By Kathleen Cady
On May 29, 1979, Jesse Gonzales murdered Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Jack Williams and left William’s two daughters — then 11 and 12 — without a father. Those daughters have missed their dad every day for 44 years.
But now Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón and a former public defender he brought on to gut the county’s most heinous and serious murder convictions are just days away from letting Gonzales out of state prison. And they are trying to do it in secret.
We cannot let that happen.
Gonzales was a drug-dealing, self-proclaimed leader of the Puente street gang when he executed Deputy Williams, who was at Gonzales’ house to serve a search warrant.
Gonzales was outside watering his lawn when he saw “the cops” coming and ran inside. Deputies knocked and yelled “Police!” at Gonzales’ door. Deputies heard movements inside the house and kicked in the front door. Gonzales shot Deputy Williams in the chest with a shotgun, mortally wounding him. Gonzales was in turn shot by Deputies. As the defendant was taken by gurney to an ambulance, he raised his left fist and said “Viva Puente!,” hurling the epithet “puto,” meaning “fag,” at nearby officers.
Gonzales was convicted of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of killing a peace officer engaged in the lawful pursuit of his duties. The jury sentenced Gonzales to death.
For more than 40 years, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office were committed to successfully defending Gonzales’ conviction and sentence as legally valid. Both were affirmed by higher courts multiple times. Gonzales continues to challenge his conviction. This time through a Habeas Corpus petition. Penal Code 1473.
Shockingly, District Attorney George Gascón now appears ready to capitulate to Gonzales. If he does, Gonzales’s conviction would be reversed, and Gonzales could be released from state prison.
Capital murders are among the most consequential cases that the District Attorney’s Office handles. And capital defendants are often the most vicious, violent, and dangerous offenders.
Yet, George Gascón has acted, in secret, to gut the hard-fought capital convictions secured by Los Angeles County prosecutors.
First, he hired former public defenders — lawyers trained to put the interests of offenders above all else — to run the District Attorney’s office and implement his policies. He picked one of those hires, Shelan Joseph, to handle all of the office’s capital case Habeas claims. In the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, Joseph was the Assistant Special Circumstance coordinator and therefore oversaw the same capital cases on behalf of the defendants. Notwithstanding this glaring conflict of interest, Joseph was put in charge of prosecuting all capital Habeas cases for Los Angeles County. But rather than defend those convictions, she has been systematically conceding all defense claims and filing motions to reduce death sentences.
The public, and even Gascón’s own prosecutors, are kept in the dark. Gascón has restricted his own prosecutors from viewing these cases in the Office’s case management system, including the prosecutors who initially tried the cases. When Gascón took office, there were approximately 65 pending Writs of Habeas Corpus in Capital cases. The exact number is unknown because the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has refused to provide any information on the number of cases pending Habeas proceedings, despite numerous requests under California’s Public Records Act, which is the state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
With the advent of Proposition 66, the Attorney General represents the People in Habeas proceedings throughout California. But not in George Gascón’s Los Angeles County. In November 2021, the Attorney General filed Notices of Withdrawal in all Capital Habeas cases pending in the Los Angeles Superior Court using the language, “At the request of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office hereby withdraws as attorney of record for respondent. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is assuming full responsibility for acting on behalf of respondent.” Speaking out of both sides of his mouth, on November 21, 2021, Gascón announced “Capital Habeas petitions in Los Angeles Superior Court are handled by the Clemency and Capital Case Coordinator who works with the Attorney General’s Office to coordinate the handling of these petitions.”
Gonzales has not reformed over the last 45 years. Since being in prison, he has risen through the ranks and is now a shot-caller for the Mexican Mafia, a highly organized criminal gang within the California Department of Corrections. Shot callers order hits (murders) and direct gang activities from inside the prison. Gonzales’ Mexican Mafia status was confirmed last year in the trial against Victor Soto (Los Angeles Superior Court case number TA146714).
Gascón likes to make public statements that suggest he is a prosecutor who is serious about violent offenders, but his actions and policies reveal otherwise. Worse, his actions lack transparency, and he hides information when he thinks it will not be perceived well politically. In an attempt to shift blame and duck responsibility for his own policies, Gascón tried to get Deputy Williams’ daughters to agree to a change in sentence. When that didn’t work, he now is poised to lay the blame for overturning the conviction on the judge.
Gascón has the power to negotiate a lesser sentence, even life without the possibility of parole. On December 7, 2021, Gascón’s inner circle had a Zoom call with Deputy Williams’ family and tried to talk them into agreeing to resentence the defendant to 15 years to life, making him eligible for parole. The family did not agree. They do not want Gonzales released. Without the family’s cover, Gascón did not lower Gonzalez’ sentence.
Now, Gascón and Joseph seem willing to concede the defense Habeas claim. A concession would likely result in the judge granting Gonzales’ claim. A concession in Gonzales’ case would reverse the conviction — not just the sentence — and likely result in Gonzales’s release. Of course, the judge can only rely on the information and arguments presented by the prosecution. If the prosecution challenged the defense claim, the conviction would likely remain. The actual blame for any change in Gonzales’ conviction or sentence lies squarely at Gascón’s feet.
These politically driven maneuvers are agonizing for Jack Williams’ daughters, who continue to want justice for their father.
The District Attorney’s Office is supposed to seek justice and protect the public. It is supposed to be transparent. The criminal justice system does not work when both the District Attorney and defense counsel represent the interest of the defendant, and no one represents the People.
Society deserves better and so do Jack Williams and his daughters.
Kathleen Cady is one of several former prosecutors who are providing pro bono assistance to crime victims in response to Gascón’s policies.
About the ADDA
The Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) is the collective bargaining agent representing over 800 Deputy District Attorneys working for the County of Los Angeles.