NewsConference: ADDA Is Critical of Los Angeles District Attorney

NBC4’s Conan Nolan talks with Eric Siddall, the vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County about how their boss — Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon — is handling the recent spike in crime.

Will Gascon’s ‘Policy Considerations’ Turn a Murderer into a Millionaire

By Kathleen Cady

In 1997 defendant Kenji Howard was convicted of murder of Arkett Mejia, attempted murder of Travon Johnson and two others, and shooting at an occupied vehicle. Recently, the conviction was overturned because of “new” evidence, essentially a statement by his co-defendant who has nothing to lose. On December 2, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office announced that they would not retry the defendant because of policy considerations and resource constraints.

Wait. What? Murder is the most serious violent crime and the DA’s office won’t retry this case using policy and resources as an excuse? Arkett and Travon aren’t worth it? The result of the District Attorney’s action is that the defendant is no longer “convicted.” He can now legally purchase firearms and ammunition. The defendant has been given a hero’s welcome by his gang. When he applies for a job, there will be no criminal history flag giving employers a warning about what he did.

For Kenji Howard, a lot has changed because of District Attorney George Gascón’s reprehensible action. What hasn’t changed is that Arkett Mejia and Travon Johnson are still dead and their families still miss them every day, especially on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

On March 17, 1995, 16-year-old Kenji Howard and co-defendant Edward Powell were both members of the “Blood” Limehood Piru Street Gang. At Dockweiler Beach, they followed friends Landon Martinez, Gail Lewis, Travon Johnson and Arkett Mejia, none of whom were gang members, as they drove home from the beach.

Powell pulled up next to Martinez’ car. People in Powell’s car flashed gang signs and gunshots were fired at Martinez’ car. Arkett, who was on leave from the Air Force to attend her parents 25th anniversary, was shot and died immediately. Travon Johnson was also shot. He lived for 18 years in a coma before he died as a result of being shot. Witnesses described seeing shots from the seat where Howard was sitting. Howard admitted shooting a gun out the window.

Howard was charged, and because he was 16-years-old, he had a “fitness hearing” as the law required in 1995. Under Welfare and Institutions Code 707, a judge determined that Howard should be moved from juvenile court and tried in criminal court. In 1997, a jury found Howard guilty of one count of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, and shooting at occupied vehicle. Powell was also convicted of murder based on aiding and abetting.

On July 13, 2021, a judge granted Howard’s habeas corpus petition based on newly discovered evidence and the conviction was reversed. The ”new” evidence was a confession by Powell that he was the shooter. Powell’s attorney, however, told the judge that Powell would assert his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to testify in Howard’s retrial.

Although a judge previously ruled at the defendant’s “fitness hearing” that the defendant should be tried in criminal court, the law changed and Howard is now entitled to a “transfer hearing” where a judge would decide again if the defendant should be tried in adult court.

Enter Gascón’s politics.

On December 2, the prosecutor was directed by Chief Deputy Sharon Woo to read the following language into the record when announcing the office would not retry Howard: Howard “was a minor at the time of this offense. It is the policy of District Attorney George Gascón not to pursue transfer hearings to adult court. Accordingly, this matter will remain in juvenile court.”

“In weighing the evidentiary challenges of proceeding to an adjudication [juvenile court trial] and the reality that no additional penalties can be imposed, the District Attorney’s Office has concluded that its current resource constraints and overarching policy considerations and broad discretion favor dismissal of this matter.

“The District Attorney determines how best to represent society’s interest in prosecuting criminal offenses. Here the interest of justice and society’s interest as represented by District Attorney Gascón are best served by allocating the limited resources of the District Attorney’s Office to more critical needs.”

Really? Resource constraints, policy considerations, and the district attorney’s discretion mean that a charge of murder won’t be pursued when the defendant admitted he shot the gun that killed the victims?

