Last night, the first Candidate Debate for the 2020 Los Angeles District Attorney race, held at the California African American Museum, attracted a standing room only crowd and was replete with emotional moments that served to underscore how personal and intensely followed this election will be.

Only two candidates appeared at the event: Former San Francisco DA George Gascon, and former federal and county Public Defender and former US Senate aide, Rachel Rossi. LA Deputy DA, Richard Ceballos, dropped out of the race the previous night, and Current District Attorney, Jackie Lacey did not appear.

The size and intensity of the crowd was reminiscent of the scene at the congressional field hearing on criminal justice reform hosted by Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) that Sean Smith wrote about here. As with that hearing, Crime Story will do an in depth analysis of the issues that were discussed. However, I think it is important to our mission of staying on top of the events in this race to give a brief overview of what happened last night.

The debate was moderated USC Professor and Legal Scholar, Jody Armour and was sponsored by a number of progressive organizations including the ACLU and Black Lives Matter. Professor Armour astutely allowed citizens – who have been directly affected by real events that reflect systemic issues – to pose questions directly to the candidates. The tactic gave event an emotional electricity and urgency, as each questioner spoke with gravitas and passion, perhaps none more so than Helen Jones. 

Prof. Jody Armour introduces Helen Jones who poses a question to DA Candidates Rachel Rossi and George Gascon.

HELEN JONES: FIRST, I WANT TO GIVE SOME LOVE OUT TO THE OTHER FAMILIES THAT HAVE BEEN IMPACTED LIKE ME AND MY SON JOHN HORTON, THAT I FIGHT WITH ON A WEEKLY BASIS. MY NAME IS HELEN JONES AND MY SON JOHN HORTON WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN 2009 IN MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL. HE WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. THEY BUST HIS LIVER, THEY BUST HIS KIDNEY, THEY BUST THE MUSCLE IN HIS BACK. THEY HIT JOHN SO HARD IN THE HEAD WITH A FLASHLIGHT THAT THEY LEFT A PRINT OF THE LINES OF THE FLASHLIGHT ON HIS FOREHEAD, A BLOOD CLOT AND A KNOT. HE WAS HIT TWO TIMES ON THE SIDE OF HIS TEMPLE. HE HAD A BIG GASH ON HIS SHOULDER. THEY MESSED UP PART OF HIS PELVIS AND HIS PANCREAS. AND AFTER HE TOOK THIS BEATING, TEN SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES, THAT’S KNOWN AS THE 3000 BOYS GANG ON THE THIRD FLOOR, AND THAT’S A SHERIFF’S GANG. 

HELEN JONES (CONT’D): AFTER THEY BEAT JOHN, THEY THEN TURN AROUND AND SAID HE HUNG HIMSELF. AND NOT ONLY DID THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT COVER THIS UP, BUT ALSO THE COUNTY CORNER HELPED COVER IT UP TOO. FOR SEVEN LONG MONTHS, I COULDN’T EVEN GET AN AUTOPSY REPORT BECAUSE THEY WAS GIVING ME THE RUN AROUND AND TELLING ME IT WAS GOING TO BE READY HERE. IT WAS GOING TO BE READY THERE. AND IT TOOK ME SEVEN LONG MONTHS WHEN LAWYERS FINALLY GOT INVOLVED FOR THEM TO CHANGE HIS CAUSE OF DEATH FROM SUICIDE TO NOW UNDETERMINED. SUICIDE IS SUICIDE. YOU CAN’T TAKE SUICIDE OFF AND TURN IT TO UNDETERMINED AND THEN DON’T LET NOBODY KNOW THAT Y’ALL CHANGED IT FROM SUICIDE. AND NOW Y’ALL SAYING Y’ALL DON’T KNOW HIS CAUSE OF DEATH. AND THAT’S WHERE HIS DEATH STANDS AT TODAY. AND I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW FROM THE DA’S THAT’S RUNNING TODAY IS: WHEN THIS CASE CAME ACROSS JACKIE LACEY’S DESK, SHE DID NOTHING. IF THIS CASE WOULD HAVE CAME ACROSS YOUR DESK, WHEN IT CAME ACROSS HERS, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE ABOUT IT AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO ABOUT IT TODAY IF YOU BECOME THE DA?

In response to Jones’ question, Rachel Rossi focused on the conflict of interest that she said exists in the DA’s office as the district attorneys work with law enforcement and correctional officers and are also responsible for prosecuting them. She said that, as DA, she would use independent prosecutors to go after rogue cops and correctional officers and that, in order to provide necessary independence, she would remove the Conviction Integrity Unit from the DA’s office.

George Gascon asserted that he would create a Civil Rights Division within the DA’s office, as well as an Independent Investigations Unit, modeled on what he accomplished in San Francisco. But he also cautioned that unless there was a concerted effort to change the standard for law enforcement use of force from “necessary force” to “minimum necessary force” then it would remain difficult to hold abusive officers to account.

Other topics covered by the citizens’ questions included Gang Enhancements, Conviction Review, Deportations, the Death Penalty, Criminalization of Poverty and Homelessness, Drug and Sexwork Decriminalization, Use of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Prosecution, Expungement and Post-Incarceration Employment and White Supremacist Gang Activity. Each issue was presented with passion and personal urgency and the answers were thoughtful and focused.

Gascon and Rossi agreed on almost every issue, with their answers more reflective of their differences in experience than any ideological divergence. Rossi focused on her insights as a public defender and as a co-drafter of the US criminal justice reform legislation, the First Step Act. Gascon focused on lessons learned from implementing progressive reforms inside the DA’s office in San Francisco.

Someone placed a cardboard cutout of Jackie Lacey on the debate dais after the event.

And yet, as engaging and electric as the evening was, it felt incomplete. Hopefully a forum will present itself in the first two months of the new year where Jackie Lacey will feel comfortable enough to appear to defend her record and her approach as the chief prosecutor in LA County. Los Angeles voters deserve to have a healthy debate of these critical civic issues before the primary election on March 3.