LA District Attorney Candidates Spar at Harvard-Westlake Debate

Crowded debate was missing incumbent DA George Gascón and Nathan Hochman
March 2, 2024
Photo by Aaron Bandler

Ten candidates running in the March 5 primary for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office sparred at a Feb. 20 debate at Harvard-Westlake School’s Rugby Auditorium. But two of the candidates considered to have a good chance to go on to November’s general election were absent: Incumbent DA George Gascón who had a scheduling conflict, and Nathan Hochman, due to illness.

The debate was hosted by the Westside Current and Valley Current and moderated by Craig Fiegener of KNX News. The first question asked was how the candidates would handle the case of the man who attacked comedian Dave Chappelle onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in 2022.  Gascón didn’t charge it as a felony and instead referred to the city attorney. David Milton, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge and the only Republican in the race, demurred because he didn’t have all of the facts outside of the video footage of the incident. Milton argued that it was definitely a crime, but unclear if it was a felony since that depends on whether Chappelle was injured from the incident. Milton further contended that it was unclear if the perpetrator used a weapon, but if a weapon was shown at any point, then Gascón’s decision was wrong.

Deputy District Attorney (DDA) Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, accused Gascón of filing “cases for the media,” one example concerned three murders in Beverly Hills where Gascón filed special circumstance murder charges — meaning a life sentence without parole — in violation of the DA’s original policy because it was a high-media case. However, in a similar case in Compton, the DA declined to file a special circumstance because it did not garner the same media attention.. “We will treat every case exactly the same,” he declared to mild applause.

Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta was at the Chappelle concert; she viewed the perpetrator’s action as a “felonious assault” and would have brought forth felony charges, especially given the man’s rap sheet.

Fiegener brought up a 2004 case in which then-San Francisco DA Kamala Harris refused to seek the death penalty against the man who murdered Police Officer Isaac Espinoza; he asked DDA Jonathan Hatami how he would handle a similar case if elected DA. Hatami pointed out that California voters have twice voted in favor of capital punishment and that “the DA’s job is to follow the will of the people and so the most serious and egregious cases such as killing or assassinating a police officer … the DA should charge those special circumstances because those are the law.” Gascón, Hatami contended, took away that justice from Los Angeles County.

Mia Morgan, a student at Harvard-Westlake and a Westside Current intern, asked the candidates what role the DA is supposed to play in handling homelessness. Criminal defense attorney Dan Kapelovitz, an avowed progressive who lauded Gascón’s directives as being “good” but undermined by the DA’s “rogue” deputies, argued that people can’t be criminalized “just for being homeless” and lobbied for more funding for beds in mental health program. Gascón’s “deputies fight like heck not to get people in the program,” he claimed.

Milton got major pushback from the other candidates when he said that there is “absolutely nothing” a DA can do regarding homelessness, pointing to a 1963 Supreme Court decision that ruled homelessness was “a state of being” rather than a crime. “If they don’t commit a crime the district attorney has absolutely no jurisdiction over that person,” Milton contended.

Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell pointed out that “90% of the chronically homeless suffer from addiction” and 70% suffer from mental illness; Gascón refuses to prosecute drug cases, Mitchell claimed. And those in treatment programs tell him that if not for court interventions, they would still be on the streets. San Bernardino County DDA Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson proclaimed the need for drug rehabilitation programs and for “compassionately” cleaning out homeless encampments that pose a risk to children. In Siddall’s view, prosecutors “get people out of the system” and pointed to the Redondo Beach city attorney’s model of providing “people basic services from the very beginning” such as identification cards, mental health treatment and supportive housing.

Los Angeles County DDA John McKinney also called Milton’s homelessness comments “a problem,” as the homeless are often offenders or victims of a crime. This, in McKinney’s view, means that the DA can “guide” the homeless through various programs.

However, Milton maintained that all of the other candidates were agreeing with him on the matter, as “they’re saying that we can do all these services for them only if they commit a crime of sort.”

Asked how she would support victims of crimes, especially from marginalized communities, Archuleta replied, “Being a survivor of a violent crime myself, I know how it feels to walk in those shoes.” When she was working in a children’s dependency court, “90% of the families and the children that came before me were from communities of color. I was removing 10-15 babies a week at birth from their mother because these babies were born with methamphetamine and fentanyl in their system.”

She also claimed that she went to over more than 150 parole hearings when she was a DDA, and recalled that a father whose daughter was murdered 16 years ago (Archuleta prosecuted the murderer) called Archuleta to tell her that the killer’s parole hearing is coming up but Gascón won’t send someone from the DA’s office to attend the hearing with him. Archuleta pledged to attend that hearing as DA. 

Milton and Siddall had a contentious exchange in response to being asked if the candidates would prosecute someone for having an abortion if the president issues an executive order outlawing abortion. Milton posited that the DA has to follow the law, prompting Siddall to reply that “actually prosecutors have discretion” (Hatami interjected, “There you go!” at this moment) and that he wouldn’t prosecute a woman’s “right to choose.” Milton disagreed, contending that “if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt you have to file it,” a claim that Siddall called “outrageous.” “I’m surprised you’re not more educated,” Milton retorted.

Hatami, McKinney, Archuleta, Kapelovitz and Los Angeles County Deputy DDA Maria Ramirez said they would not enforce an executive order outlawing abortion. McKinney argued that while he does not think that the DA has discretion to ignore the law, he believes that such an executive order would be unconstitutional and he “would rather step down than prosecute a law like that.”

