One-On-One with Jackie Lacey
Jackie Lacey, who is running for district attorney to replace Steve Cooley in June, was born February 27, 1957, in Los Angeles. She graduated from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles and received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at UC Irvine. She received her J.D. from USC in 1982. I interviewed her at the California Club in downtown Los Angeles.
Tony: What made you think you wanted to be a lawyer?
Jackie: I took a class called Introduction to the Study of Law. The class required you to go into a courtroom one day a week in Santa Anna, and sit and observe and write a paper. I found myself so interested in what was happening in the courthouse that I realized that this was someplace I wanted to work for the rest of my life. I enjoy the simple theater of not knowing what is going to come out of a witness’s mouth, or the judges, and the whole dynamic of the courtroom.
T: How did you decide you wanted to be a prosecutor?
J: When I graduated I worked at a small firm and I was very bored by depositions. I couldn’t understand why lawyers would ask so many questions so many different ways. A friend of mine said to come over to the Santa Monica city attorney’s office because they were hiring. Then I became hooked by putting on my own trials, with persuading the jury, and helping victims and working with witnesses and police officers. I sort of stumbled into what I believe is my life’s calling.
T: How did you join the DA’s office?
J: The Santa Monica city attorney’s office only did misdemeanor cases and I wanted more challenging cases. I wanted to do felonies, so I applied and joined the DA’s office in 1986. I worked my way up through the chairs and I’m now the number two after 26 years.
T: Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
J: There have been many but certainly District Attorney Steve Cooley has been a big influence. He was the first mentor I had in the office that said, “I’m going to give you a chance. I’m going to give you opportunities and certain cases,” as he did with a lot of us who were under his watch. There are cases that are routine cases and then there are cases that are what I call career-making cases. Sometimes you will see a head deputy or supervisor give his or her favorite lawyer all of the important career-making cases. Steve’s position when he got in was that he took all his cases back and reassigned them so that everybody had a chance to prove themselves as a good trial lawyer. For someone like me who, at times, can be somewhat reluctant to brag on myself and to self promote, it was extremely helpful. I think because I was not a self promoter and because I did not brag a lot of what I did, I don’t think I got the opportunities that I would’ve gotten before Steve Cooley came along. There is one other person who has influenced my moral compass and that’s John Asari, who is a legend. He was very big on teaching young prosecutors to do the right thing no matter what. His message was, “Look, if the case isn’t there you have an ethical duty to dismiss it.” Those times that I spent listening to him have really influenced who I am today as a prosecutor. I’m tough in terms of violent crimes, but am always fair and measured and calm at the end of the day in terms of making rational decisions.
T: So it’s not a win at all costs proposition?
J: No, and it shouldn’t be.
T: Yes, but it happens.
J: Of course it does. I always feel like, how would I like to be treated if, God forbid, I were in that situation? You want to be held accountable, but you don’t want someone who is unfair, who hides evidence, who misuses the power that they have just in order to say, “I got a conviction.”
T: So have you dismissed cases just because you are convinced they were not guilty?
J: Yes. But most of my big cases have been well investigated and I was convinced that the person was guilty of the charges.
T: What was your most important case?
J: My most important case was a hate crime murder case that I tried. Back in the ‘90s there was a group of Nazi low-riders, young men and women who were trying to revive a lot of the racial violence of the past. They had a desire to elevate their status in the group. In order to do that, they had to kill a minority. So right around Thanksgiving they were in a McDonald’s and there was a homeless African-American man, Milton Walker, 46 years old, addicted to drugs, out on the street, no family. He got into an argument with another woman, who was also homeless. That caught their attention. They followed him after the argument and into a vacant lot and they literally beat him to death with objects they found on the ground, a 2 x 4 and a tire iron. They did it in order to earn the rights to get a lightning bolt tattoo. They were young, in their 20s. The crime was particularly cruel and vicious. It was a difficult case because they all made statements. We had to have three separate juries. So instead of one group, I actually had to argue to three different groups of 12 people for the same crime.
T: That must have been hard.
J: It was hard. You had to make sure you didn’t bring in statements from another defendant into that jury trial. I tried it in front of a famous judge, Lance Ito, and we got convictions in all three of those cases, and it was the first time in LA County history that anybody had been tried and convicted under the hate crime statute. It was a challenge. There was no second chair at all. I was all by myself.
