Together they have disproportionately targeted black defendants, tried juveniles as adults, condemned schoolchildren to prison, and let police get away with murder. And over the past year, they have lost their bids for reelection.
In a year with renewed attention on the corrosive and discriminatory effects of harsh sentencing, notorious, tough-on-crime local prosecutors are increasing being held accountable for perpetuating an overzealous style of law and order.
Until recently, these elections were battles of who could appear harsher on crime. The same hysteria over crime and illegal drugs that drove mass incarceration in the late 1980s and 1990s also created intense political pressure. Racially-charged fearmongering, exemplified by the infamous ‘Willie Horton’ ad that attacked presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for backing criminal rehabilitation, boosted scores of district attorneys and judges who promised to crack down and pursue the toughest sentences available.
But not anymore. In March, Chicago area prosecutor Anita Alvarez was voted out of office after she covered up the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and condemned the innocent. That same day, Tim McGinty, a Cleveland prosecutor who refused to charge Tamir Rice’s shooter, also lost reelection. And on Tuesday, Jacksonville, Florida state attorney Angela Corey was defeated in her primary after criminal justice advocates exposed her propensity to try juveniles as adults and to sentence defendants to die.
“This could be a sea change and might mean that prosecutors might become more accountable to the public.”
And those were just the most high-profile losses. Across the country, hard-line district attorneys are losing races that were once considered shoo-ins for incumbents.
“The era of tough-on-crime rhetoric is coming to a close as voters realize that overzealous prosecutors have abused their power for too long,” said law professor Daniel Medwed. “This could be a sea change and might mean that prosecutors might become more accountable to the public.”
As President Obama noted during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, these races are crucial for people who care about criminal justice reform.
“If you want more justice in the justice system, then we’ve all got to vote not just for a president, but for mayors, and sheriffs, and state’s attorneys and state legislators,” Obama said. “That’s where the criminal laws are made, and we’ve got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed. That’s how democracy works.”
Wealthy political donors are also realizing the importance of these races, turning their attention away from Congress and the presidency to pour money into local prosecutor elections. As Politico noted this week, billionaire financier George Soros has “channeled more than $3 million into seven local district-attorney campaigns in six states over the past year.”
It seems to be working. Already this election cycle, at least seven prosecutors have lost reelection after voters and activists turned up the pressure and raised questions about the effects of their aggressive prosecution and misconduct.
Here are five less-known prosecutors who have also lost reelections this year:
On Tuesday, metro Orlando area prosecutor Ashton lost his primary to Aramis Ayala, who will likely become the first black woman elected prosecutor in Florida. Soros’ super PAC poured almost $1.4 million into the previously low-budget race, according to Politico.
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Ashton gained national notoriety in 2011 when he failed to convict Casey Anthony for murdering her two-year-old daughter. But while serving the Orlando area, he more quietly made changes to the state attorney’s office that effected many Floridians.
After taking office in 2013, Ashton dismantled the dedicated domestic violence unit that had nine prosecutors handling only domestic violence cases, according to a local investigation. Now, all felony domestic violence cases — including sex crimes, child abuse, and elder abuse cases — are combined into the special victims unit, leaving far fewer resources for domestic violence victims. He also promised that he would add many victims’ advocates to the Domestic Violence Commission, but has only added one, leaving each with hundreds of cases to handle.
And as area public defenders pleaded with the city to rely on civil citations instead of arresting children, Ashton said that officers may still have to handcuff 10-year-old children because “there may occasionally be a case when law enforcement simply does not have a choice for the safety of the officer.”
As lead prosecutor, Ashton has also aggressively sought the death penalty, even after the U.S. Supreme Court found that Florida’s capital punishment protocol violates the Sixth Amendment.
On March 1st, tattooed defense attorney Mark Gonzalez beat incumbent Mark Skurka in the Democratic primary for Corpus Christi, Texas’s district attorney. Gonzalez claimed after his victory that “voters wanted a fresh change.”
During his six years in office, Skurka was criticized for frequently hiding evidence in child neglect and homicide cases and for overcharging people guilty of nonviolent offenses. Local defense attorneys claimed that Skurka’s office needlessly forced people into trial, costing the taxpayers large sums of money.
For example, in 2014, a local couple was found living out of their car on the beach with their children. Prosecutors charged the two with first degree child abuse and several lesser charges and the trial cost over $150,000 in attorney’s fees alone before both were sentenced to probation.
Skurka denied the allegations of overcharging. “We charge what the law allows. Period,” he told a local TV station.
Cox pulled out of the race for district attorney in Caddo Parrish, Louisiana before the November 2015 election, facing long odds to beat Republican challenger Dhu Thompson and eventual winner James Stewart.
Cox is most notorious for being one of the country’s most vocal supporters of the death penalty. He has “secured more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences over the last five years,” according to the New York Times. And last March, he told the Shreveport Times that capital punishment is primarily about revenge and that Louisiana should “kill more people.” In follow-up interviews, he has stood by that position.
The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should ‘Kill More People’www.nytimes.comCox has also brought that sentiment into the courtroom. During a 2015 death penalty trial, he seemingly lost his temper, saying, “I want to kill everyone in here. I want to cut their fucking throats…if any of them want to go outside we can do it right now.”
When he was not trying to sentence black defendants to die, Cox also used extremely racist language, calling Shreveport a “jungle” and defendants “savages.”
Though Joyce did not run for reelection for Circuit Attorney for St. Louis, her chosen successor lost in the Democratic primary on August 3rd. The winner, Kim Gardner, will be St. Louis’s first black head prosecutor.
Joyce and her attorneys have been criticized for making racially-motivated decisions, like when one of her prosecutors justified striking a black juror because he had dreadlocks.
“[He] has his hair in a very unique design of — I’m not sure if it’s called dreadlocks or — but it is a very precise and very individualistic hairstyle, and I would prefer not to have somebody who is individualistic on the jury,” the prosecutor said.
Last November, Allgood — a man the Washington Post called “one of America’s worst prosecutors” — lost his bid for reelection in Mississippi. Allgood has served in the district for more than 25 years. His challenger, Scott Colom, was just 32-years-old.
Perhaps most notably, Allgood prosecuted 13-year-old Tyler Edmonds, who had his murder conviction overturned after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a notorious medical examiner gave testimony unsupported by science.
That wasn’t the only murder conviction he secured that was later overturned. An appeals court found that he had committed misconduct when he told a jury that an 18-year-old mentally retarded woman’s failure to testify about murdering her infant son suggested her guilt.
“She was later released from prison when the medical examiner Allgood used at trial acknowledged that he’d made some mistakes and that the child likely died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or kidney disease,” the Post reported.