District attorney candidates, from left: John L. Breault III, Bobby Grace,…
It is the most powerful job in Los Angeles County's criminal justice system, a position that oversees the prosecution of 60,000 felons each year and can provide a steppingstone to higher office.
Six candidates are vying to become district attorney in next week's election, hoping to succeed Steve Cooley, who is retiring after three terms.
June 5 marks the first district attorney's election without an incumbent since 1964. Back then, voters had a choice of three white men. Today's group of candidates illustrates the changes that have taken place in the county's legal community in the last half century.
Three African Americans — Bobby Grace, Jackie Lacey and Danette Meyers — are hoping to make history in a county that has never elected a black district attorney, with two of them also aiming to become the first woman to hold the post.
To win outright, a candidate must garner more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
Whoever wins the nonpartisan race will face daunting challenges in running the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation. California's justice system is undergoing its most radical overhaul in more than three decades. The state, under a court order to reduce its prison population, is shifting the burden of housing and monitoring thousands of inmates to local counties, which are also struggling with overcrowded jails and underfunded budgets.
The candidates, in alphabetical order, are:
John L. Breault III
With 43 years as a deputy district attorney, Breault, 69, is the longest-serving prosecutor in the office.
He was born in Burbank and raised in Tehachapi, where his mother worked as an executive secretary to the superintendent of the town's state prison and his father was an engineer for a cement-making company. After graduating from Loyola University, he went to Georgetown University Law Center before joining the district attorney's office in 1969.
Breault spent most of his career in downtown and the Westside, prosecuting murderers, rapists and other felons. Among them was serial killer Patrick Wayne Kearney, the "Trash Bag Murderer," who in the 1970s dumped the dismembered remains of victims in large trash bags. Today, Breault oversees which charges are filed at the office's Downey branch.
Breault, a registered Republican, would seek funding for programs that educate children about avoiding a life of crime but says the next district attorney must be realistic about the chance of finding money for such initiatives. Prosecutors, he said, should focus on their core mission of providing justice in the courtroom and leave rehabilitation to probation and other county departments.
Breault said he would put more faith in line-level prosecutors who know cases best rather than have supervisors second-guess decisions. That would also apply to three-strikes cases, and he said he would end the office's current policy, which generally seeks life prison sentences only if a third strike involves a serious or violent crime. Prosecutors, he said, should decide when to seek the maximum sentence.
Breault said he would lead by example by trying cases himself while serving as district attorney in the hope that other managers would follow suit. He supports keeping the death penalty for the worst murderers.
With a soft-spoken but clinical courtroom manner, Grace, 51, has won convictions against some of L.A. County's worst criminals.
Grace grew up in San Bernardino, where he was a standout high school tailback, and dreamed of turning pro until his father, an Air Force hospital administrator, advised him that he was too short and light to make football a career. While he ran track at UCLA, Grace put aside his athletic ambitions and focused on political activism, working to successfully persuade UCLA and then the University of California system to withdraw their investments from apartheid-era South Africa.
Grace joined the district attorney's office as a law clerk in 1986 while attending Loyola Law School and became a prosecutor two years later. He worked stints in the family violence and hard-core gang divisions before landing in the major crimes division, one of the office's most elite units.
Grace, a registered Democrat, calls for more alternative sentencing and rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism among low-level offenders and free up space behind bars for the most violent and serious criminals. Among his proposals is partnering with schools and community programs to help, rather than punish, chronic truants by addressing why they are missing school.