This is the second part of a three part look at the first Los Angeles District Attorney Debate of the 2020 election cycle. You can find part 1 of this series here.
On December 19, 2019 USC Law Professor Jody Armour moderated the first Los Angeles DA debate in which candidates George Gascón and Rachel Rossi squared off regarding a host of criminal justice issues. Conspicuously missing from the event was incumbent Jackie Lacey, who cited a scheduling conflict. In today’s Podcast Special, we examine the responses of George Gascón and Rachel Rossi to questions about the DA’s Conviction Review Unit and immigration.
The second question of the evening came from Megan Denkers Baca, an attorney and investigative coordinator for the Loyola Project for the Innocent, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted. Baca’s question regarded the DA’s Conviction Review Unit or CRU. The unit was created by Jackie Lacey in 2015 to review claims of innocence submitted by people convicted of felonies.
It was a progressive gesture that provided an opportunity for the DA’s office to enact justice when previous mistakes had been made.
Unfortunately, according to Baca, it seems that’s all it was: a gesture.
BACA: SINCE THE CONVICTION REVIEW UNIT’S INCEPTION FIVE YEARS AGO, THEY HAVE OVERTURNED ONLY ONE CONVICTION ON THEIR OWN. THAT MEANS THAT THE CRU HAS REVIEWED THOUSANDS OF CASES OVER FIVE YEARS WITH THEIR MILLION DOLLAR BUDGET AND FOUND THAT ONLY ONE CASE IS WORTHY OF REVIEW AND TO BE FOUND A MISTAKE…
Baca went on to detail her confounding interactions with the CRU including an incident in which the CRU sent a letter rejecting a client several months after the client had already been released, an instance when a letter was addressed to an attorney at LPI as though they were the client, and an occasion when the CRU failed to properly interview an eye-witness who wished to recant his previous trial testimony. These blunders have led Baca to question if the CRU is even seriously reviewing the cases submitted to them.
BACA: SO MY QUESTION FOR YOU IS DO YOU PLAN TO REFORM THE LA DA’S CONVICTION REVIEW UNIT AND IF SO, WHAT SPECIFIC CHANGES WILL YOU IMPLEMENT?
Rachel Rossi responded to Baca first.
ROSSI: FIRST. UM WE NEED TO EXPAND IN THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE A FOCUS ON THE INTEGRITY OF CONVICTIONS…NUMBER TWO WHAT I WOULD DO IS EXPAND THE CASES THAT THE OFFICE CONSIDERS FOR REVIEW…WHAT IF THERE IS MISCONDUCT BY PROSECUTORS? WHAT IF THERE IS MISCONDUCT BY LAW ENFORCEMENT? UM, THESE ARE IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS WHEN WE’RE LOOKING AT THE INTEGRITY OF CONVICTIONS. UM, AND FINALLY, I WOULD CONSIDER ADDING A NEW FUNCTION TO THE CONVICTION REVIEW UNIT. UM, THERE IS A NEW CONCEPT OUT THERE CALLED THE SECOND LOOK. UM, AND THIS CONCEPT IS WHEN, UH, PROSECUTORS HAVE A SECOND DEPUTY OR SOMEONE ELSE IN THEIR OFFICE LOOK AT CERTAIN SENTENCES. IF YOU SAY FOR EXAMPLE, SENTENCES OVER 15 YEARS OR SENTENCES OVER 20 YEARS, TAKE A SECOND LOOK AND DECIDE WAS THAT THE APPROPRIATE SENTENCE?
Following Rossi, Gascón addressed the question with references to his work on Prop 36. The ballot measure which passed in 2012 substantially amended California’s Three Strikes Law. Prior to 2012 any felony (including non-violent and non-serious felonies) could be counted as a third strike, thereby requiring a sentence of 25 years to life. Prop 36 reformed the law with two major provisions:
- In order to charge a defendant with a third strike the current felony had to be serious or violent.
- A review process was established for defendants currently serving a third strike sentence, allowing them to petition for a reduction of their term if their third felony was non-serious or non-violent.