Siddall chastised Kapelovitz as a defense attorney who “doesn’t understand our job” — a line that got applause — after Kapelovitz said that the people of Los Angeles voted for a death penalty moratorium. Siddall pointed out that state law requires a three-strikes alternative sentencing mechanism. Kapelovitz replied that he has worked with a lot of DDAs and thus understands the job.

Fiegener then pivoted to the issue of retail theft, recalling how he recently covered a Gascón press conference about the Organized Retail Crime Task Force; Gascón only filed charges on around 200 of the more than 600 retail theft arrests last year. Fiegener asked the candidates if the number of charges Gascón filed by Gascón was too low.

Mitchell called the number “terribly low,” claiming that over the last three years, “there has not been a single case of retail theft brought into my [felony] courtroom. That is indicative of George Gascón dropping the ball.” McKinney agreed that the number “seems low,” but couldn’t say for sure without examining the cases. According to McKinney, the felony rejection rate on retail theft cases was 25% before Gascón; the numbers presented from the press conference are a 66% rejection rate.

Ramirez and Hatami both lambasted Gascón on the issue, with Ramirez claiming that there is a “significant backlog” of more than 13,000 cases waiting to be filed because Gascón “centralized” the filing system and due to “staffing that is leaving our office. We cannot do our basic jobs of filing cases.” Hatami contended that the task force, which was organized by the mayor, didn’t invite Gascón to join because “he wasn’t doing his job,” adding that the federal government currently prosecutes many of these cases. Because of Gascón, “we are the retail theft capital of America,” Hatami declared. “ … He’s never been a prosecutor. He’s never prosecuted any case, so he has no clue how to file cases.”

I don’t care who you vote for, just don’t vote for George Gascón.” – Jonathan Hatami

Hatami added that Gascón doesn’t think business owners are victims and that many of them are now leaving Los Angeles because “insurance carriers are not covering them because so many people commit theft over and over again … I don’t care who you vote for, just don’t vote for George Gascón,” Hatami proclaimed to enthusiastic applause.

Siddall agreed with Hatami that insurance rates and deductibles have “skyrocketed” due to the recurring thefts. Siddall criticized Gascón for failing to secure $2 million in state funding to combat organized retail theft, and then claiming that the county wasn’t eligible for the money. “The grant was actually called the Vertical Prosecution Grant for Retail Theft … he was eligible, and other District Attorney offices around the state applied and got the money because they were eligible as well,” said Siddall. Siddall also called for reform Proposition 47 to address the issue of retail theft.

Asked why the two efforts to have recall Gascón have failed, Siddall contended that Gascón “deserves zero credit for it” and that the DA “would be recalled in a heartbeat” if the recall got to the ballot. This led to a heated exchange between McKinney and Siddall, as McKinney pointed out that Siddall did not support the first recall effort; Siddall said that was because the first recall occurred two weeks after Gascón took office and that he didn’t make speeches with “right-wing Republicans.” Siddall then touted himself for organizing “an actual effort to stop George Gascón in the courts and we actually got results done,” though McKinney countered that all but one of Siddall’s lawsuits have failed except for one that’s pending.

Asked why the second recall failed, McKinney, Milton and Ramirez all questioned the County Registrar’s verdict that there were not enough signatures for it to go on the ballot. Thousands of signatures were disqualified, they claimed. Kapelovitz declared that “recalls are for crybaby losers who don’t believe in democracy” — resulting in audible booing from the audience — and quipped, “please don’t storm the Capitol or the registrar.”

Former federal prosecutor Jeff Chemerinsky said he didn’t want to speculate why the recalls failed, but did point out that 15 lawsuits have been filed against the DA and one was successful.

In response to a question about building trust between the DA’s office and law enforcement, most of the candidates bashed Gascón for undermining that relationship. “Police officers feel like there’s a target on their back; we have a DA who uses them as a scapegoat whenever he gets into trouble,” McKinney said, adding that “police officers have to believe that their work has meaning again.” Ramirez said that Gascón didn’t involve police officers “in policies that he put forth.” Siddall accused Gascón of using police as a “political football,” as various cases have been filed against police officers, only to be dismissed by judges because these cases don’t have a legitimate basis.

There was one instance where an officer was charged with killing a motorist and in a plea bargain, received only 30 days in jail. “That wasn’t because it was a good case. It was because it was a politically filed case and they had a tremendous amount of leverage over that deputy and they basically forced a plea,” claimed Siddall. “That is a political prosecution and it will end under my watch.”

Mitchell pledged that he wouldn’t hire someone like Tiffiny Blacknell as his chief of staff who has “expressed her disdain with law enforcement.” “They are not ‘barbarians,’ the vast majority of police officers put on that badge because they want to protect the public,” said Mitchell. Kapelovitz, by contrast, called for ending qualified immunity and for more transparency on complaint against police officers.

Toward the end of the debate, Cortlyn Bridges, whose daughter was shot and killed on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in 2020, asked the candidates where they stand on sentencing enhancements  for gang members. All of the candidates pledged to use them when appropriate except for Kapelovitz, who argued that most gang enhancements are “categorically racist,” resulting in loud booing from the audience. Kapelovitz did acknowledge that it’s “horrible” to lose a loved one.

During closing arguments, Mitchell lamented that the candidates didn’t get the chance to delve into no-cash bail, Prop 47, as well as “the lack of enhancements and the fact that Gascón is not alleging them.”

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