Meyers here.
And you can find the video interviews here.
THE “NUCH” FACTOR
And then, of course, there is Carmen Trutanich—AKA “Nuch”—the existing City Attorney. Trutanich is obviously experienced, tough-minded, and can be a charmer. He has, by far, the highest profile of the field, which also includes able and experienced prosecutors Alan Jackson and Bobby Grace—and the all-but-ignored, John Breault III.
Plus Trutanich has the most money, and the backing of Governor Jerry Brown, Sheriff Lee Baca, former mayor Richard Riordan, and a long list others. But he has lost the town’s two biggest newspapers, the LA Times, as mentioned above, and the Daily News, which basically took an ABC approach, anybody but Carmen.
We at WLA have a problem with Trutanich’s truthiness. Plus he spent a lot of his first year or two in the City Attorney’s office with bombastic stunts like threatening to arrest LA City Council persons, talking judges into setting million dollar bails for super sign scofflaws, and trying to get gang injunctions for taggers. Oh, yeah, and in a bizarre moment of power grabbiness, he decided he wanted his own grand jury—which no city attorney, or equivalent, in big cities elsewhere in the nation felt they wanted or needed. (We know this because we called around and asked.)
Plus he’s known to be on the snappish and vengeful side when crossed or criticized. Not ideal qualities for a DA.
But, as mentioned above, he has strengths, and he could very well be the next District Attorney.
KPCC’s Frank Stoltz, who is also covering the race, and has spent time with the candidates, has a good overall story on the race here, to give you some additional insight.
FYI: One of the candidates must get 50 percent of the vote or there will be a runoff in November.
So look at it this way; unless you’re 100 percent sure that Trutanich is your guy for DA, vote for somebody else this time around. That way a run-off will give us time to further vet the the top two in the field of candidates who wish to take on this crucial task of seeking justice in our behalf.