GASCÓN: YES. LA HAS A PROBLEMATIC HISTORY IN THIS AREA AS I’M SURE YOU KNOW. UH, AND IT GOES, YOU KNOW, THROUGH EVEN THREE STRIKES…I WAS ONE OF THE SPOKESPERSONS FOR PROP 36 WHICH WAS A REFORM OF THREE STRIKES IN 2012 AND IN SAN FRANCISCO. APPLAUSE. YEAH, THANK YOU. IN SAN FRANCISCO WE RELEASED ALL THE PEOPLE THAT QUALIFIED WITHIN THE FIRST 45 DAYS. I’M TALKING TO SOME OF THE PEOPLE THAT WERE WORKING IN THE CAMPAIGN IN 2012 THAT STILL HAVE CASES PENDING THAT THE DA IS FIGHTING. SO IT GOES ACROSS THE BOARD. I AGREE WITH RACHEL THAT FIRST OF ALL, WE HAVE DEFINITELY HAVE TO GO BEYOND JUST FACTUAL INNOCENCE. I THINK WE HAVE TO LOOK UP POTENTIAL MISCONDUCT AND OTHER CONDITIONS THAT PROVIDED AN UNFAIR CONDITION FOR THE TRIAL. SECONDLY, I ALSO BELIEVE IN ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I ESTABLISHED IN SAN FRANCISCO, ANY SENTENCE OVER 20 YEARS REQUIRES EXECUTIVE APPROVAL. I HAD TO BE BROUGHT IN. QUITE FRANKLY, I’M SHIFTING EVEN FURTHER DOWN TO 15 YEARS AS I LOOK AROUND. I THINK THAT WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO ENLARGE THE SIZE OF THE UNIT GIVEN THE SCOPE OF THE HISTORY OF THE WORK HERE IN LA, WHICH CONTINUES TO BE OVERLY PUNITIVE…
The third speaker of the evening was Zach Muhammad, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. As a Somali refugee and a black Muslim, Muhammad addressed the candidates with his concerns about deportations triggered by minor convictions and the expanding immigration enforcement efforts.
MUHAMMAD: MY QUESTION IS HOW WILL YOU PREVENT COURTS FROM BECOMING A GATEWAY TO MASS DEPORTATION?
GASCÓN: ACTUALLY, I HAVE A LONG HISTORY IN THIS AREA PRIMARILY BECAUSE, UH, NOT ONLY AS A PROSECUTOR, BUT ALSO AS AN IMMIGRANT MYSELF AND, UH, AND HAVING DONE A LOT OF WORK IN POLICING.
Gascón was born in Havana, Cuba and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 13, ultimately settling in Southeast Los Angeles. According to Gascón’s campaign website, he had difficulty learning English and keeping up with schoolwork so he dropped out of high school to make money bagging groceries. Gascón later earned his high school degree while serving in the army and subsequently earned a four year degree from Cal State Long Beach and a JD from Western State University, College of Law. His career in law enforcement began when he got a job as a patrol officer for the LAPD. Gascón quickly ascended the ranks to Assistant Chief and in 2006 he was appointed as Chief of the Mesa, AZ Police Department. The position forced him to stand up to anti-immigration groups in Arizona and publicly criticize then-sheriff Joe Arpaio for his blatant disregard for constitutional rights. In 2009, then-mayor Gavin Newsom selected Gascón as San Francisco’s Chief of Police, a job he held until becoming DA of San Francisco.
Due to time constraints, Gascón glances over the details of his career but his past serves as a foundation for the work he achieved as a former district attorney.
GASCÓN: LET ME MOVE OVER TO THE PROSECUTION SIDE BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ABOUT TODAY. AND LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE THINGS THAT I’VE DONE. NUMBER ONE, UH, I WORKED, ACTUALLY TO PASS LEGISLATION TWO YEARS AGO. UH, IT WAS SB 785 THAT PROHIBITED ANY OF THE LAWYERS FROM BRINGING IMMIGRATION STATUS IN FRONT OF A JURY UNLESS YOU HAD APPROVAL BY THE COURT. NUMBER TWO, WHEN THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION HAS STARTED TO SEND ICE AGENTS INTO THE COURTHOUSES, BOTH HERE IN LA COUNTY, ALAMEDA COUNTY AND OTHER COUNTIES, I STOOD UP, TALKED ABOUT HOW WRONG THAT WAS, AND THEN WE CREATED A SAFE PASSAGE, A PROCESS, WHERE WE HAD NONPROFITS WORK WITH US TO MAKE SURE IN OUR VICTIM SERVICES UNIT TO PROVIDE VICTIMS AND WITNESSES THE ABILITY TO COME INTO THE COURTHOUSE ON LEAVE WITHOUT BEING BOTHERED. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IMMIGRATION SAFE PLEAS ARE VERY KEY TO THE WORK THAT PROSECUTORS DO IN THIS AREA. SO WE TRAIN OUR MANAGERS TO MAKE SURE THAT WE WOULD LOOK OVER A PLEA TO ENSURE THAT THERE WAS NOT ANY IMMIGRATION NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OUT OF A PLEA. IN AN OFFICE AS LARGE AS LA COUNTY, I WOULD ACTUALLY HIRE IMMIGRATION LAWYERS TO MAKE SURE TO DISTRIBUTE IT THROUGHOUT THE COUNTY. THIS IS A COMPLEX AREA OF THE LAW AND MANY PUBLIC — MANY, MANY DEFENSE ATTORNEYS DO NOT UNDERSTAND THAT AREA JUST LIKE PROSECUTORS DON’T. AND WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE THAT WE DON’T DO MORE HARM TO GOOD.
