Prosecutors seek to try defendant as an adult in brutal arson-murder after Gascón lifts his ban

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón
L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, shown last year, has eased his blanket ban on trying defendants accused as minors in adult court. An advisor said a committee will review “extraordinary” cases in which a teen is accused of an especially heinous act.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County prosecutors have filed a motion seeking to try as an adult a defendant who was 17 when accused of fatally shooting two sisters in 2018, marking the first such move since Dist. Atty. George Gascón backtracked last week on his blanket ban on trying those charged with crimes as minors in adult court.

Sierra Brown, 16, and her older sister, Uniek Atkins, were shot and killed in a Westchester apartment before the defendant doused the residence with bleach and set it on fire, prosecutors allege in court records. The defendant, who is now 21, had been dating Sierra.

The Times is not identifying the defendant because he was a minor at the time of the killings and his transfer hearing has yet to take place.

The transfer motion was filed Friday, the same day Gascón announced the policy changes, said Kathy Cady, an attorney representing the victims’ families.


Gascón declined to discuss the case during a news conference Tuesday. Alex Bastian, one of the district attorney’s special advisors, later confirmed the case will be the first brought before a committee created to review “extraordinary” cases in which a teenager is accused of an especially heinous act.

It remains unclear how the committee will work or whether prosecutors will need to seek unanimous approval from the panel to conduct an actual transfer hearing that could end with a juvenile case being moved to adult criminal court.

The reform-minded prosecutor has made a dramatic shift involving the case of Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old tried as a juvenile for assaulting a child.

The prosecution in the killing of Brown and Atkins served as an early rallying cry for critics of Gascón’s sweeping policy changes. Cady was one of many who demanded the district attorney’s office conduct a “case-by-case” analysis of such cases.

In an interview last year, Gascón told The Times he struggled with the case but ultimately held fast to his policy, citing research on adolescents that shows brain development is not final until age 25.

“I talked to the family … and I have to tell you that’s a case where I lost sleep over, multiple times, because what the family has gone through and will continue to go through is tremendous,” he said last year.

Atkins’ father, Daniel Souvinette, expressed disgust with the district attorney’s office when a prior transfer order was revoked in the case last year.

“A man was voted in, his policies came in and changed all the rules for all of the victims,” he told a judge in the Inglewood courthouse. “When you lose your only child … a parent wouldn’t see this as justice.”

Cady said that although her clients were relieved that there’s a chance their daughters’ accused killer might spend more than four years in prison, she was still frustrated with the “roller coaster” Gascón put them on.

“They are completely exhausted because no family should have to try to beg for justice,” she said. “Of course, the fact that their two daughters were murdered in and of itself is horrific. Gascon is certainly not responsible for that, but he is responsible for re-traumatizing them by … pulling the rug out from under them.”

At a meeting of prosecutors, Spitzer allegedly said he knows “many black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating white women.”

The move comes as Gascón faces fierce backlash over his handling of a number of high-profile cases. The district attorney had been repeatedly pilloried for allowing a 26-year-old to plead guilty in juvenile court this year for the 2014 sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl because the defendant was 17 when the attack occurred.

At the same time, an effort to recall him from office has been gaining steam, raising $1.8 million, according to campaign finance reports. On Monday, the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors overwhelmingly voted to support the recall effort. Nearly 98% of the 557 prosecutors who cast ballots voted to endorse the recall, said Eric Siddal, the union’s vice president.

“Over a year ago, Gascón began a massive social experiment by redirecting prosecutorial resources away from enforcing the law while simultaneously ignoring large portions of the penal code. The result is an emboldened criminal element that knows the D.A. will not hold criminals accountable,” Siddal said in a statement. “This experiment needs to end.”