Kary Antholis:

On today’s podcast we present part three of an exclusive three-part conversation with Eric Siddall vice president of the ADDA the professional association for Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles county. You can find part one of my interview with Eric here. And you can find part two here.

Kary Antholis:

Relative to other developed countries, our sentences are much longer and our penal philosophy seems to be that victim’s rights to a large degree equals retribution. Rehabilitation is given relatively short shrift compared to other developed countries. We’ve ended up in a place where we have 5% of the world population and nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners, and the vast majority of those folks are black men. Do you think prosecutors have a role in addressing these systemic issues and how do you see the prosecutors?

Eric Siddall:

Well, in the United States we have thousands of prosecutor officers across the entire country. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has been one of the most progressive offices if you look at our history over the past 30 years, especially over the past 20 years in terms of how we look at incarceration and who should be incarcerated than other counties throughout the country. The people who are going to commit violent acts against people, I think those are the proper people to put into the prison system. And if you look at how our office has dealt with three strikes in particular since the year 2000, our office has been pretty consistent in that we wanted only violent or serious offenders in prison because of three strikes. That has been primarily our focus. The other counties throughout, for example, even California until the state law changed and the state law changed basically using the LA model. Other counties all throughout the state were following a mid 1990s mentality of lock as many people up as you can under the three strikes rule, even people with nonviolent offenses.

Eric Siddall:

So if your third offense was a nonviolent or non serious felony, every other county in California was implementing a policy of charging that as a third strike. In terms of incarceration, I think we need to focus on the real problem people within a community, the people who are causing most of the violent acts. I think that’s one of the problems that we’ve had in terms of this incarceration problem is that we’ve, as a country as a whole, we’ve been putting nonviolent offenders in prison for a substantial amount of time. That being said, I think that long and strong sentences against people who are violent is important. I think we have to protect the victims, protect the community and our state constitution mandates that we protect the victims’ rights. That’s been something that’s been a part of our constitution since the early 1980s.

Eric Siddall:

So do I think we focus too much on the side of the victim? No. I don’t. I think it’s very easy to kind of ignore the victim once you leave the street level, but you have to remember that on the street level, it’s the victim who’s actually getting victimized. It’s not fair that someone just because they’re smaller or they’re weaker or that they don’t have the right weapons gets targeted on a street level and we need to make sure that people are protected. One of the primary duties of government is to protect its people. I don’t think we need to make any apologies for our focus on victims’ rights.

Kary Antholis:

Let me refine the question a bit. For non-homicide violent crimes, the United States tends to sentence those perpetrators much more harshly with far longer sentences than other developed countries. Why do you think that is and do you think that we overly focus on retribution and penalty and under-focus on rehabilitation and preparation for life after release?

Eric Siddall:

I think in order to look at a country’s value system, you can’t just look at how they sentence non homicides because I think the homicide also tell you something. In Norway, you get what? 21-23 years, whether you kill one person or 75 people. No matter how well orchestrated the plan is, you’ll get sentenced to a number in the low twenties in Norway. So yes, compared to countries like Norway and a lot of other Western European countries, we have harsher sentences. In fact, actually California has harsher sentences and Alabama does in terms of violent crime. But I think that’s where you want the harsh sentences. You want the harsh sentences on the people who are carjacking people, robbing people, burglarizing them while you’re in your house, torturing people, committing acts of mayhem, drive by shootings that don’t result in deaths. That’s where you would want to penalize people and make sure that those people are in prison for a very long time.

Eric Siddall:

Do we focus on incarceration too much as a nation when it comes to nonviolent offenses? Well, it depends. Somehow if you commit a white collar crime in the United States, it doesn’t seem like you get sent to prison at all. Right? Very few white collar criminals get sent to prison. So in that sense, I don’t think we incarcerate enough people in terms of those types of crimes either. They should be incarcerated for longer periods of time, especially when they steal massive amount of money and cause real damage to a lot of families. I’m not sure that using a European model of sentencing is effective or even using an Alabama model for sentencing is effective. You use a gun? You should go to prison for a very long time. Most murders are caused by gun violence. In terms of who’s affected; if you look in California, incarceration rates for African Americans are much higher than any other group in terms of the proportionality.

