A ‘Trojan Horse’ in the Los Angeles D.A.’s Office
The revolt against George Gascon isn’t just coming from victims of crime. It’s coming from inside his own office.
On May 31, 2018, Desiree Andrade was scrolling through Facebook when she saw a local news report about the body of an unidentified man found at the base of a canyon in the forest north of Los Angeles. Andrade’s son, Julian, who was 20, had disappeared two days earlier. So she called the police. “I was giving facial features,” she told me, “and the lady on the other end said, ‘You know, ma’am, facial features aren’t going to work. He doesn’t have a face.’”
Andrade told the dispatcher there was a rose tattoo on Julian’s left hand. A few minutes later, a detective called her back to confirm that the dead man was her son.
Five men were charged in Julian Andrade’s death—beating and stabbing him, and then throwing him off a cliff, and then, when they heard him thrashing about, climbing down to pummel him some more. Two of them had known him in high school. They thought he’d stolen their weed.
He died slowly—from head trauma, blood loss and the cold. By the time his body was recovered, two days later, it had been ripped apart by bears or mountain cats.
Prosecutors told Desiree Andrade it could take up to five years for the case to inch its way through the system but assured her that justice would ultimately be served. Then Covid hit, and everything slowed down. And then, while the city was still hunkered down, George Gascon became Los Angeles County district attorney.
The day after Gascon’s inauguration, on December 7, 2020, Phil Stirling, the lead prosecutor on the case, called Desiree Andrade. She was at her home in Whittier on a conference call. (Like everyone, she was working remotely.)
The new D.A., Stirling explained, had issued nine directives that, among other things, eliminated “enhancements”—extra penalties for more serious crimes. Stirling had been hoping for life without parole for “the three heavies.” (The other two defendants were not thought to have played a central role in the murder.) But without the enhancement—Julian Andrade hadn’t simply been murdered but murdered during the commission of a kidnapping—the best they could hope for, he said, was 25 years in prison, which probably meant 20, since convicts often wind up serving 80 percent of their sentence.
“I felt betrayed,” Desiree Andrade told me.
Her son’s case was one of thousands that, in the waning weeks of 2020, were suddenly, inexplicably downgraded. The stories of justice denied, and the rage and heartbreak of mothers and fathers like Desiree Andrade, combined with a rise in violent crime, ignited a firestorm across the city. In December 2021, angry Angelenos, including Andrade, launched a recall campaign against Gascon.
The campaign has reeled in more than 500,000 signatures. If it gets the 566,857 it needs by July 6, voters will decide come November whether to fire the D.A. (Given that organizers recently mailed out 3.6 million more petitions, including return envelopes, that seems likely.)
The revolt—as was the case in San Francisco, with the campaign against Chesa Boudin, another uber-progressive prosecutor—is coming from inside the house, too.
In February, the prosecutors’ union, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, conducted a vote to see where its members stood on the recall: Nearly 98 percent supported it. Last week’s recall of Boudin gave the anti-Gascon organizers a major boost. “Everyone is talking about it in the office,” a prosecutor said. “Literally everyone.”
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To a person, these prosecutors said that the problem was that Gascon had portrayed himself on the campaign trail as a progressive, and they thought that was a lie. They thought that he was captive to a radical agenda; that he wanted to blow the whole place up; that Black Lives Matter was now in charge of the criminal-justice system in Los Angeles; and that all of this was hurting the people the activists claimed to care about the most. They meant people of color, mostly Latino, some black, mostly confined to the east side of the city. The people who lived next to the freeway overpasses, between strip malls and empty lots and homeless encampments, whose kids had spent most of the past two years at home, who were always fending off disaster, who lived among the gang members and drug dealers and the dealers of illegal guns and car thieves and armed robbers. The people who needed them.
Gascon didn’t see it that way, of course. He imagined himself a man of the future—forward-looking, free of the old assumptions about cops and prosecutors and the meaning of criminal justice. “I have instituted a series of reforms based on data and science that will enhance safety while reducing racial disparities and the misuse of incarceration,” he said in March 2021, while reflecting on his first few months in office. “Our efforts to transform a dated approach that creates more crime, victims and inequities are just beginning.”
Like most politicians, Gascon was fond of telling his personal story—he’d been born in Cuba, he’d been a cop in L.A., he’d run the Mesa, Arizona, police department, and then Gavin Newsom, who was then the mayor of San Francisco, had made him the police chief there, and then Newsom had given him Kamala Harris’ old job, San Francisco D.A. He liked to talk about how all of this had made him the man he was, how it had instilled in him the values of social justice. “I grew up in a family that was dissident before the Cuban revolution, that was supporting the revolution,” Gascon said on the campaign trail, in October 2020. “When the revolution turned out to be a dictatorship, then they became political dissidents again.”
What that leaves out is that Gascon, like other progressive prosecutors around the country, had caught a killer, 30-foot wave in the summer of 2020. “I think that it was something that helped Gascon get elected, but I don’t have any confidence that that’s who Gascon is,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now runs Loyola Marymount University’s Project for the Innocent, which seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. “I think that’s the big question: do we know who Gascon is?”
