Politics

Los Angeles County District Attorney candidates vie for office

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Election day is less than a week away, and one closely watched race is the battle to replace retiring Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. This is the first district attorney election in 48 years without an incumbent.

This week, five of six people who want to become district attorney debated each other for the final time. L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich was the only candidate who didn't participate. The five other candidates are deputy district attorneys.

The District Attorney's Office has nearly 1,000 prosecutors who file nearly 179,000 cases a year.

Fifty-four-thousand of them are serious felony cases, including murder and death penalty cases. In November California voters will be asked if they want to do away with the death penalty.

"I believe that the death penalty is a tool that prosecutors need, regardless of the cost. It's not about cost when you are doing a death penalty, it's about justice," said Trutanich.

L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson is a Major Crimes Division prosecutor who has tried death penalty cases.

"I think the death penalty serves a very important purpose in the broader criminal justice system. I think it should be used extraordinarily rarely," said Jackson.

Since 1978, when the death penalty was re-instated, 13 people have been executed in California.

Another candidate, L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers has put four people on death row, all of them still there.

"We're spending $184 million a year, according to the last study, to maintain the system. And we're just not killing people on death row. And I think it's a useless system. If we're not going to fix it, we need to get rid of it," said Meyers.

Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace has spent 22 years with the D.A.'s Office, and he's prosecuted murder cases.

"But I really believe that the voters should vote for the November SAFE Initiative that would do away with the death penalty because we just are not executing people," said Grace.

Deputy District Attorney John Breault III has been in the office 43 years. He also has a problem with the death penalty.

"The problem with our system right now is that it's not used because the courts don't enforce it," said Breault.

Jackie Lacey is also a deputy district attorney. She runs the District Attorney's Office's day-to-day operations. She's the number two person in the office.

"Well, I think the death penalty is the appropriate punishment in certain cases. People don't understand is there's a lot of controls here in the L.A. County District Attorney's Office for the death penalty," said Lacey.

The District Attorney's Office is the home of the county's top prosecutor and faces its own financial and management challenges.

One of the biggest challenges facing the county and the district attorney falls under "re-alignment." Re-alignment is the taking of tens of thousands of state prisoners and transferring them to the counties to dispose of their cases.

The district attorney candidates say it means a sea change in the justice system. But all the candidates say they bring different skills to the office to deal with the changes.

"I've been at the table making decisions on some of the most important cases that have come through the L.A. County District Attorney's Office," said Lacey.

"Forty-three years of experience. That's a long time. And I've served all over the county," said Breault.

Jackson has 17 years in the office, and he says they can't handcuff or prosecute their way out of the crime problem.

"You don't want a manager. You don't want an administrator in the top of the office. You want a leader, someone who understands the policy decisions that are going to be most attendant to keeping the community safe. And that comes from being tethered to the courtroom, which I have been my entire career," said Jackson.

"I've had about 15 years being a top lawyer in the office and as a top lawyer trying high-profile cases, you have to deal with the management and people who make decisions with respect to resources all the time," said Grace.

Danette Meyers has during her career handled some of the county's most notorious cases.

"I have an all-around view of the justice system. I think the justice system incorporates both the criminal justice system and the civil justice system. And one of the things that I have done, which none of the candidates have done, is I've involved myself in the community. Not only have I been a prosecutor for 26 years, I was president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association," said Meyers.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has spent time in the District Attorney's Office, then in private practice, and now is trying to take his background into running the district attorney's operation.

"In terms of lawyering ability, I think I'm pretty good, but that is not what this office is about. The one thing I've learned since being city attorney is that running a large governmental prosecution office is about management. It's about being able to direct your budget," said Trutanich.

The criminal justice system in Los Angeles County is rapidly changing. The Los Angeles County prosecutor's office is the largest in the nation. And whoever becomes the district attorney will face an increasingly complex and challenging job.

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