Eric Siddall:

Well, there’s also a disproportionate amount of victims who are black who are killed. Since the mid 1990s, the life expectancy of African Americans in this country has increased dramatically because of lower homicide rates. I think a sociologist that’s at Princeton University did a study on this and it was 0.7 years or something like that, of life expectancy increased directly because of lower homicide rates within the black community. That’s a huge gain that I think is often overlooked. There’s a lot of people who come from the black community who are put in prison, but if you look at the victims, most of those victims come from communities of color. There’s very few murders happening in Pacific Palisades or Brentwood. There’s a lot more murders that are happening in Watts and in Hispanic portions of the San Fernando Valley, so let’s not forget about where our victims come from as well.

Kary Antholis:

Last week, I received a group email from Michael Romano who runs the Three Strikes program up at Stanford law school and I’m going to read, in essence, what was in that email. I don’t imagine you’re familiar with the case, but the reason I’m reading it is to ask about a larger question that is pointed to in the email. In the piece, it talks about the recent release of James Washington and Pablo Garcia, “both of whom served almost 25 years for crimes which if prosecuted today, would result in no more than misdemeanors and fewer than 40 days in county jail. After fighting against their release for over seven years, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office changes position last week and conceded that our petitions for James and Pablo should be granted.”

Kary Antholis:

“Both men should be released immediately and that their crimes should be reclassified as misdemeanors pursuant to prop 47. Up to this point, prosecutors had argued that our clients should remain in prison for life and that they remained a grave danger to public safety.” Pablo was convicted of stealing a bag of clothes worth $180 from a car in a mall parking lot in 1996, and James was convicted in 1996 for stealing a stereo worth $200 from a Montgomery Ward store. Why would the DA’s office fight so hard for seven years only to turn around and agree to a release?

Eric Siddall:

I don’t know anything about the case, so I don’t think I could add anything helpful to that. I just know nothing the case at all. Where do these two cases come from? Which DA’s office?

Kary Antholis:

It just says the Los Angeles district attorney’s office in the email. I’ve also heard that the DA’s office routinely objects to department of corrections petitions to re-sentence. Have you ever been involved with or ever considered a department of corrections petition to re-sentence and can you describe the dynamics there?

Eric Siddall:

It depends on what the petition is for. Sometimes they feel that there are sentencing errors. That’s really the only time I’ve ever encountered a CDCR petition is if they see that there’s a sentencing error they want the quarter re-examine it. So I really don’t have that much experience with that particular issue.

Kary Antholis:

One other thing about those two previous cases that I just mentioned. In the email, the DA’s office made no reference to COVID, so it wasn’t part of a COVID related change of heart. Perhaps, you can talk about how prosecutors review crimes that should be reclassified as misdemeanors pursuant to prop 47.

Eric Siddall:

Yeah, that’s something I haven’t had to do. So I don’t have any real experience to be able to comment on that.

Kary Antholis:

I’d like to give you an opportunity to assess the upcoming November District Attorney election and tell me a bit about your experience of working for Jackie Lacey and your assessment of George Gascón. Your understanding of his work as district attorney in San Francisco and your assessment of him as a candidate for district attorney in Los Angeles and your assessment of his work in the Los Angeles Police Department when he worked here.

Eric Siddall:

Jackie Lacey is a career prosecutor. She’s a subject matter expert that has been a prosecutor. She’s gone through all the different grades and levels of experience that you have to have. She’s done all of that. One of the things I like about her and the administration that she has is that I feel that her deputies are given enough discretion so that we can do the right thing when we want to fight for a defendant and try to get him or generally him, because 90% of our defendants are men, a better deal. And a more fair  deal.

Eric Siddall:

This goes back to the thing with Judge Mader. I had a murder case not too long ago where I advocated for having a defendant’s gun enhancement stricken. So, that he got 25 years less in prison for that. We worked with the family of the victim, got them on board, re-called him from state prison and I thought we did the right thing and the victim’s family I think, thinks we did the right thing. The judge felt we did the right thing. And I think that defense attorney certainly thinks we did the right thing.

Eric Siddall:

And in fact, I know, that the defendant thinks we did the right thing because he actually recently wrote me a letter about it. So I think that our office has always had a very strong progressive bent. And I think that has been something that has been instilled in a lot of deputy DAs. And I never had any problems asking a supervisor to do the right thing. And like we did with this guy who committed murder, getting his sentence reduced an additional 25 years.