John Lewin, a deputy D.A. who has been in the Major Crimes Division for nearly two decades, said: “What happened is the D.A.’s Office was taken over by somebody who, in my opinion, has no interest in prosecuting criminals.” Another longtime deputy D.A. who voted for Gascon and has since revised his opinion told me: “Voters expect their district attorney to protect the public. Instead, they got a Trojan horse—a D.A. and his coterie of radicals and sycophants who are hellbent on blowing up the criminal-justice system in the name of ‘progress.’”
The recall and all the energy behind it aren’t just about Gascon, prosecutors told me.
It was about all the right-thinking people who had backed him—George Soros; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Bernie Sanders; Elizabeth Warren; and, of course, Patrisse Cullors, the BLM co-founder who had piloted the movement into a successful house-hunting enterprise—and it was about the moment that birthed him. With the tailored suits and the retro sunglasses, Gascon was radical chic. He was cool. Hollywood had been in love with him. (“Jackie Lacey is so out of step with right now,” a Democratic bundler told me a few months before Gascon’s election, referring to the black, female incumbent D.A., whom Gascon defeated.) Gascon was the antidote to over-incarceration and George Floyd. He was the prosecutor who didn’t like prosecutors—like the other Soros-backed D.A.s who had recently taken office: Boudin; Larry Krasner, in Philadelphia; and Kim Foxx, in Chicago. Like other “reform-minded” prosecutors, as The New York Times put it, in Austin, Orlando, Columbus and beyond.
Eric Siddall, a deputy D.A. and the vice president of the prosecutors’ union, said no one had ever thought that much about the district attorney before. There was a system, and sometimes it moved a little in one direction or another, but it always basically worked the same way, and now it seemed to be imploding in slow motion. “It’s never been as politicized as it has been by George Gascon or Chesa Boudin or Larry Krassner or Kim Foxx,” Siddall said.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” said Richard Doyle, who used to run the D.A.’s Compton branch. “I don’t think the voters understood how radical the changes were that he was proposing. I think that allowed him to sneak in the back door.”
The paradigm shift began exactly two minutes after Gascon’s swearing-in. That was when a mass email, signed by Gascon, went out to the approximately 1,100 prosecutors in the D.A.’s Office announcing the new directives—on the death penalty (he was against it), bail (ditto), juveniles (he didn’t want them tried as adults, even for violent crimes) and so on.
The new D.A. wanted fewer people behind bars. Fewer people arrested. Shorter sentences. And he wanted to revisit those sentences he deemed unjust. Which was a lot of sentences.
The rank and file were shocked. There had been no warning or consultation. The new directives, they said, made it harder for them to do their job. And some of the directives seemed to violate the law: Earlier this month, the California Second District Court of Appeal ruled that the directive barring enhancements violated California’s 1994 Three Strikes sentencing law.
Kathleen Cady, who retired in 2019, after 31 years as a deputy D.A., told me: “Gascon’s blanket policies do not allow for any individualized discretion on the part of experienced prosecutors, who know their job is seeking justice.” ”
In the mass email, Gascon also announced a new mission statement. Moving forward, the D.A.’s Office would advance “an effective, ethical and racially equitable system of justice.” He called the office “a learning organization that believes in reduced incarceration.”
“In Gascon’s and his supporters’ twisted view, it is the offenders committing the violent crime who they consider to be the victims,” John Lewin, the deputy D.A., said. “They draw no distinction between those individuals who are committing the violence and those individuals who are having the violence committed upon them.”
Gascon assured prosecutors that decarceration would lead to lower recidivism rates and that the data backed him up. Prosecutors, including many who called themselves liberal Democrats, were skeptical.
It didn’t help that Gascon’s inner circle mostly included former public defenders who thought the D.A.’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department were shot through with systemic racism—who basically assumed the deputy D.A.s, many of whom were black or Latino, were enthusiastic enforcers of or, at best, cogs in the prison industrial complex.
One of those former public defenders, Tiffiny Blacknell, who was now Gascon’s community and government affairs liaison, had been especially vocal. On her Instagram, Blacknell, who is black, had posted a picture of herself in a t-shirt that said, “THE POLICE ARE TRAINED TO KILL US,” and another photo of herself in a shirt that said, “THEY CAN’T KILL US ALL.”
The true believers carrying water for Gascon seemed to imagine themselves doing battle with a white gerontocracy—stiff, staid, backward-looking prosecutors who just did not get it. “They think we’re dinosaurs and we’re standing in the way of change,” a deputy D.A. told me.
“Without even knowing us, he basically spelled out that we were an office of systematic racism,” added deputy D.A. Maria Ramirez. Ramirez is suing the D.A.’s Office for demoting her for, she claims, refusing to toe the party line.
The change could be felt across the county.
