Kamala Harris’ prosecutor past threatens 2020 White House bid

January 31, 2019 GMT

When Sen. Kamala Harris seized the mantle of criminal justice reform in launching her 2020 Democratic presidential run, it bowled over Phelicia Jones, a prominent civil rights advocate in San Francisco.

When it comes to criminal justice, the freshman senator was more a part of the problem than the solution, Ms. Jones said, first during Ms. Harris’ stint as San Francisco’s district attorney, then during her 2011-2017 term as California attorney general.

“San Francisco has always incarcerated more black men than anywhere else [in the state] and it didn’t really change under her leadership. Now she wants to do criminal justice reform?” she said. “She never did say anything about the police brutality of African Americans and just the outright harassment and racial profiling of black and brown people here in San Francisco. Now those are huge issues.”


Ms. Harris’ tough-on-crime record, which is rife with cases in which she aggressively defended misconduct by her teams of prosecutors to get convictions, could be one of the biggest hurdles in her quest to lead a Democrat Party that has moved far to the left on racial and criminal justice issues.

The 54-year-old daughter of a Tamil Indian mother and Jamaican father, Ms. Harris has never made race or ethnicity a focus in her political campaigns, but being a black woman has already boosted her presidential bid.

She is an early favorite in a field that so far includes former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, though scores more are eyeing the race and no one has been seriously tested yet.

Ms. Harris staked her claim to a justice reform agenda in formally announcing her candidacy Sunday in front of City Hall in her hometown of Oakland, California.

“Let’s speak the truth that too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America. Too many black and brown Americans are locked up. From mass incarceration to cash bail to policing, our criminal justice system needs drastic repair. Let’s speak that truth,” she declared.

Longtime advocates for justice reform see another truth: Ms. Harris repeatedly opposed or kept mum on some of the most pressing liberal priorities for race and policing.

As San Fransisco district attorney, a post she held from 2004 to 2011, Ms. Harris championed a state law for prosecuting parents of habitually truant children, including stiff fines and possible jail time for the parents, who often are poor and minorities.


As California attorney general, she appealed a federal judge’s ruling in 2014 that the death penalty was unconstitutional, fought legislation in 2015 that would require her office to investigate officer-involved shootings, and opposed statewide use of body cameras for police officers.

Democratic Party leaders have looked the other way. When she ran for the Senate in 2016, she was endorsed by former President Barack Obama, Mrs. Warren and just about every other prominent Democrat.

Just over two years later, her bid for the White House is earning cheers from liberal groups.

“Black women have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and having a progressive trailblazer like Sen. Harris in this race will play a crucial role in ensuring our voices are heard loud and clear in this primary,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive officer of Democracy for America.

Pressed about Ms. Harris’ prosecutorial record, DFA spokesman Neil Sroka said the primary process would sort it out.

“The question for Democratic primary voters shouldn’t be whether or not a candidate is perfect, but whether they’ve recognized their flaws, taken responsibility for their missteps, and seized the opportunity the primary presents to demonstrate their earnest commitment to running and governing closer to our progressive ideals,” he said.

Democrat strategist Brand Bannon said that even if Ms. Harris’ law-and-order past is a problem with some progressives, it would be a plus in the general election matchup against what he called “an ethics-plagued” President Trump.

“Besides, she has a progressive voting record in the Senate. She supports health care for all and the Green New Deal. She has many advantages in the nomination fight,” he said. “She is a top-tier Democratic candidate.”

Ms. Jones said she wants Ms. Harris to explain what’s on her criminal justice agenda. She invited the candidate to address the black and low-income residents in San Francisco’s Bayview community, where she lives.

She added that Ms. Harris didn’t visit the neighborhood during her 2016 Senate campaign.

“I’m an activist for black and brown communities and I just feel that when constituents call upon politicians, politicians should have the decency and the courtesy to go to constituents and stop ignoring us, especially in the black community where most politicians want our vote but they do not want to come into our community,” Ms. Jones said.

Lara Bazelon, a law professor and director of University of San Francisco’s Racial Justice Clinic, said in a recent New York Times op-ed that most troubling in Ms. Harris’ record is her repeated efforts to uphold wrongful convictions won through official misconduct.

Ms. Harris has been involved in a long list of cases tainted by evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors:

⦁ In 2010, she was found to have intentionally withheld information about wrongdoing by a police drug lab technician accused of sabotaging tests and stealing drugs. A judge scolded her for indifference to systemic violation of defendants’ constitutional rights.

⦁ She successfully fought an attempt to overturn the conviction of George Gage for sexually abusing his stepdaughter, despite revelations that the prosecutor unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, such as medical reports that showed the stepdaughter repeatedly lied to police and was described by her mother as “a pathological liar.”

⦁ She fought to keep Daniel Larsen in prison on a 28-year-to-life sentence for possession of a concealed weapon even though his defense lawyer was incompetent and there was compelling evidence of his innocence.

⦁ Ms. Harris defended Johnny Baca’s conviction for murder despite judges determining that the prosecutor presented false testimony at trial. She relented only after a video of the oral argument garnered embarrassing national attention.

⦁ She moved to stop death row inmate Kevin Copper, whose trial was marred by racism and misconduct, from getting a DNA test to prove his innocence. She did not reverse course until a newspaper drew national attention to the case.

At a CNN town hall event Monday, Ms. Harris batted away a question about her hard-charging prosecutions, saying she fought on behalf of victims and put rapists, child molesters and murders behind bars.

Mrs. Harris claimed to be a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.

“I have also worked my entire career to reform the criminal justice system, understanding, to your point, that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair,” she said.

Her accomplishments on that front, she said, included implementing implicit bias and procedural justice training for police officers; creating an “Open Justice” data system to make public deaths in custody statistics and arrest rates by race; and creating one of the first re-entry programs to provide inmates with jobs, training and counseling.

The senator deserves credit for her accomplishments, including correcting the backlog in rape test kits in California, said Ms. Bazelon.

“But 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,” she wrote in the op-ed. “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.”