When Rossi picks up the conversation she leads with a denouncement of LA County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva, who has been criticized for enabling ICE. Despite delivering on his campaign promise to kick ICE agents out of LA jail facilities and patrol stations, a deportation pipeline remains. Under Villaneuva’s directive, federal contractors can still detain illegal immigrants inside the jail and transport them to ICE.
ROSSI: UM, WE HAVE A SHERIFF WHO HAS PROMISED TO STAND UP TO ICE AND IS NOT DOING THAT. UM, AND WE HAVE A DA WHO IS IGNORING THE SITUATION GOING ON. UH, THE DA CANNOT JUST CONVICT PEOPLE, THROW THEM IN JAIL AND THEN IGNORE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. UM, THAT IS NOT THE DA’S ROLE. UM, AND SO, UH, THE, THERE’S TWO THINGS THAT I WOULD DO AS DA. NUMBER ONE STAND UP TO ICE. UH, NUMBER ONE, THE DA HAS A ROLE IN ENSURING THAT THERE ARE NO IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENTS IN LA COUNTY COURTROOMS, IN LA COUNTY PROBATION OFFICES, UH, THAT PEOPLE KNOW THEIR RIGHTS, THAT PEOPLE KNOW THAT THEY DON’T NEED TO TALK TO ICE. UM, IT IS VERY IMPORTANT THAT THE DA IS ENGAGED IN THAT SPACE. AND NUMBER TWO, CHARGING DECISIONS ARE VERY BIG. I REMEMBER AS A FORMER PUBLIC DEFENDER WHEN I WOULD GO TO A PROSECUTOR AND SAY LOOK, THIS PERSON WILL GET DEPORTED IF THEY GET THIS CHARGE…A DISTRICT ATTORNEY IS SUPPOSED TO SEEK JUSTICE. IF ONE PERSON IS CHARGED WITH PETTY THEFT AND GETS A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF JAIL TIME AND GOES HOME AND ANOTHER PERSON IS CHARGED WITH PETTY THEFT AND GETS A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF JAIL TIME AND THEIR LIFE IS DONE IN THE UNITED STATES AND THEY ARE DEPORTED. THAT IS NOT JUSTICE. THAT IS NOT THE SAME SENTENCE AND THE DA NEEDS TO CONSIDER THAT. AND WE ABSOLUTELY NEED TO HAVE IMMIGRATION ATTORNEYS IN THE DA’S OFFICE.
Rossi’s invocation of her previous occupation creates a subtle dissonance with Gascón, whose background in law enforcement is strikingly different from her own. Rossi has a decade of experience in criminal defense, cutting her teeth as a public defender, an alternate public defender, and an assistant federal public defender in the city of Los Angeles. With a BA from Bethany University and a JD from Pepperdine, Rossi was a stand out attorney from her early days, known as a fierce advocate for clients experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction. She then went on to work in criminal justice policy in Washington DC for both the House and Senate. Rossi was the lead staffer on the First Step Act, which enacted comprehensive sentencing and prison reforms. She also worked with Representative Karen Bass on drafting legislation and holding congressional hearings on criminal justice issues, including the LA field hearing recently covered by Crime Story Media here and here. In February of 2019, Rossi resigned from her position to enter private practice with Cohen Williams LLP. Despite her most recent job, Rossi chose to be listed as a public defender on the district attorney nomination ballot, a designation that she feels is most appropriate given her experience. This decision resulted in a challenge from an affiliate of Gascón’s campaign who felt the listed occupation was misleading to voters, but ultimately a judge ruled in Rossi’s favor and the complaint was dismissed.
Due to Rossi and Gascón’s similar stances on most political issues it’s reasonable to expect that their unique backgrounds will be major pillars in both candidate’s campaigns. But that doesn’t mean that political platforms won’t collide in the future. Jackie Lacey isn’t in the room yet.
Part 3 of this piece will cover the candidates answers to questions regarding the death penalty, police accountability, and homelessness.