Eric Siddall:

So one of the things I appreciate about her as a DA is that she understands the job, she understands our mission, she understands how evidence functions, how it works and because of that she knew how to run the office properly. One of the things I find a little disconcerting about Mr. Gascón is that he’s never tried a case and gives this baloney answer about how if you run an airline, you don’t have to be a pilot to be able to run an airline. Well, we’re really not running an airline or any other types of industry.

Eric Siddall:

This is a very particular type of job and unlike other jobs, our only one job is to always do justice. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to evaluate a case and how you’re supposed to have any judgements about doing justice unless you’ve been a prosecutor before and it’s kind of frightening that he just doesn’t get that.

Eric Siddall:

I think one of the things that has been really interesting about this whole COVID crisis is that people are once again really starting to respect expertise and Gascón is not an expert on how cases are prosecuted. He’s just not. He’d never had to do it and I don’t think he really gets it. I don’t think he understands our job and he’s just not fit to be DA. I had to tell you, I was really struck in your interview with Gascón when he talked about internal terrorists.

Kary Antholis:

Internal terrorists?

Eric Siddall:

Yeah. I think you were talking about-

Kary Antholis:

I know exactly what part of the interview you’re talking about and when he was talking about working in San Francisco and his approach to working in LA.

Eric Siddall:

Yeah, I think you were asking about the fact that there’s civil service protection. He said, something like either those people will leave or they’ll act as internal terrorists and I know how to deal with both of those types of people. I was like, “Wow. That is just…” It was kind of shocking to hear that.

Kary Antholis:

I didn’t find it shocking because I can imagine, he’s a reform oriented administrator and particularly if someone’s a real old school hard-ass conservative and they’re going to try to undermine his policies using the term terrorist is probably a bit stronger than I might use, but I can understand the perspective. It’s what people deal with in bureaucracies all the time. I imagine the President uses even stronger words than that.

Eric Siddall:

I know, I guess that’s the problem. One of the reasons why we have these types of civil service protection is that you want these professionals running things and you want continuity and you want people to be able to exercise judgment. And the kind of thinking that if everyone’s judgment is not in align with yours is that somehow they’re insurgents that’s part of the deep state, it’s troubling when someone starts using that type of language. It’s irresponsible. That’s why Trump is irresponsible, because he doesn’t have respect for the civil servants who work in government or the press. You’re not a terrorist just because you oppose someone.

Kary Antholis:

At one of the early debates during the primary, a young woman who worked in Loyola’s innocence project asked a question about the Conviction Review Unit and the 20 some odd cases that Loyola has brought before it and the unit’s relative inaction. I think that perhaps one case has been reviewed and reversed based on the research put forward. Do you have any familiarity with the Conviction Review Unit and can you speak to the District Attorney’s office and their approach to that unit?

Eric Siddall:

I have some familiarity with it. I think that they’ve actually reversed about three cases. I actually don’t know how many they have reviewed but I know they have reviewed quite a few cases. When we do an investigation, and I have some familiarity in terms of watching how the Innocence Project has done some of their investigations, they don’t engage in the same type of rigor that I think that we do. From what I saw in Innocence Project cases, they didn’t record any of their interviews.

Eric Siddall:

In all their interviews, it was a report that was generated, but it was from the perspective of the investigator. There were no recordings. And I think that there is serious rigor that’s involved in the Conviction Review Unit and I think that they’re getting in a lot of cases and reviewing them and also it has to do with the fact that I don’t think there’s that many mistakes that we make, but you know there are those and some of them have been found. I’m sure there are others.

Eric Siddall:

The latest case that they reversed, I don’t think that that case was actually presented by the Innocence Project. I think that case, if I remember correctly, was the defendant who is an inmate contacted our office directly and eventually we asked the court to appoint him a lawyer and the court appointed him a bar panel lawyer. I think that bar panel lawyer had almost nothing to do with the investigation that eventually showed that the guy had a strong alibi and we eventually had him released. I don’t know if that helps answer that question, but I know in that case, for example, no defense lawyer had anything to do with the actual investigation that led to the defendant being released.

