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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Gilbert Garcetti : In the Hot Seat as L.A. District Attorney

March 13, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox 11 News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He interviewed Gilbert Garcetti at Fox TV studios in Hollywood.

When you are a big-city district attorney, winning the high-profile cases is very important. Losing them often means losing the next election.

In Los Angeles, the district attorney's office has had difficulty with highly publicized trials, failing to get expected convictions in such celebrated cases as "Twilight Zone," McMartin Pre-School, Rodney G. King, Reginald O. Denny and Lyle and Erik Menendez.

No one is more aware of this than the man who currently sits in the D.A.'s office. At 52, Gilbert L. Garcetti is a career prosecutor with a quarter century of experience. In his first year as Los Angeles County's chief crime fighter, he's seen his troops fail to get tough convictions in the Denny case and face a hung jury in the Menendez trial. But Garcetti doesn't think some sort of "big-case curse" haunts his office.

Garcetti, son of Mexican immigrants, was born in South-Central Los Angeles. After getting his undergraduate degree at USC on a scholarship, he earned his law degree at UCLA in 1967. He joined the D.A.'s office after taking a year to work on Democrat Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign. By the late 1970s, he was directing the D.A.'s Special Investigations Unit. Then he got sick.

Garcetti was diagnosed with lymphoma. His hair fell out during treatment--and was gray when it grew back. But he beat the cancer, and in 1984, when Ira Reiner was elected D.A., he made Garcetti his chief deputy. Reiner eventually demoted his deputy in a feud that resulted in Garcetti unseating his boss in 1992.

There must be days when Garcetti wonders if it was worth it. County budget cuts have made it impossible to hire enough lawyers and support staff to handle an ever-increasing caseload. His lead prosecutor in the Menendez murder trial, Pamela Bozanich, had to learn to use a word-processing program to type her own briefs, because she was told there was no money to hire a secretary. And the new "three strikes you're out" bill signed into law last week, mandating life sentences on the third felony conviction, means public defenders may demand trials for their clients rather than accepting plea bargains. Garcetti, who opposed the bill, says it will make his job even tougher.

Yet, Garcetti seems game for the challenge. The father of a daughter in law school and a son who is a Rhodes scholar, he says he's determined to make Los Angeles a place his kids are proud to call home. In a late-night interview after a flight back from Washington, Garcetti appeared tired, but not weary.


Question: What about this problem of not winning the high-profile cases? Why is it so hard to get a guilty verdict when the spotlight is on?

Answer: I don't think it is. If you look at our effort over a 10-year period, the ones that didn't come out the way we thought they should is a very small amount. People name five big cases we lost. But we've had tremendous successes in big cases. The Charles Keating case, The Night Stalker case. I don't buy that we can't make the big case. I have been D.A. now for 14 months. I'm very proud of the effort all our lawyers have made on the so-called "high-profile" cases.

Q: What did you learn from the deadlock in the Menendez trial?

A: First is the importance of being able to directly question prospective jurors. When you have a juror who is, at best, misleading when answering a key question on a questionnaire, and we can't examine that juror, it puts us behind the eight ball in a way the defense can never be put. The defense only needs one juror. We need all 12.

The second lesson has to do with emotion. We made a conscious decision about how the trial lawyers would handle the case. And obviously, the emotion generated by the defense convinced, or at least swayed, some jurors to the defense version of the evidence and the law. We have to appreciate and understand that there are many people who are swayed by emotion, and not necessarily by the cold facts and the law.

Q: Everybody in this state has budget problems these days--how have cuts affected your department, and the way you prosecute cases?

A: The Board of Supervisors cut us $12.6 million and that's on top of an $11-million cut the year before. We're short on lawyers to prosecute crimes and we're short on investigators who can get the information we need to make the cases. Probably, right now, there are lawyers going out, late at night, looking for witnesses themselves, because we don't have the investigators to do it. I am down by 108 lawyers when you look at who handles street crime. We used to have between 240 to 260 investigators--now we're down to 185 or 190. So, even though I want to handle worker's compensation fraud, and environmental crime, and home-equity fraud scams and a whole variety of other crimes, if I am forced to prioritize, then I have to put the resources into violent crime.

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