More than half a century ago, tens of thousands of African-Americans fled places like Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas and poured into South Los Angeles. Jackie Lacey’s parents were among them.
“My parents Addie and Louis came from the south," Lacey says. "They migrated here in the '50s to get away from racism.”
Her father cleaned vacant lots for the City of L.A. Her mother was a seamstress. Raised in L.A.'s Crenshaw District, Lacey was the first in her family to attend college, and graduated from USC Law School.
In 28 years as a prosecutor, one case stands out for Lacey. And it reeked of the racism her parents sought to escape. Lacey prosecuted the first hate crime murder in L.A. County — against two Nazi Lowriders who beat a homeless black man to death in 1995.
“I remember just always feeling on guard, always on edge, never really wanting my back to them," Lacey recalls. "Most criminals are foolish, or baffoonish. These men were evil."
Lacey rose through the ranks to become second in command of the D.A.’s office. She oversees day-to-day operations and is now competing for the top job against fellow prosecutor Alan Jackson, who’s remained in the courtroom for 17 years.
“I’m not a manager. I’m not an administrator. I’m not a bureaucrat," says Jackson, contrasting himself with Lacey.
Jackson was raised by a single mother in Texas, served as a mechanic in the U.S. Air Force (because he didn't have good enough eyesight to fulfill his dream to be a fighter pilot), and graduated from Pepperdine Law School.
Lacey concedes that Jackson is one of the best trial lawyers in the office. He enjoys the limelight, handling cases like the murder trial of legendary music producer Phil Spector and appearing as an analyst on NBC’s “Unsolved Case Squad."
In a TV ad, the strikingly handsome Jackson strides through a courtroom, touting his experience
"I’m Alan Jackson and this is my office.”
Then he takes a shot at Lacey.
"Jackie Lacey is a good person. But she hasn’t tried a case in 13 years. She is a political appointee who was dishonest under oath to protect her boss.”
That last charge refers to Lacey’s testimony during a labor grievance hearing three years ago in which she said the current D.A, Steve Cooley, “strongly disliked” unions. She later changed her testimony, blaming her original comment on a memory lapse caused by low blood sugar. Lacey has dismissed the incident as a minor mistake.
Lacey and Jackson agree on many issues — they support the death penalty; they want to beef up the environmental and cyber crime units in the nation’s largest local prosecutors office.
But the two differ on a key issue that offers insight into their approach to criminal justice. Jackson opposes Proposition 36, which would roll back California’s Three Strikes Law by issuing a life sentence only when a third offense is deemed serious or violent. Jackson says it would take away prosecutorial discretion.
“For instance, if you have two attempted murders, and your [third] offense is possession of a deadly weapon, we [would] have no choice but to give you a four-year sentence," he warns. "Those are the sort of cases that will fall through the cracks and it will subject the community to more harm.”
Lacey supports Prop 36, saying there are plenty of laws to adequately prosecute criminals. She says the Three Strikes law has sent some people to prison for too long.
“It is just really time for us to have an adult conversation, and prioritize," she says. "We can’t continue to incarcerate people – we can’t afford it – at the rate we’ve been doing.”
Lacey touts her work creating alternative sentencing courts for women, veterans and the mentally ill as efforts to address over-incarceration. She says those courts will also help the county handle an influx of state inmates under prison realignment.
Jackson says he too supports rehabilitation efforts, but also wants to ship county jail inmates to other states to avoid early releases.
While the race for district attorney is non-partisan, Jackson is a Republican backed by the GOP. Lacey is a Democrat supported by her party and — significantly — Cooley, a Republican. That’s helped her win key support from big police unions, and to raise money. She’s collected $1.1 million; Jackson's raised $750,000.
Lacey finished first in the June primary, with 32% of the vote, to Jackson’s 24%. This doesn’t mean Lacey, as an African-American woman, hasn’t had a hard time convincing some people she should be L.A.’s top prosecutor.
“I’ve had trouble with law enforcement because I don’t look like the traditional D.A.," she laments. "I’ve had difficulties convincing people I’m tough enough.”
Lacey argues she’s garnered the management experience Jackson lacks to be D.A.
Jackson counters that he knows the pressure of high profile cases, and is ready to lead.
“Anytime you are under the white hot spotlight of national media scrutiny, it’s a powder keg," he says. "It’s tough, but I don’t mind it. I can handle it. I’m good at it.”
Whoever wins will lead an office that prosecutes 60,000 felonies a year — from DUI’s to murder, committed by everyone from Joe Blow to Lindsay Lohan.