Alan Jackson, a winner with jurors, takes his case to be D.A. to voters

Alan Jackson is, at 46, the youngest of the six candidates for Los Angeles County district attorney. But he’s tried his share of high-profile cases, including the successful prosecution of music icon Phil Spector, and that in turn has helped to elevate his profile. For name recognition he can’t match Los Angeles City Atty.  Carmen Trutanich, and some voters may still confuse him with the country music star of the same name, but Jackson has worked hard to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack.

Jackson has demonstrated his quite rational belief that Trutanich is the man to beat. Of all the candidates, Jackson was most vocal about attacking Trutanich for breaking his pledge to complete two terms as city attorney before seeking another office. And Jackson brought a court complaint -- successfully -- to invalidate Trutanich's ballot designation as Los Angeles chief prosecutor. Neither issue goes to the substance of the district attorney job, but they garnered the widest and most high-profile coverage in the race to date. He has been designated in some news accounts as Trutanich's chief rival. If the goal is to push Trutanich into a November runoff by denying him more than 50% of the vote, Jackson is apparently hoping that his tactics make him one of the final two.

The campaign this week reaches an important and, for the candidates, a nerve-wracking point. Sample ballots are now in the mail, and the earliest of early voters can apply for, receive, mark and return their ballots. Most voters who vote by mail will do so next week, if the past is any guide, and somewhere between 40% and 60% of voting is expected to occur through the mailbox instead of the ballot box. It’s called the June 5 election because that’s the day the polls are open. But voting for Los Angeles County district attorney is already well underway.

VIDEO: The D.A. candidates on realignment and the death penalty

The Times' editorial board has met with the candidates and is deliberating in preparation for making an endorsement.  This blog post and others like it are an attempt to share some of our thinking with our readers. We have previously editorialized on several of the issues we consider important -- three strikes, the death penalty, public integrity, juvenile justice and realignment.

Jackson was born in Indiana, then raised by his mother in Texas. Like many of his counterparts in the race, he was the first in his family to attend college, but he didn’t do it right away. He said he didn’t think of himself as much of a student and instead joined the Air Force after high school. But he said his eyes weren’t good enough for him to become a pilot, so when it was time to re-up he instead enrolled at a small college in Texas, then moved to the University of Texas -- where he discovered he was a pretty good student after all.

For law school he chose Pepperdine in Malibu, and when then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti opened up some hiring in February 1995, he secured a spot. He tried felonies in Torrance and juvenile cases in Eastlake and Inglewood. Then Santa Monica.

A second-chair spot prosecuting a ritual satanic killer got him some notice in the office, and by 1999 he was prosecuting gang cases in Compton. In 2004 he moved to the major crimes section and helped to try and convict Michael Goodwin for the murder of racing legend Mickey Thompson and his wife. It was his first truly high-profile case. He handled the preliminary hearing of serial killer Chester Turner  (fellow candidate Bobby Grace handled the trial and won the conviction), and the preliminary hearing of Juan Manuel Alvarez in an abandoned suicide attempt that led to the 2005 derailment of a Metrolink train and the deaths of 11 people. Then came the Spector case, and a hung jury; then a retrial and the conviction.

The cases, especially Spector, gave him a healthy amount of TV exposure. He seemed to like it.

Jackson said he spoke to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in 2010 to determine whether Cooley planned to run for a fourth term, and to seek his blessing to run if the job were to open up. That was before Trutanich said he would run and before Cooley’s top deputy, Jackie Lacey, also filed.

To defend against Trutanich, he signed on with a man who helped steer the city attorney to victory in 2009: political consultant John Thomas. Now Jackson is -- kind of, sort of -- running to the right as the nonpartisan race’s only high-profile Republican. (Trutanich was formerly registered as a Republican; John Breault III is a Republican but has run an extremely low-key campaign.)

The three Democrats in the race -- Grace, Lacey and Danette Meyers -- all criticize the way that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature answered prison overcrowding with AB 109, which is shorthand for realignment, which in turn is wonkese for transferring responsibility for some nonviolent felons from the state, and the prison system, to the counties and their jails and alternative sentencing programs. But all three say they will do their best to make it work, as does Trutanich. But Jackson is having none of it. He says the best answer is to repeal AB 109 and start over. In the meantime he wants counties to be able to contract with other states to house their jail inmates, the way the state prison system currently can.

So there it is, right? As the other candidates advocate for alternative sentencing, where appropriate, and as some of them (Grace and Meyers) advocate scrapping the death penalty in California if we can’t speed up the pace of executions, Jackson is the stay-the-course candidate.

Except that he’s not. Jackson offers a stark critique of the current juvenile justice system. He embraces a view of the district attorney’s office that goes beyond merely filing the case that the police bring him.

“That becomes formulaic,” he said. “You flip open the Penal Code and you figure out what it is I can charge. But that’s a hamster wheel. We have to break it somehow. We may have an opportunity now to start that process.”

Talking reform does not seem to be merely lip service; Jackson cites books and articles and programs that embrace the sort of smart-on-crime approach that more conservative states, such as Texas and Georgia, are now employing.

“One of the things that marks me as a candidate and would mark me as D.A. is that I’m very open to ideas,” he said. “I want to surround myself with people smarter than me. So I can hear what it is that we’re missing. What it is that we could be doing that we’re not doing.”

The task of The Times' editorial board, just like the task of the voter, is twofold: first to gauge each candidate’s stated position on issues such as the death penalty and public safety realignment and to compare them with our own stance; and second, to decide whether a candidate who disagrees with us on important issues may nevertheless be preferable -- because of character, maturity, experience, reliability -- to one who lines up on the issues but does not merit confidence in his or her leadership ability.

With Jackson, what would voters get? He’s an experienced and accomplished prosecutor, but can he manage an office of 1,000 lawyers and about 200 law enforcement personnel? He currently helps oversee an office of about a dozen attorneys, all of whom are among the best prosecutors in the state. As D.A., he would be in charge of the middling and the troublemakers as well. He would have to be, if he is to succeed, a fixture in Sacramento and a colleague of the sheriff, the Superior Court judges and the public defender. He would have to be able to guide, and sometimes fight with, the Board of Supervisors in budget decisions.

He would have to resist the lure of the TV cameras, or risk the fate that befell district attorneys Ira Reiner and Gil Garcetti.

And he would have to find the right balance between keeping dangerous people off the street and breaking the “hamster wheel” of recidivism.

He said he’s the one to embrace reform in just the right amount.

“It’s going to take a little bit of a steel spine to embrace any program where there’s a chance for failure,” he said. “I’ve got that steel spine.”

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