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D.A. candidates seem to contrast but have much in common

Alan Jackson is an Air Force veteran from Texas, and Jackie Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district. Both support the death penalty but favor expanding prevention programs and alternative sentencing.

November 01, 2012|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles' district attorney candidates Alan Jackson, left, and Jackie Lacey have hardworking, blue-collar family backgrounds.
Los Angeles' district attorney candidates Alan Jackson, left, and… (Los Angeles Times )

The two candidates vying to head the largest local prosecutorial office in the nation as Los Angeles County's next district attorney are in many ways a study in opposites.

Alan Jackson, 47, assistant head of the district attorney's major crimes unit, is a white, male Republican and a Texas-raised Air Force veteran who once dreamed of being a fighter pilot. He has a penchant for sports cars and a flair for the limelight.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, 55, is a Democrat and would be the first woman and first African American to hold the office. Soft-spoken and low-key, she once planned to be a grade school teacher.

Yet the two sprang from similar backgrounds, raised by hardworking, blue collar parents with little formal education.

Jackson was born into a military family in Indiana and bounced from one Air Force base to another before his parents divorced. His mother, armed only with "a high school education and the grit of a Southern woman," as Jackson put it, took her two sons and moved to Austin, where she went to work at a Catholic church and later for Xerox. Her income left little for luxuries.

"Anything I or my brother wanted, we worked for," Jackson said. "There were no handouts."

Among the things he worked for — as a bus boy at a local restaurant and as a Coca-Cola delivery route helper — was his first car, a beat-up 1974 Pontiac Grand Prix that cost about $500. It was a far cry from the cars he would own later in life — Corvettes, a Porsche, a Nissan 350z convertible and a 1969 Oldsmobile 442.

The Grand Prix "might very well be the top front-runner for the ugliest car ever made, but it was all mine," Jackson said.

After high school, he joined the Air Force, where he worked on jet engines. But his less-than-perfect vision made being a pilot impossible, so, rather than reenlist, he went to college and then to law school at Pepperdine University.

There, he was accepted into the elite trial advocacy course taught by former prosecutor Harry Caldwell.

"He had a lot of charisma and stage presence," Caldwell said. "… I think he wanted to be the very best prosecutor he could possibly be."

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Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Her mother, Addie Phillips, was the oldest of 14 children in a poor family in Georgia. At 17, she moved to Los Angeles.

Lacey's mother worked in the garment district and later for the school district, eventually becoming a teacher's assistant. Lacey's father, who died four years ago, worked for the city's lot cleaning division.

The icons of the civil rights era loomed large in Lacey childhood home. She and her sister grew up surrounded by pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

"We instilled those Martin Luther King values in her," Addie Phillips said.

Church was mandatory. Lacey met her future husband, David Lacey, singing in the Trinity Baptist Church choir while she was in high school.

The Phillipses were determined that their children would go to college and saved enough money to send Lacey to UC Irvine. She planned to become a teacher, but a stint in a preschool one summer changed her mind. In search of another offering to fill out her course load, she enrolled in a law class.

She was inspired by guest speaker Irma Brown, a young black attorney who would later become a judge in Inglewood.

"Listening to her talk … I thought, 'I could be a lawyer, I could do what this woman does,' " Lacey said.

She won a scholarship to USC's law school, married and gave birth to her first child, returning to class two weeks later to graduate on time.

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Jackson went to work for the district attorney's office soon after law school and moved through several assignments before landing in the hard-core gang unit in Compton.

The prosecutors there often put in 12- to 14-hour days, sometimes juggling as many as a dozen murder cases each.

In one case, a home invasion robber had fired a shotgun through a bathroom door at a terrified teenage girl — the blast so powerful it knocked her back through the glass shower. The girl died while on the line with a 911 operator. That recording was later played in court.

Her killer, Eugene Penesa, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Jackson said it was one of the cases that left him with a sense of the deep impacts violent crime has on communities.

"It's not just philosophical for me, it's personal," he said.

In 2004, Jackson went to the major crimes unit. His first high-profile case was the cold case murder of race car driver Mickey Thompson, who was gunned down along with his wife by two hooded gunmen in 1988. The prosecution won a conviction against Thompson's former business partner, Michael Goodwin, despite no crime scene evidence tying him to the killings.

Jackson went on to try other heavily publicized cases, including the two murder trials of music producer Phil Spector. John C. Taylor, an attorney for the family of victim Lana Clarkson, recalled Jackson's grace under pressure.

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