It is the most powerful job in Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system, a position that oversees the prosecution of 60,000 felons each year and can provide a steppingstone to higher office.
Six candidates are vying to become district attorney in next week’s election, hoping to succeed Steve Cooley, who is retiring after three terms.
June 5 marks the first district attorney’s election without an incumbent since 1964. Back then, voters had a choice of three white men. Today’s group of candidates illustrates the changes that have taken place in the county’s legal community in the last half century.
Three African Americans — Bobby Grace, Jackie Lacey and Danette Meyers — are hoping to make history in a county that has never elected a black district attorney, with two of them also aiming to become the first woman to hold the post.
To win outright, a candidate must garner more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
Whoever wins the nonpartisan race will face daunting challenges in running the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation. California’s justice system is undergoing its most radical overhaul in more than three decades. The state, under a court order to reduce its prison population, is shifting the burden of housing and monitoring thousands of inmates to local counties, which are also struggling with overcrowded jails and underfunded budgets.
The candidates, in alphabetical order, are:
John L. Breault III
With 43 years as a deputy district attorney, Breault, 69, is the longest-serving prosecutor in the office.
He was born in Burbank and raised in Tehachapi, where his mother worked as an executive secretary to the superintendent of the town’s state prison and his father was an engineer for a cement-making company. After graduating from Loyola University, he went to Georgetown University Law Center before joining the district attorney’s office in 1969.
Breault spent most of his career in downtown and the Westside, prosecuting murderers, rapists and other felons. Among them was serial killer Patrick Wayne Kearney, the “Trash Bag Murderer,” who in the 1970s dumped the dismembered remains of victims in large trash bags. Today, Breault oversees which charges are filed at the office’s Downey branch.
Breault, a registered Republican, would seek funding for programs that educate children about avoiding a life of crime but says the next district attorney must be realistic about the chance of finding money for such initiatives. Prosecutors, he said, should focus on their core mission of providing justice in the courtroom and leave rehabilitation to probation and other county departments.
Breault said he would put more faith in line-level prosecutors who know cases best rather than have supervisors second-guess decisions. That would also apply to three-strikes cases, and he said he would end the office’s current policy, which generally seeks life prison sentences only if a third strike involves a serious or violent crime. Prosecutors, he said, should decide when to seek the maximum sentence.
Breault said he would lead by example by trying cases himself while serving as district attorney in the hope that other managers would follow suit. He supports keeping the death penalty for the worst murderers.
With a soft-spoken but clinical courtroom manner, Grace, 51, has won convictions against some of L.A. County’s worst criminals.
Grace grew up in San Bernardino, where he was a standout high school tailback, and dreamed of turning pro until his father, an Air Force hospital administrator, advised him that he was too short and light to make football a career. While he ran track at UCLA, Grace put aside his athletic ambitions and focused on political activism, working to successfully persuade UCLA and then the University of California system to withdraw their investments from apartheid-era South Africa.
Grace joined the district attorney’s office as a law clerk in 1986 while attending Loyola Law School and became a prosecutor two years later. He worked stints in the family violence and hard-core gang divisions before landing in the major crimes division, one of the office’s most elite units.
Grace, a registered Democrat, calls for more alternative sentencing and rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism among low-level offenders and free up space behind bars for the most violent and serious criminals. Among his proposals is partnering with schools and community programs to help, rather than punish, chronic truants by addressing why they are missing school.
He opposes sentencing juveniles under 17 to life without parole. And he would revisit cases in which three-strikes offenders were sentenced to life in prison before 2000 for crimes that were non-serious and nonviolent to see whether the sentences should be reduced. Grace also called for more training for prosecutors in handling environmental crimes and more aggressive investigation of public corruption.
Despite successfully prosecuting several capital cases, Grace says the state’s death penalty system is not working and that he supports the November ballot initiative that would end executions.
Jackson, 46, is a supervisor in the office’s elite major crimes division, but it is the difficult murder cases he has tried that made him one of his office’s stars, landing him a regular role on Dateline NBC’s “Unsolved Case Squad.”
Jackson found himself in the public spotlight when he helped win a conviction in the slayings of racing legend Mickey Thompson and his wife, and later for successfully prosecuting music producer Phil Spector for murder.
Raised by a single mother in Austin, Texas, Jackson joined the Air Force at 18, but poor eyesight ended his dream of flying fighter jets. Instead, he worked as a jet engine mechanic and, after four years, attended the University of Texas at Austin before going to Pepperdine University School of Law. He joined the district attorney’s office in 1995.
A registered Republican, Jackson wants to repeal realignment, which shifts responsibility for housing and supervising thousands of nonviolent prison inmates from the state to counties, and find another way to solve prison overcrowding. Local jails, Jackson said, are already releasing prisoners after they have served only a fraction of their sentences, leaving communities vulnerable. In response, he has drafted a bill that would allow county jails to contract with other states to house local inmates.
