LA County district attorney candidates, incumbent Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco DA George Gascón, were asked what they admired about each other during a Zoom meeting hosted by All Saints Church in Pasadena.
The compliments didn’t last long.
Lacey challenged Gascón, who campaigns as a more progressive candidate, on the authenticity of his stances during the hour-long meeting. Both offered their views on overincarceration, the death penalty, police brutality and accountability, and defunding the police.
Lacey took the DA’s office in 2012, becoming the first Black person to hold the position. She just missed the majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff in the March 3 primary earlier this year.
Gascón was the first Latino to hold the district attorney’s office in San Francisco and the nation’s first police chief to become a district attorney.
This discussion took place during a time of high tensions in Los Angeles, where Lacey has been under fire by Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for not holding the police accountable for deaths against Black Angelenos as well as disproportionately enforcing the death penalty on people of color.
“From 2012 to the present, there have been 28 people sentenced to death row in LA County, the second highest in our nation, and all of them have been people of color,” said Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes in a question to the candidates. She asked if they would continue to pursue the death penalty despite the racial disparities and “obvious historic path from slavery, to lynching, to the modern-day death penalty.”
In March 2019, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in California, saying that capital punishment is unjust. The ACLU states that Lacey has continued to seek the death penalty despite this, calling Los Angeles “the nation’s leader in generating death sentences.”
The death penalty is an important and passionate issue in the state, Lacey said, adding that it should be something that voters decide.
“These numbers and the way the death penalty is imposed throughout the country are troubling to me personally as an African American,” Lacey said.
In her response, she said she only seeks the death penalty in the “worst of the worst” cases. Lacey then mentioned the 2013 case of Gabriel Fernandez, where the 8-year-old’s mother and mother’s boyfriend severely abused and tortured the child until he died.
“Those are the types of cases that we seek it, and only those types of cases,” she said.
Gascón answered, “I believe that the death penalty is immoral. The death penalty does not work; it doesn’t take care of crime.”
Gascón said he has made it publicly known that he will not seek the death penalty and will make sure that those facing pending death penalty cases will be removed from that track.
“We know that the death penalty is irreversible,” he said. “If there’s a mistake, if there’s a wrongful conviction, if someone was executed, we cannot bring them back to life.”
Lacey was quick to respond, claiming that his answer is different now than it was in the past. “When he first got appointed as DA, he was in favor of the death penalty,” she said, mentioning his stance from nearly a decade ago. Gascón responded by saying he is committed to not use the death penalty.
Newsom appointed Gascón to be San Francisco’s police chief in 2009 and district attorney in 2011. Gascón, while formally a Republican, has recently been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and, most recently, Newsom.
In a statement from Newsom in late August announcing his support for Gascón, he said, “(Gascón) famously reduced crime while reducing incarceration, and he burnished a national reputation as a leader in the fight to reform our dated system of justice.”
Lacey holds support from the Los Angeles Police Protective League as well as the Association for Los Angeles County Sheriffs, two labor unions that represent Los Angeles law enforcement members, a topic that ushered a hot discussion among the two candidates.
Some have questioned whether it’s ethical for district attorneys to accept contributions from police unions, as they make the decisions on whether police officers are held accountable in misconduct incidents.
Civil rights activist Patricia Coulter grilled the candidates on this topic. She prefaced her question by stating that while Lacey has accepted contributions from police unions over the last eight years, hundreds of people have been killed by law enforcement and only one officer has been charged.
Coulter didn’t let Gascón off the hook either, stating that no police were charged for shooting Black and brown people while he accepted money from police unions as district attorney in San Francisco.
Gascón said he accepted a few checks from police unions in the past but added that when he ran in 2014, he didn’t accept any money and pledged not to ever again after he saw the conflict in interest.
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, three California district attorneys and Gascón wrote a letter to the State Bar, lobbying to prohibit district attorneys from accepting contributions from police unions, Gascón mentioned in his response.
Lacey defended her acceptance of these contributions from police unions, saying it’s a “fallacy” to believe that the money influences her decisions on whether or not she prosecutes law enforcement officers in misconduct cases.
“It’s about the facts of the case; it is not about accepting money,” she said. “I accept contributions from a lot of unions.”
Lacey said it’s difficult to prosecute police officers because oftentimes their actions are in-policy.
“We have, in fact, held officers accountable, but it’s the law,” she said. “If you look at the law, it says you can use deadly force if you feel your life or the life of someone else is in danger if you’re a law enforcement officer.”
Both were also asked how they feel about defunding the police.
A July poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found two-thirds of California voters support the Black Lives Matter movement, which advocates for defunding the police as well as holding police accountable for wrongful deaths.
Lacey stated that significant budget cuts to police could be harmful to public safety and that their department is already redistributing funds. She thinks rather than voting on the matter, it should be studied to find the best solution.
Gascón said, “I believe that we need to reimagine the criminal justice system. I believe that we need to move away from the theories of overincarceration. We need to move away from overpolicing communities.”
The election is November 3.