Richard Doyle, the head of the Compton branch office, was directed by one of Gascon’s lieutenants, Mario Trujillo, to drop felony charges against three BLM protesters who had dragged a metal barricade onto some metro tracks, threatening to derail a train full of passengers. When Doyle protested, he was slapped with a “letter of reprimand” and later transferred to the Environmental Crimes Division. (Trujillo did not reply to requests for comment.)
All but the most serious juvenile crimes were to be treated with much greater leniency. “Let’s say a 17-year-old carjacks you and shoots you in the leg as I get away,” a prosecutor told me. “I have to file grand theft of a car—not carjacking, great bodily injury or the use of the gun.” The difference was a few months in juvenile detention versus several years in prison. “Deputy D.A.s are being forced to make up charges that don’t correlate to the facts of the crime,” he said.
Then there was the Resentencing Unit.
Starting in early 2021, Diana Teran, a former public defender who was now a special advisor to Gascon, spearheaded the dismantling of the old Three Strikes Resentencing Unit and the creation of a new much more ambitious Resentencing Unit.
Pre-Gascon, the Three Strikes Resentencing Unit comprised five or six prosecutors, and each prosecutor would juggle about 30 cases, prosecutors with extensive knowledge of the unit said. Each year, 20 to 25 inmates would be resentenced, they estimated.
The goal of the new Resentencing Unit, by contrast, was to expedite the release of as many as 20,000 inmates, according to remarks made by Gascon in May 2021.
“They’re going out of their way to help violent offenders,” said veteran deputy D.A. John Colello.
Prosecutors said they’d been told not to tell judges, during resentencing hearings, that inmates had been among the first in the state to get the Covid vaccine. That would make it harder to argue that keeping them in overcrowded “cages,” as the D.A. put it, increased the odds they’d get sick—that not releasing them early might endanger their lives.
John Lewin, from the Major Crimes Division, said: “Society is not served when we have two defense attorneys in the courtroom. There needs to be a prosecutor representing the interests of victims and the public.”
Prosecutors knew all the things defense attorneys and civil libertarians have been saying about them for decades—that prosecutors almost always win trial cases; that most cases never go to trial because defendants plead guilty; that it’s easy for prosecutors to corner defendants, especially poor, black or Latino defendants, into pleading guilty.
“They have all the resources of the state. They have a law firm with a thousand prosecutors in it,” a prominent defense attorney in Los Angeles told me. She laughed. “It’s amusing to hear the woe is me mantra of prosecutors, because you hope for a level playing field, but that’s rarely the case.”
Kimberly Richman, a criminologist at the University of San Francisco, said some of the Gascon policy changes made sense—for example, not trying juveniles as adults, which tends to make career criminals out of troubled kids. Gang enhancements, as Tiffany Blacknell had noted on her Instagram, do tend to increase racial disparities in prison, Richman said.
Phil Stirling, the lead prosecutor on the Andrade case, pointed out what pretty much everyone in the city’s rougher neighborhoods already knew: “Ninety-nine percent of the victims of gang murders and gang rapes and gang robberies and gang beat downs are minorites—black and brown people,” he said. “That’s what’s crazy about this whole racist prison bullshit.”
But that “racist prison bullshit” has had a profound and negative impact. Since Gascon took office, roughly 300 deputy D.A.s have left. On top of that, job applications are down. The D.A.’s Office usually hires every two to three years, and it gets about 2,000 applications each hiring season. This year, 240 people applied for 60 spots, a longtime deputy D.A. told me. “And you should see who these people are,” he said. “It’s people who no one else will hire.”
In February, the D.A. restored some “enhancements”—including murder in the commission of a kidnapping, which meant that Stirling could now pursue life without parole for the three main defendants in the Andrade case. It was a nod to outraged families across the county.
But the political damage had been done. Steve Cooley, the former Los Angeles D.A. who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of seeking his old job, said: “I think that the phenomenon of the progressive D.A.s—I think that, in a year, other jurisdictions are going to arrive at the conclusion they don’t want this,” he said. “It will no longer be a viable movement.” It wasn’t just the Boudin recall, or Pennsylvania Republicans trying to impeach Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia D.A. It was other elections and offices, too, in New York, Buffalo, Seattle, and North Carolina and Kentucky. In last week’s L.A. mayoral primary, developer and Republican-turned-Democrat Rick Caruso, who donated $50,000 to the anti-Gascon recall campaign, led Congresswoman Karen Bass, 41 to 39 percent. (The two are headed to a runoff in November.)
It’s not that the longtime prosecutors didn’t think the system needs reform. Most of the prosecutors are open to change. “There is criminal justice reform that needs to be done, and I agree that we locked up too many people, and there’s a mental-health crisis and a drug crisis,” Richard Doyle, the former head of the Compton branch, told me. Recently, the D.A.’s Office paid Doyle $800,000 to make Doyle—and the grievance complaint he filed in response to his letter of reprimand and transfer—go away.
“I’m not anti-reform,” he said. “I’m anti-Gascon.”