LOS ANGELES (CN) – Screams and jeers interrupted Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey during a candidate debate Wednesday where she was asked to defend her track record as top prosecutor just five weeks away from the election.
As she sought to speak about her office’s record on the death penalty, a woman in the audience shouted, “Jackie Lacey must go.”
Some people, including those from the LA Black Lives Matter chapter, were ejected from the Aratani Theatre in downtown LA as they led chants during Lacey’s answers on the incarceration of people of color and how the office has dealt with racial disparity.
This was the first time Lacey publicly met with the candidates who want to eject her from the office she has held since 2012. The race for the L.A. DA’s office is closely being watched as one of the largest urban centers could see a progressive shift in criminal justice. Voters will head to the polls March 3.
Lacey, 62, called herself the only “real working lawyer” who has more experience than George Gascón, 66, who served as San Francisco’s DA from 2011 to 2019 and Rachel Rossi, 37, the only candidate who was a public defender rather than prosecutor.
The candidates argued the DA’s office has been too slow to reform, to the detriment of people of color.
In response Lacey said, “It’s as though Ms. Rossi and Mr. Gascón are living on another planet.”
She listed progressive actions taken in LA County, like the implementation of mental health diversion programs.
Gascón replied, “Ms. Lacey has fought every single reform initiative that has come to through her desk aggressively. She has fought the decriminalization of marijuana, cleaning the record of people until she was forced to do it.”
He added, “There is nothing progressive about Ms. Lacey.”
Gascón said during Lacey’s tenure, the DA’s office has only secured death penalty convictions against black and brown people.
Rossi said there are more black and brown people represented in LA County jails and prosecutors often arrest them to throw them into jail to pursue convictions.
“That rarely happens,” Lacey said, drawing loud groans from the audience.
During the 90-minute conversation, candidates attempted to answer questions about criminal justice, reform and the death penalty.
Lacey said her office has sought the death penalty in only 2% of the cases that come to her office.
Gascón discussed reforms in mental health and the intersection with criminal justice that were developed in San Francisco.
Lacey called Gascón someone who has never fought for a case in court and Rossi as someone who is woefully inexperienced.
“I am running for DA precisely because I am a former public defender,” Rossi said, arguing many of the issues that reformers are asking for are confronted by public defenders.
She said Lacey spent her entire career as a prosecutor, which means she has not seen criminal justice from the other side.
Gascón was asked about gang enhancement sentences while he was the San Francisco DA and admitted that, over time, data showed they disproportionately impacted people of color, so he changed his opinion.
Lacey was interrupted numerous times as she was asked about her officer record on prosecutions against people of color and bringing charges against officers who used excessive force.
“My response is throughout the country there have been only two cases filed,” Lacey said before she was interrupted by someone shouting.
She added, “These cases are very difficult to prove.”
Later she said, “It is heartbreaking to hear from the victims.” But a man in the audience shouted, “You never even held a town hall in South LA.”
The debate, hosted by Pasadena NPR station KPCC and the Los Angeles Times, was an example of the many protests that have followed Lacey at other public events. At one point during the debate, a man approached the stage shouting at Lacey and was ejected, followed by several more people who shouted the names of people shot and killed by LAPD officers.
This past December, Rossi and Gascón met at a campaign debate hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where voters learned Rossi and Gascón share more similarities than differences on bail reform and mass incarceration. Lacey declined to attend.
Both challengers to Lacey announced their candidacies outside jails, Gascón at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail and Rossi at the Lynwood Women’s Jail.
Before the debate, Special Assistant in the DA’s office Jane Creighton said she has known Lacey since Creighton was in law school. She watched Lacey work her way up in the DA’s office and emphasize support for victims while implementing what she called fair and just convictions.
“Not everyone is going to be happy,” Creighton said outside the debate venue. “But (Jackie Lacey) is going to do the right thing.”
Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Susan Schwartz said Lacey is the only candidate who she sees will continue to fight for victims among the candidates.
“The focus seems that it will turn away from the victims with the suggestions by the other candidates,” Schwartz said.
Valerie Rivera said she feels like a victim after her 20-year-old son Eric Rivera was shot and killed in 2017 by two LAPD officers while holding a toy gun.
Rivera has regularly joined the Los Angeles Black Lives Matters chapter in their weekly rallies outside the Hall of Justice where Lacey’s office is located. She said she wants a DA who can hold officers accountable for unjustified murder.
The officers’ actions were found justified by an LAPD police commission and charges were never filed in the death of Rivera’s son.
When asked what it felt like to have two candidates challenging Lacey’s role as a prosecutor, Rivera sighed and said, “Well, it’s a victory. I’m going to count it as a victory. Because we’ve been fighting for years to get Jackie Lacey to step up and start prosecuting these officers who are killing our people.”