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What Did Super Tuesday Mean For Criminal Justice?

Incumbent District Attorneys faced challenges from reform candidates in California and Texas

David McNew / Getty Images

As polls closed yesterday evening, it quickly became clear that Democratic primary voters have effectively narrowed the field of candidates to two: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Voters in the primaries still to come now have a clear choice to make, given the distance between Biden’s and Sanders’s positions, including on issues related to criminal justice. (It is worth remembering, however, as Sarah Lustbader pointed out yesterday in the Daily Appeal that, despite President Trump’s attempt to present himself as a criminal justice reformer, any of the Democrats would be far better than Trump.) Meanwhile, Mike Bloomberg, who as mayor of New York presided over an explosion of stop-and-frisk policing that targeted Black and Latinx residents, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to win a single primary, in American Samoa, and announced today that he is dropping out of the race.

Yesterday’s elections were never only about the presidential race, though. As Daniel Nichanian documented last week for The Appeal: Political Report and has been tracking since results starting come in yesterday, there were enormously consequential down-ballot races as well. And the states that represented the two biggest prizes on the Super Tuesday map—California and Texas—were also the sites of important down-ballot elections.

In California, where it will take days, if not weeks, to assess the scale of a Sanders victory, the local action centered on Los Angeles. Voters faced two important choices related to criminal justice. The first was for district attorney. The incumbent, Jackie Lacey, has been assailed for policies seen as discriminatory and unjust: her pursuit of the death penalty (Los Angeles County sent more people to death row than any other county in California and all 22 people sentenced to death during Lacey’s time in office have been Black, Latinx, or Asian American); her refusal to prosecute police officers who have shot civilians (the county has the nation’s highest number of police shootings); and her opposition to bail reform, as well as marijuana legalization, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57. On Monday, the day before the primary, Lacey’s husband greeted unarmed protesters at his door by pointing a gun at them.

Two candidates challenged Lacey, promising to take the DA’s office and the county in a new direction if elected. The first was George Gascón, who introduced a range of reforms during his time as San Francisco DA and vowed to do the same, and more, in LA. Gascón, who had already announced he would not be seeking re-election in San Francisco, stepped down in October, shortly before Chesa Boudin was elected district attorney. The other challenger was Rachel Rossi who, like Boudin in San Francisco, offered voters the chance to support a public defender seeking to transform the DA’s office.

The outcome in Los Angeles remains uncertain. As of early this morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lacey was in the lead. But as ballots continue to stream in, Lacey is hovering just above the 50 percent of votes she needs to win outright. If she falls below that threshold, she will face the second-place candidate (who at the moment appears  to be Gascón) in a run off.

On a second important issue, there was overwhelming support in LA County for Measure R, a ballot measure that, as Nichanian wrote last week, would “direct a local commission to design a plan to reduce the jail population, and invest instead in community services, especially for mental health, substance use, and homelessness.”

In Texas, where Biden had a surprise victory over Sanders, the picture for reform DA candidates was mixed. Harris County, home to Houston, and Travis County, home to Austin, went in different directions, Jay Willis reported for the Appeal. In Harris County, incumbent District Attorney Kim Ogg won the Democratic primary, despite repeatedly disappointing progressives who had originally supported her. In Travis County, however, challenger Jose Garza, a former public defender, won 44 percent of the vote to incumbent Margaret Moore’s 41 percent. The run-off between them will take place in May.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing pieces of election-related news came not from the ballot box but from a federal court. In Mays v. Larose, the Sixth Circuit of Appeals issued a decision, reversing the district court below, finding that Ohio does not have an obligation to enable voting from jail for people arrested just prior to an election. The case was brought by Campaign Legal Center, Dēmos and the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of Tommy Ray Mays II, Quinton Nelson Sr., and all late-jailed voters in Ohio in 2018, alleging violations of the First and 14th Amendments. Despite state policies that enable voting for people hospitalized immediately before an election and similarly unable to request absentee ballots before the deadline, the state had not accommodated people in jail.

Finally, some of yesterday’s most hopeful news did not pertain to elections or voting at all: In Chicago, a federal jury awarded over $5 million in damages to Stanley Wrice, a survivor of police torture. Wrice spent three decades in prison after being convicted of gang rape before he was exonerated and released in 2013. He maintained at his 1983 trial and since then that the confession introduced at trial was the product of torture. Specifically, he alleged that detectives, working under Chicago’s notorious police commander, Jon Burge, had brutalized him and forced a false confession out of him. He was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Wrice, like so many of the victims of Burge’s torture regime, went to prison for years before the truth emerged.

The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that, “After an eight-day trial, the jury deliberated for about seven hours before finding in favor of Stanley Wrice on claims that detectives John Byrne and Peter Dignan violated his constitutional rights when they beat him with a flashlight and length of rubber hose in the basement of the Area 2 police headquarters.” The jury ordered $4 million in compensatory damages from the city and that Byrne and Dignan each pay $600,000 in punitive damages.

Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was elected in 2019, the city of Chicago chose to fight the case through trial. Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office, which represented many of those who had suffered at the hands of Burge and fought for justice for survivors, said that the verdict ended “a disgraceful chapter in the annals of the city’s defense of the indefensible.”

The city is likely to appeal the verdict and postpone payment of the award. But Wrice’s lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, told the Tribune that the verdict “sends a message” to the Lightfoot administration. “For Mr. Wrice, just having a jury come back and say, ‘We believe you. We believe this happened to you in the basement of Area 2. We believe that Byrne and Dignan did this’ … is the most unbelievable feeling, because he’s been called a liar for so many years,” she said.