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Protests and LA County DA Race Call New Attention to the Role of Prosecutors

Protests and LA County DA Race Call New Attention to the Role of Prosecutors

An anonymous account, under the pseudonym of “Spooky Brown Esq.” surfaced on Twitter and Medium last month, alleging misconduct in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. The claims depict a general culture of racism, sexism, and abuses of power within the largest prosecutorial agency in the nation.

The author, a deputy district attorney in the DA’s office, wrote about instances in which police officers allegedly blocked evidence, misidentified suspects, and when superiors have ignored concerns over misconduct. On Oct. 26, after posting anonymously for three weeks, the prosecutor revealed his identity — his name is Adewale Oduye, a 12-year veteran of the DA’s office and graduate of Columbia University and the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

“My issue is when it comes to law enforcement, you know, there is sometimes a need or a desire to give them a pass and to me that is unacceptable,” Oduye, 41, said in an interview. “Everyone should be treated the same and if you lie, we should not be in the position where we are asked or required to cover it up.” 

Oduye’s criticisms and accusations come as Lacey faces a tough race for re-election against former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who touts himself as a progressive candidate favoring criminal justice reform. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (BLMLA) says Lacey has mishandled shootings by police and failed to prosecute those officers. 

In the March primary election, Lacey garnered 49% of votes while Gascón received just 28%. That was before protests erupted over the summer in response to police violence and a lack of accountability for law enforcement. 

The candidates faced off in three debates last month. Gascón consistently championed prosecutorial reform while Lacey took a more traditional approach, cautioning that major transformations could increase crime. Gascón has repeatedly said he would like to eliminate “gang enhancement,” which adds time to a prison sentence if the crime is associated with or benefits a gang, citing cases in which people have been wrongly identified as gang members. Lacey has defended gang enhancement and has said she trusts the process in which gang members are identified. 

Oduye said he was moved to speak out against Lacey after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, as well as what he saw as a lack of transparency in the handlings of those cases. Oduye said he recognized similar inaction in the LA DA’s office.

“They can decide what they charge, when to charge it. They can decide whether or not you get probation, whether you go to prison,” said Oduye. “They can decide whether you get a program, they can decide if you get the death penalty.”

In addition to mishandling cases around alleged police misconduct, Oduye also accused the DA’s office of discriminating against and ignoring sexual harassment of Black female employees. 

In an open letter to Lacey published Oct. 26, Oduye called on Lacey to protect such employees and cited a $950,000 settlement paid to senior DA investigator Regina Crenshaw last month. Crenshaw, a Black woman, sued the office claiming she was sexually harassed and discriminated against by a white supervisor.

“I was disappointed that you refused to comment on the horrible treatment she [Crenshaw] received in the Office that you lead,” wrote Oduye. “If you are going to use precious taxpayer dollars to settle allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment, one expects it would at least be paired with acknowledging the pain suffered by the victims and punishing the perpetrators who inflicted that pain.”

Lacey oversees the largest district attorney’s office in the nation, in a county that’s home to some 10 million people. The office employs nearly 1,000 deputy district attorneys, 300 district attorney investigators, 800 support staff members, and prosecutes over 70,000 felony cases and roughly 112,000 misdemeanor cases annually.

“Our job is about doing the right thing and sometimes that means not charging,” said Oduye. “That means if you feel that there’s evidence that might be out there that might exonerate someone, then you go the extra mile to get that evidence and information.”

Even as the office prosecutes LA residents, as DA, Lacey has failed to apply the law to police who kill on the job, says BLMLA organizer Megan Castillo. More than 900 people have been killed by police in LA County since 2000 according to a frequently updated database from the Los Angeles Times — nearly 80% were Black or Latino. 

“She is currently beholden to LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff and other police unions because they have poured so much money into her campaign and into her re-election,” said Castillo.

Law enforcement unions, most notably the Los Angeles Association for Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), have contributed close to $5 million to Lacey’s re-election campaign out of the nearly $7 million total. The majority of Gascón’s donations, totaling over $7 million, have come from wealthy individuals like mega-donor George Soros, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and his wife, Patty Quillin according to the Los Angeles Times. 

BLMLA does not officially endorse any political candidates but Oduye said the national movement has shone a spotlight on prosecutorial conduct and helped the public better understand the criminal justice system. 

Lacey and her supporters have criticized Gascón for being soft on crime. Lacey and Gascón starkly contrast on multiple issues including the death penalty which Gascón supports eliminating. Lacey has consistently supported it despite a 2019 moratorium on capital punishment put in place by Governor Gavin Newsom.

ALADS President Ron Hernandez wrote in an email that Lacey has a record as a reformer, citing the Conviction Review Unit Lacey formed in 2015. According to the DA’s office website, the unit has received nearly 2,000 wrongful conviction claims and has investigated 350 cases. Three people have been exonerated and one person had their sentence reduced. 

Oduye said he welcomes more scrutiny of the DA’s office and a greater demand for accountability and transparency.

“It’s all built on trust,” said Oduye. “If you trust that the DA is impartial, you may not agree with the decision, but if you believe that they did it in the right way and there’s transparency, you can accept the decision.”

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Patricia Wenskunas, president of Crime Survivors, a political action committee supporting Lacey, said Lacey can “balance the scales of justice.”

“She’s fair, she goes by the law, by the book and if someone is charged with a crime, obviously her job and her role is to make sure there is accountability and justice for the victims,” said Wenskunas.

Black Lives Matter activists push for prison reform and abolition in addition to combating police violence — these two issues are systemically intertwined, said Castillo. LA has become a centerpiece in the Black Lives Matter movement — nearly 240,000 people are held in prisons and jails in California according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative and some 22,000 are now held in LA county jails. The majority of cases prosecuted by the DA’s office are for non-violent crimes. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the imprisonment rate of Black men is 10 times that of white men.

“If in the cases that are nonviolent, and are drug-related, and you are looking to integrate people back into the community, then there are things that you could do short of sending people to prison and give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves and give them a chance to fix what they need to fix,” said Oduye.

 Attorney Carl Douglas recalled the “joy” he and others in the Black community felt when LA elected Lacey as the first Black woman to be district attorney in 2012. Douglas grew up in the Crenshaw District with Lacey, a community with a history of police brutality against Black people, and both attended Susan Miller Dorsey High School.

“I know her, I supported her eight years ago when she first ran for office. I supported her four years ago when she ran for re-election,” said Douglas. “I am an avid, staunch supporter of her opponent George Gascón.”

Douglas said his support for Lacey has waned as a result of what he says is her failure to address the wrongful conduct of police officers in LA Douglas represents BLMLA co-founder Melina Abdullah in a lawsuit against Lacey and her husband for assault, negligence, and infliction of emotional distress after David Lacey pointed a gun at Abdullah and other demonstrators outside the Lacey home in March. 

“There has been a wave of progressive district attorney politics sweeping across the country — Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, have all had progressive lawyers elected district attorneys in those communities,” said Douglas. “It’s time for that wave of progressiveness to also come to Los Angeles County.”

Oduye, who once supported Lacey, said whoever is elected DA in the Nov. 3 election has a monumental task of building trust in communities that have normally been distrustful of the criminal justice system. 

“It’s really important that we use this moment to imagine a better system,” said Oduye. “And as leaders of the community, as elected officials in the largest county in the largest state, population-wise, we should be able to do that.”

Oduye said he had thought about leaving his post as a prosecutor “probably every year that I’ve been in the office.” He stayed for 12 years, hoping to change the system from within, but drafted his letter of resignation Friday. 

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