Senator Kamala Harris, the much-hyped Democratic presidential candidate who announced her decision to run for President today, was just walloped from the left for her stints as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General.
But do these searing criticisms in the New York Times Thursday that she fostered wrongful convictions and opposed new DNA testing for a death row inmate trying to prove his innocence spell trouble for Harris among the Democratic Party’s liberal base now that she’s seeking the nomination?
In an opinion piece titled “Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor’” Loyola Law School professor Lara Bazelon tries to poke holes in the Senator’s persona.
“With the growing recognition that prosecutors hold the keys to a fairer criminal justice system, the term ‘progressive prosecutor’ has almost become trendy. This is how Senator Kamala Harris of California, a likely presidential candidate and a former prosecutor, describes herself.
“But she’s not.
“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Harris served as San Francisco District Attorney General from 2004 to 2011.
Bazelon recounts criticism Harris faced in 2010 for “withholding information about a police laboratory technician who had been accused of “intentionally sabotaging” her work and stealing drugs from the lab. After a memo surfaced showing that Ms. Harris’ deputies knew about the technician’s wrongdoing and recent conviction, but failed to alert defense lawyers, a judge condemned Ms. Harris’ indifference to the systematic violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights.
“Ms. Harris contested the ruling by arguing that the judge, whose husband was a defense attorney and had spoken publicly about the importance of disclosing evidence, had a conflict of interest. Ms. Harris lost. More than 600 cases handled by the corrupt technician were dismissed.”
Supported law that would harm ‘low-income people of color’
Also, as San Francisco DA, Bazelon complains, Harris pushed legislation allowing for the prosecution of parents of continually truant elementary school kids even though the law “would disproportionately affect low-income people of color.”
Harris served as California Attorney General from 2011 until becoming a senator in January 2017 and was was similarly “regressive” in that state prosecutorial post, Bazelon argues.
“When a federal judge in Orange County ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 2014, Ms. Harris appealed. In a public statement, she made the bizarre argument that the decision “undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.” (The approximately 740 men and women awaiting execution in California might disagree).
She also opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings by police officers.
But “worst of all” for Bazelon is how Harris handled wrongful conviction cases.
She cites the saga of George Gage, “an electrician with no criminal record who was charged in 1999 with sexually abusing his stepdaughter, who reported the allegations years later. The case largely hinged on the stepdaughter’s testimony and Mr. Gage was convicted.
“Afterward, the judge discovered that the prosecutor had unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, including medical reports indicating that the stepdaughter had been repeatedly untruthful with law enforcement.”
“In 2015, when the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Ms. Harris’ prosecutors defended the conviction. They pointed out that Mr. Gage, while forced to act as his own lawyer, had not properly raised the legal issue in the lower court, as the law required.
“The appellate judges acknowledged this impediment and sent the case to mediation, a clear signal for Ms. Harris to dismiss the case. When she refused to budge, the court upheld the conviction on that technicality.”
Gage remains incarcerated.
His case “is not an outlier,” Bazelon emphasizes, in her carefully argued piece.
“Ms. Harris also fought to keep Daniel Larsen in prison on a 28-year-to-life sentence for possession of a concealed weapon even though his trial lawyer was incompetent and there was compelling evidence of his innocence. Relying on a technicality again, Ms. Harris argued that Mr. Larsen failed to raise his legal arguments in a timely fashion. (This time, she lost.)
“She also defended Johnny Baca’s conviction for murder even though judges found a prosecutor presented false testimony at the trial. She relented only after a video of the oral argument received national attention and embarrassed her office.”
“And then there’s Kevin Cooper, the death row inmate whose trial was infected by racism and corruption. He sought advanced DNA testing to prove his innocence, but Ms. Harris opposed it. (After The New York Times’s exposé of the case went viral, she reversed her position.)
Professor turns Senator’s book against her
Bazelon then uses Harris’s own words in her new book against her.
“In ‘The Truths We Hold,’ Ms. Harris’s recently published memoir, she writes: ‘America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice.’”
“She adds, ‘I know this history well — of innocent men framed, of charges brought against people without sufficient evidence, of prosecutors hiding information that would exonerate defendants, of the disproportionate application of the law.’”
But, says Bazelon, “All too often, she was on the wrong side of that history.”
So “if Kamala Harris wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past.
“A good first step would be to apologize to the wrongfully convicted people she has fought to keep in prison and to do what she can to make sure they get justice. She should start with George Gage.”
Politicians, of course, issue these kind of mea culpas to assuage voters. But Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan told the California Globe that Harris’s record as a prosecutor is unlikely to cause her any serious problems among Democratic base voters because she is such an appealing candidate.
“The base won’t hold this against her because this [criminal justice] isn’t a litmus test issue,” he explained via email. “For all of the move to the left by the Dems in 2020, Progressives want to defeat Trump more than anything. Her fresh face and compelling biography, the sizzle of her appeal to the base across other issues, notably immigration, the changing face of America, as a strong contrast to the Trump Administration – all provide an opportunity to reach out to the Party Base.”