Five of six candidates running for Los Angeles County district attorney squared off Wednesday at a forum hosted by The Times, with several outlining visions for the office that go beyond imprisoning hardened criminals to include reform of the justice system.
The candidates' forum — the first attended by City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who leads the pack in fundraising — saw barbs traded over government transparency, prosecutor morale and whether California should end capital punishment.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers, who offered the clearest break with the current D.A. administration, said she supports a November ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Meyers, who prosecuted four death row inmates, decried how long it takes the state to execute offenders.
One of the worst days of her life, she said, involved telling the mother of a child who was raped, tortured and murdered in 1990 that she would have to relive what had happened again in a new trial after an appeals court overturned the convicted man's sentence.
The girl's mother "knew that in her lifetime she would not see the person who killed her 11-year-old daughter executed," Meyers said. "The system can't be reformed."
The other four candidates who attended the forum — John L. Breault III, Alan Jackson, Jackie Lacey and Trutanich — said they believe execution is an appropriate punishment for particularly heinous killings. Bobby Grace, who could not attend because he was trying a death penalty case, has also expressed support for the November ballot measure, saying he believes the current system does not work.
Lacey, the chief deputy D.A., accused Meyers of grandstanding, saying she had written memos asking the office for permission to seek death in a recent case but was rebuffed.
"When you're writing those memos … why doesn't the thought of reform occur to you then?" Lacey asked.
Lacey, who until recently had kept a relatively low profile in the campaign, was the most combative candidate, directing her fire at Meyers and Trutanich. She questioned the morale of prosecutors in the city attorney's office and how much of an open government advocate Trutanich has been. She reminded the audience that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office criticized the city attorney for advising the city's Fire Department against releasing data that would show how long it took to respond to emergencies.
"I recall that one being one big old mess," Lacey said.
Trutanich said the issue involved patient privacy, not response times. "What the public will get with me is someone who understands the issues before they comment," he shot back.
The city attorney also defended his record of running the office he has headed since 2009, saying he has managed to avoid layoffs despite seeing millions of dollars cut from his budget. "My employees are as happy as they can be in this dire circumstance," Trutanich said.
The six candidates are vying to run the most powerful office in the county's criminal justice system — one responsible for prosecuting roughly 60,000 felony cases a year, including murders, rapes and robberies. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the June 5 primary, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
Trutanich said California's fiscal crisis means the next D.A. must emphasize crime prevention rather than pursue the state's current philosophy of locking offenders away at a cost of billions of dollars.
"We as the prosecutors of the future have to be looking at it in terms of our budgets, how do we accomplish more for less," he said.
Before Wednesday's event, The Times solicited questions from readers. Among the suggestions was one for Trutanich, who is running despite pledging during the 2009 city attorney's race that he would not seek higher office until he had served two terms with the city. The question: "If you win, how soon will you start running for California attorney general?"
"I'm making no pledges," Trutanich replied.
Jackson and Breault, the only Republican candidates in the nonpartisan race, stayed largely out of the fray and said politics should be kept out of the office.
Jackson, assistant head of the D.A.'s major crimes division, said he would prioritize modernizing the office and voiced support for alternative sentencing courts, which emphasize rehabilitation over incarceration. "We're never going to handcuff our way out of the crime problem," he said.