Society has an interest in holding people accountable. Society has an interest in knowing that a background check would reveal that his criminal history when he applies for jobs. Society has an interest in making sure gang members who have admitted shooting a gun that resulted in death can’t buy guns or ammunition. Even if the district attorney’s office decided that they would follow the blanket Youth Justice policy and not pursue a transfer hearing to adult court or seek any additional punishment, society has an interest in ensuring justice is served. Victims want to know that the man who murdered their loved one is held accountable.

As if dismissing the charges wasn’t bad enough, the defense is now asking for a finding of factual innocence (Penal Code 851.8). While this is certainly an appropriate remedy for someone who is factually innocent, it is an outrageous outcome for someone who admitted shooting that resulted in the death of two innocent people. The burden is on the wrongfully convicted person to prove their innocence by a preponderance. The People may present evidence which would essentially be the same evidence and would take the same time as retrying the case. This is the same evidence which the district attorney’s office has claimed they can’t present because of “resource constraints.” If the people do not present evidence, it is likely that the court would have no choice but to find the defendant factually innocent. If that occurs, the defendant is entitled to receive $140 a day from the California Victim Compensation Board (Govt. Code 4904). Given that he has served over 25 years in custody, he could be awarded over $1.2 million from the Victim Compensation Board in addition to being able to sue Los Angeles County for millions more. This money isn’t free — the money from the Victim Compensation Board would then not be available to actual crime victims, like Arkett’s and Travon’s families. Any civil recovery ultimately is paid by the taxpayers. The civil statute of limitations, however, precludes the victims’ families from suing the defendant. Because the District Attorney didn’t want to expend resources retrying the defendant, the victims are concerned that the District Attorney’s office will not want to expend resources defending a factual innocence claim, effectively making Howard a millionaire.

The families of Arkett Mejia and Travon Johnson are devastated. They feel abandoned by the District Attorney. They deserve an elected prosecutor who seeks justice and recognizes that expending resources on prosecuting murder cases is in society’s interests.

Kathleen Cady began her career as a prosecutor in 1989 and retired in 2019. She is one of several former prosecutors who are providing pro bono assistance to crime victims in response to George Gascón’s policies.

Eric Siddall on John & Ken Show, December 10, 2021

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys Vice President Eric Siddall spoke on the John & Ken Show (KFI AM640) regarding the current state of affairs in Los Angeles County with the current District Attorney.

Help Wanted: Seeking a Prosecutor, Not a Professional Politician

\By Ryan Erlich

For the last year, District Attorney George Gascon has pursued two related goals. First, send as few people to prison or jail as possible. Also first, let as many people out of jail or prison as quickly as possible.

When you view his first year in office through this lens, everything suddenly makes sense: his staffing picks; his permissive sentencing directives; his let-‘em-out-now, ask-questions-later approach to re-sentencing and post-conviction litigation; his reckless bail policies; his refusal to send prosecutors to parole hearings; and his callous arrogance toward victims and their loved ones.

Do you know what else makes sense? The fallout.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that homicides in the City of Los Angeles are up 46.7% this year compared with 2019. The number of shooting victims is up 51.4%. As of November 30, “there had been 359 homicides in L.A. in 2021, compared with 355 in all of 2020. There have not been more homicides in one year since 2008, which saw 384.”

This mindless and tragic violence touches every community. Its victims are young and old, rich and poor, black and white and brown. And so are the perpetrators.

When Los Angeles magazine asked Gascon if his policies contributed to these record-breaking increases, he declined to respond.

I’m not blaming George Gascon alone for this historic rise in crime. That wouldn’t be fair.

The so-called “drivers” or “root causes” of criminality are too broad, too complex, and too deep to lay at the feet of any one person, even someone who, without a trace of humility, calls himself “the Godfather of progressive prosecutors.”

But I am blaming George Gascon for refusing to do anything about it.

And it’s not like he hasn’t had the opportunity.

Gascon likes to remind us that he beat incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey by approximately 265,000 votes and took office with a “mandate.”

What did Gascon do with that valuable, once-in-a-career political capital?