Kary Antholis:

One last question, Eric, and again, thank you for your time. In a recent letter to the LA Times responding to a critical editorial, Jackie Lacey boasted that, “Implementation of the zero bail order resulted in 212 inmates being added to a list of 800 inmates we had previously agreed could be released. We implemented a similar measure for juveniles. In no small part due to our actions, our jails have done a better job of controlling the coronavirus than most public institutions in the country. In six weeks, the jail population went from 17,000 to 11,900. Crime is down.” Also, we’ve seen a more hands off approach to community policing around the country including in LA with arrests down as police officers are wary of coming into close contact with potential vectors for the illness. Is there a lesson in this for how we make decisions about law enforcement and incarceration in the future after the pandemic passes?

Eric Siddall:

No, Because I think it’s kind of a unique moment. Actually, I think that the LAPD is reporting that violent crime is starting to creep up recently. But generally what we saw at the very beginning of the pandemic, that crime rates were going to lower, murder rates were going lower, crime across the board was lower and we were releasing people. Well, of course crime is going to go lower when you basically have a mandatory stay at home order where you can’t go out of your house. I think that was one of the primary reasons why we saw lower crime rates. I don’t think there’s any causal relationship between releasing inmates from county jail on zero bail and lower crime rates. I think the causal link is that people were ordered to stay home.

Kary Antholis:

Eric, is there anything else that you wanted to either ask me or communicate to whoever listens to these podcasts about your work, about the work of the district attorney’s office or the District Attorney’s Association that you haven’t had a chance to do?

Eric Siddall:

You know, I think there’s, and this kind of goes to what we were talking about in the very beginning, I think there’s a misconception that a prosecutor’s job is just a seek a conviction and that’s about it. I’m not saying that there are not people who are like that. I’m sure there are, and I think they’re extremely dangerous. You know, our job really is to seek justice and make sure that the right thing happens on all sides.

Eric Siddall:

And sometimes, for example, we talk to victims and the victim wants this guy to go away for the rest of his life and it’s not the right thing to do. So we push back what the victim wants because retribution is a part of the Criminal Justice System, but it’s not the whole thing. And I think to be a good prosecutor, and I think that we have a lot of very good prosecutors and great prosecutors in our office, you have to take into consideration many factors. You have to take into consideration the evidence against the defendant, the situation that the defendant was in. You have to look at what he did to the victim. You have to look at what the victim wants, and then you kind of have to look at the overall strength of the case and you take all of that together and hopefully you get to the right result.

Eric Siddall:

But it really is one of those professions that really does rely upon experience and judgment and a true desire to seek justice and do the right thing. And I think that’s often overlooked in terms of what we do. You know, defense attorneys, and again, my father was a defense lawyer my mom was a defense lawyer… They’re an extremely important element in our system because we want to make sure that our system has the checks and balances and they’re there to make sure prosecutors do the job that they’re supposed to do.

Eric Siddall:

And they’re there to make sure that the police do the job that they’re supposed to do. But their primary job, the way we get to that result, where they’re checking us on our work, their job is simply to fight for their client. It’s not about justice. It’s not about seeking the right results. It’s about fighting for their client’s self-interest. And through that, through this adversarial system, through them fighting for their clients self-interest.

Eric Siddall:

We hopefully get to the result where they’re checking our work and making sure we’re doing the right thing as well. But our members are out there trying to protect the community in an ethical way that balances all these other competing interests and eventually try to get the right result. And the other beautiful thing in terms about how this district attorney’s office works, not every procedural office works the same way, but people can always appeal even within our own office.

Eric Siddall:

So if someone doesn’t, for example, like an offer I’m giving to a defendant, they can go to my boss and they can go and appeal to my boss’s boss. And you can appeal all the way up to the District Attorney. And so, that’s the way that our office functions. It allows multiple eyes to look at the same type of case to make sure that the deputy DA, who’s out on the line is making the offer, is being fair and consistent with the overall position that the office takes for a certain type of crime. And I think that’s something that’s often overlooked or just totally misunderstood when people are talking about how the Los Angeles County DA’s office functions.

Kary Antholis:

Eric, I really appreciate your time.

Eric Siddall:

Thank you. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk about what we do and how we serve the public.

END OF INTERVIEW