T: Steve Cooley is a Republican and you’re a Democrat. How does politics get involved?
J: That’s true, but the race is a nonpartisan race. The district attorney ought to be nonpartisan, particularly when you’re talking about running a public integrity unit. Corruption can come in all different sizes and all different political parties. The last thing you want is for someone to claim that you’re going after me because I’m from the opposite political party. I’m a Democrat and he’s a Republican, but for the last 12 years, our management team has been made up with people from both political parties. And we work very well together because the mission is always the same: What is the right thing to do here? Not: What is the politically expedient thing to do?
T: He is supporting you over another Republican who is running.
J: He is supporting me over a Republican who’s running, over a Republican turned declined to state friend. I think that’s huge. I’m very proud to have his support. He’s had an opportunity to watch me work. When you know him you know that he doesn’t say things lightly. He’s measured. He could choose to stay out of this. He’s retiring; he could choose not to endorse anyone. But he cares so much about the mission of the office and we have worked together so successfully that he’s chosen to step out there and work to help get me elected.
T: Have you done any polling?
T: So you don’t know how you’re doing?
J: No idea.
T: Do you have any organization?
J: I have a campaign team. I have a day-to-day manager, a fundraiser, and volunteers.
T: Are you going to do anything differently if you get elected?
J: First of all, I think the district attorney has done a great job. He’s been nonpolitical. Crime rates are at a 16 year low. He’s been courageous in a lot of the changes that he’s made. The challenges for me will be different. I will build a lot on what he’s already done. The district attorney really hasn’t had to deal with what we believe will be the lasting effects of realignment and A.B. 109, the shift of local prisoners to state prison. That is a sea change in our criminal justice system. What I would like to do is to expand the use of what are called alternative sentencing courts. That would mean we would put many people on probation who are suffering from drug addiction or alcohol related behavior or mental illness. I think that’s the way to go if we’re going to be dealing effectively with A.B. 109.
T: Has there ever been a person of color or a woman as district attorney?
J: Never. I’ll be the first.
T: So you’re groundbreaking two things. Has that been a problem?
J: It hasn’t been a problem. It’s been a big footnote to the election. This is the first time that a woman or a person of color has even had a chance to be elected district attorney. But more important, I happen to be the best qualified. I happen to be the only candidate who has had oversight over hard-core gangs, major narcotics, sex crimes, our juvenile justice system, all of these different things. I’m the only candidate who has ever successfully supervised more than a handful of people. Most of the people running have only supervised, at the most, 10 or 12 people. In my first position I supervised 200 employees. In my second position, I had roughly the same amount of employees. In my third position I supervised 500, which is half of the office. In my current position 2,200 people report to me. I’m responsible that 2,200 people report to work every day and do what they’re supposed to do. No one who is running can say that they’ve had that responsibility and handled it successfully. I have for the last 12 years helped the man in charge of the largest district attorney’s office in America run it. The other people who are running have no idea what that’s like. Most of the people who are running are excellent trial lawyers who are trying to skip over to immediately administer this large office. The skills that you need to be a trial lawyer are very different. As a trial lawyer, you must be a gladiator. When you are talking about leading people, it is a different skill set. To take a trial lawyer and put them at the top of a leadership position is almost an experiment. Because what you’re banking on is that they will be as successful in one role as they have been in another without any training whatsoever.
T: One of your opponents vowed that he would not run for this office when he ran for city attorney.
J: He promised. And he’s breaking that promise. So my question for him and the voters and his supporters is, what makes you think he’ll keep the next promise he makes? This morning I was at a café called Aroma in Studio City. When I introduce myself to people and when I tell them what I’m running for and who I’m running against they say, “You know, I don’t like that guy. Isn’t that the guy who promised he wouldn’t run for anything?” And it was a big public promise; it was a signed pledge. It was videotaped. He made a big deal out of saying that his opponent was a politician, using that office as a stepping stone to what, the DA? It is, and then to so quickly, two years later, do the same thing? He hasn’t proven himself in his current position. He’s got a small criminal division. What have they done? What has his leadership done or accomplished within the purview of the criminal division?
T: Will you be as nonpartisan as Steve Cooley?