Did he push the County’s Board of Supervisors to fully fund mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, or reentry services for recently released parolees? No.

Did he use his influence to back efforts in Washington and Sacramento to expand early childhood education, job training programs, or affordable housing in Los Angeles? No.

When smash-and-grab robberies rocked retailers from Beverly Hills to Lakewood, did he join local and federal law enforcement leaders and tell us how he would stop it? No. In fact, he was a noticeable no-show.

He apparently has other priorities.

Like convincing the County to transfer four public defenders, each a campaign supporter, to the District Attorney’s office in violation of civil service rules. Like giving those same public defenders the authority to resolve serious cases, including cases they handled while they were public defenders. Like expediting releases for repeat and violent offenders. Like retaliating against a career public prosecutor who chose to follow the law instead of the leader. (This last decision cost County taxpayers more than $800,000.)

So, where does that leave us?

“There’s work to be done and we need to do the work,” Mike Lawson, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Urban League, told LA Times columnist Erika D. Smith this week.

Every single deputy district attorney would agree.

Our work is in court. To prosecute those who break the law. To hold them accountable. To support and, if necessary, to speak for and on behalf of survivors and their families. To ensure that defendants, especially those who suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse disorders, follow the terms and conditions of their court-ordered treatment programs. Writ large, our work is to seek the truth and to do justice for every victim, every defendant, every day, in every case.

Gascon has tied our hands. He has taken away our discretion to charge, resolve, and try many of our cases. Those who question him are demoted, transferred or punished.

It shouldn’t be that way. And it doesn’t have to be.

At its best, our work doesn’t — and shouldn’t — involve partisan politics or ideological litmus tests. Fox News viewers aren’t the only people who want safe streets, safe communities, or a prosecutor who follows the law. And you don’t have to be a New York Times subscriber to believe that our criminal justice system should hold people accountable for what they’ve done, not because of who they are, where they came from, or what they look like. You’re not a Neanderthal if you think a decades-long or even lifetime sentence is an appropriate and proportional punishment for a convicted murderer. And you’re not a pushover if you support diversion and court-supervised treatment for repeat drug offenders.

I suspect many people in Los Angeles County agree. And if you’re one of them, we need your help.

Gascon often says that that “you can’t cure cancer with a hammer.” It’s his way of suggesting that prosecution, incarceration, and accountability (the hammers) are poor treatments for crime (the cancer).

And I agree: you can’t cure cancer with a hammer. But Gascon’s head-in-the-sand, I’m-always-right approach isn’t curing anyone. It’s harming people.

For the better part of a year, he has been doing the criminal justice equivalent of wheeling cancer patients from the oncology ward to the hospital parking lot, handing them a lollipop, wishing them the best of luck, and shooing them off into the darkness.

He has spent more time pursuing his top two priorities — sending fewer people into custody, moving more people out of custody (ready or not) — than tackling what others refer to as the “root causes” or “drivers” of crime. And now we’re all paying the price for that choice.

Crime happens. At the very least, we should try not to make it any worse. Personal safety — for our neighbors, our children, and our communities — is a first-order concern. All of us want — and deserve — to live and work in a safe place. Daily life is tough enough as it is. But thanks to Gascon, we’re qualitatively and quantitatively less safe than we were last year at this time.

Gascon is not a prosecutor, although he plays one on TV. But he is a seasoned politician who is especially concerned with his own public image and political standing.

So pressure him.

Call his office. Send him an email. Post your thoughts on social media. Call your County Supervisor, your City Council member, or your local state or federal representative. Tell them how you feel and ask for their help. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors about what’s happening across our county, in your community, and in our state. Write a letter to your local paper. Listen, educate, organize, and act.

Tell him to modify his directives so that they protect everyone, not just those who break the law.

Tell him to do his job or, at the very least, ask him to let us do ours.

Together, we can change the course we’re on. And we must… before we lose yet another life to this mindless violence.

Ryan Erlich is a Deputy District Attorney and a Director of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.