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D.A. candidate Jackie Lacey looks to move up

May 11, 2012|By Robert Greene
  • Jackie Lacey, chief deputy to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, is running to succeed him.
Jackie Lacey, chief deputy to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, is running to succeed… (Los Angeles Times )

In an office of 1,000 trial lawyers, many of whom can be temperamental and self-centered, Jackie Lacey looks and acts like the adult in the room. It’s her best asset as a candidate. Is it also her worst liability?

Lacey, 55, is the chief deputy to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, and her task in the campaign to succeed him is to demonstrate that she has an agenda, a style and a mind of her own. Like Cooley, though, she has a low-key personality. She exhibits a certain gravitas — but also a lack, on first glance, of passion. She finds herself patiently reiterating that, yes, she really does want the top job and really is prepared to put her own stamp on it. That could make her a better district attorney than one of her more hard-charging trial-lawyer opponents such as Alan Jackson, Bobby Grace and Danette Meyers or the best-known contender, Carmen Trutanich. But it also makes it more difficult for her to stand out as a candidate.

“The skill set you take into the courtroom to convict a serial killer isn’t going to work at the management level,” Lacey said. “And many people don’t understand. They crash and burn. They come in kicking down doors. A leader is making different decisions.”

VIDEO: D.A. candidates discuss their positions on realignment and the death penalty

Los Angeles County has had experience with district attorneys who were at first embraced by the public but later crashed and burned. Ira Reiner moved through offices quickly, first as Los Angeles city controller, then as city attorney, then in the 1980s as district attorney. He had a talent for knowing the public's emotional state, and responding to it — sometimes with fiery statements about locking up gang members or prosecuting politicians. But by the time he ran for attorney general, the public had grown weary of him and blamed him for the McMartin preschool fiasco. He was seeking reelection as district attorney in 1992 when the four police officers accused in the Rodney King beating were acquitted and the city erupted. He came in second in his June primary, then dropped out without facing the general election.

Gil Garcetti was media savvy but his image suffered after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson and the squabbling between him and Police Chief Bernard Parks during the Rampart police scandal. He lost his reelection effort to Cooley in 2000.

Cooley demonstrated a rare ability to keep a low profile without looking like he was hiding. But it’s not clear whether that style will work for someone else, especially now that California faces a sweeping revamp of the way it delivers and administers criminal justice. Under the policy change known as realignment, counties must take on the task of incarcerating and supervising many felons who formerly went to state prison. The next district attorney of Los Angeles County will play a lead role in developing and articulating policies that will determine whether smart, cost-effective alternative sentencing practices lead to rehabilitation — or instead to dangerous criminals being released, unsupervised, into the community. The job will require someone who can be an outspoken public advocate without becoming a media hound; a calm and reassuring presence without being a shrinking violet.

Lacey is one of six candidates being considered by the Times editorial board for an endorsement. This blog post and others like it are part of our process of thinking through the decision.

Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district and attended Dorsey High School, the daughter of African American transplants from Georgia and Texas. Her parents made clear that church and education were not optional. She was the first member of her family to go to college — a distinction she shares with a majority of this year’s D.A. candidates. After graduating from UC Irvine, she got a scholarship to USC law school and from there went to the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, where she tried misdemeanor cases. After a year she went to the district attorney’s office and prosecuted nuisance crimes for cities under contract with the D.A. Then more serious crimes. She tried about 60 felony jury trials, including 11 murder cases. She sent one person to death row.

One of her most memorable cases came when she was assigned to Lancaster in the mid-1990s. People she described as neo-Nazis decided to murder a minority, saw a homeless African American man at a McDonald's, followed him to a vacant lot and beat him to death. They celebrated by getting tattoos.

Lacey prosecuted three simultaneous cases in front of three different juries and secured the convictions. It would be a big deal for any prosecutor, but was especially so for the daughter of African Americans who left the South decades ago for a better life in California.

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