But Jackson, who is supported by more than a dozen local police unions, also warns that “we’re never going to handcuff our way out of the crime problem.” He has called for the district attorney’s office to support more intervention programs to reduce recidivism among low-level offenders and to keep children out of gangs.
Jackson emphasizes the need to modernize the office, saying he would focus more resources on cyber crime, identity theft, environmental crimes and public corruption. He supports keeping the death penalty but said it should be reformed to reduce the lengthy delays in appeals.
As chief deputy district attorney, Lacey, 55, runs the day-to-day operations of an office of more than 1,000 prosecutors.
Lacey was raised in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Her father cleaned vacant lots for the city’s public works department and her mother was a garment factory worker. She attended UC Irvine and then USC Law School before joining a sole practitioner’s law firm, mostly handling paperwork and depositions. But she didn’t like the work.
On the advice of a friend, Lacey got a job with the Santa Monica city attorney’s office and found she loved being in the courtroom. In 1986, she joined the district attorney’s office. Among her cases was the county’s first conviction for a racially motivated hate-crime murder after three members of a white supremacist group beat a black homeless man in Lancaster.
Lacey was an early supporter of Cooley when he launched his successful campaign for district attorney in 2000. She was promoted to management once he took office, and today he is endorsing Lacey as his successor.
In touting her management experience, Lacey says she would build on her work in helping develop alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent offenders. Those include courts that divert women, military veterans and low-level defendants with mental illness and drug addiction to programs that aim to address the underlying problems that led them to offend. She said she would expand those programs.
A registered Democrat, Lacey proposes a closer review of old three-strikes sentences in which offenders were given life prison terms for nonviolent and non-serious third strikes. She would also train more prosecutors and police on dealing with identity theft and high-tech crime and would promote community outreach to seniors on avoiding financial scams.
Lacey supports keeping the death penalty for some murderers.
Meyers, 54, was the face of the district attorney’s office during the recent legal saga of actress Lindsay Lohan, whom she prosecuted for drunk driving and theft.
But she has spent more than a quarter century quietly handling some of the county’s most heinous cases, such as the 2010 death verdict she secured against a man who raped and murdered an 11-year-old girl.
Meyers grew up in Compton. Her father supervised the Watts post office and her mother reviewed grant spending at USC. After attending UC San Diego, Meyers went to Howard University School of Law before joining the district attorney’s office as a senior law clerk. She became a prosecutor in 1986 and has had a variety of assignments, trying cases for the prestigious crimes against police section and running office branches in Bellflower and the Florence-Firestone area.
Meyers, a registered Democrat, proposes beefing up prosecutions of environmental polluters and reducing the number of children who are tried in adult court. She also wants to expand rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders. Meyers faulted her office for failing to ensure that crimes committed in one area of the county are prosecuted the same as those in other areas, saying she would remedy unequal treatment.
Despite helping put four convicted killers on death row, Meyers supports the November voter initiative that would end capital punishment. The state’s death penalty, she said, is beyond repair and its decades-long delays are intolerable for the loved ones of murder victims. If the ballot measure fails, Meyers said she would continue to seek death sentences but in fewer cases.
She has won the backing of the county’s Democratic Party, the union that represents the county’s line-level prosecutors and the last Democrat to serve as the county’s top prosecutor, Gil Garcetti.
As the elected city attorney of Los Angeles, Trutanich, 60, is the most high-profile contender for the job.
Trutanich grew up in San Pedro, where his father was superintendent at the StarKist tuna packaging plant. Trutanich worked at the same cannery after getting his bachelor’s and MBA degrees from USC, and attended night classes at South Bay University College of Law, which has since closed.
In 1981, he started work as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, ultimately handling environmental crimes and hard-core gang cases, obtaining a death verdict against a reputed South L.A. gang leader he convicted on two murders. Trutanich left the office for private practice in 1988 and went on to run his own law firm. He won election to become city attorney in 2009.
Trutanich, who switched from being a registered Republican to “declined to state” more than a decade ago, describes the state’s realignment strategy as “an opportunity to fundamentally transform our correctional system.” He advocates expanding rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders in an effort to lower recidivism, cut crime and reduce the state’s dependence on incarceration.
His 33-page blueprint for how he would run the office calls for more anti-gang initiatives as well as diversion, education and job-training programs, particularly for juveniles. He said he would push the state to earmark money it saves from realignment to be used for school education programs and would have his office work with the L.A. school district and other agencies to address the underlying causes of truancy.
Trutanich has proposed a neighborhood prosecution program in which deputy district attorneys would focus on quality-of-life crimes in particular areas and attend local meetings, serving as liaisons between their communities and the district attorney’s office. He would add resources to combat environmental crimes and public corruption, and supports seeking the death penalty in only the worst murder cases.
Among those supporting him in the race are Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.