The senator and former California attorney general who recently announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election faces real questions about her record as a prosecutor.
By S.T. Patrick
As the California attorney general sat across the room from accused assassin Sirhan Sirhan, she already knew her decision was final. As long as she was California’s top law enforcement officer, Sirhan would spend the remainder of his life in prison, no matter what new evidence eyewitnesses, forensic experts, and researchers brought to the table. The year was 2012 and Sirhan’s attorneys were once again making the case that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been killed by a second gunman, and Sirhan had been set up as a patsy by an offshoot of the CIA’s MK-Ultra program. Attorney General Kamala Harris responded in court filings soon thereafter.
“In sum, [Sirhan] cannot possibly show that no reasonable juror would have convicted him if a jury had considered his ‘new’ evidence and allegations, in light of the overwhelming evidence supporting the convictions and the available evidence thoroughly debunking [Sirhan’s] second-shooter and automaton theories,” said Attorney General Harris in a federal court filing.
Harris called Phillip Van Praag’s acoustic evidence “pure speculation” and said that even if there were a second shooter, Sirhan could still not prove his own innocence in the case.
Now a senator, Harris announced her candidacy for the presidential election of 2020. As she is attempting to ride the wave of youthful, progressive Democrats with big ideas and bigger personalities, even some Democrats are wondering who Harris really is in the grand scheme of the party.
Harris is definitely no stranger to prosecution and determining the long-term fates of individuals behind bars. But on this topic, as on others, Harris’s record is nothing less than confusing and contradictory.
Though she refused to execute one man on death row, Harris has never challenged the death penalty legally. In fact, she worked for years to keep it in place. A federal judge ruled California’s implementation of the death penalty was “unconstitutional.” Harris called that a “flawed” decision.
Though she criticized her opponent in the Senate race for “helping fuel America’s mass incarceration crisis by voting to send more kids to prison, build more prisons, and ratchet up mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes,” she has a record of being “tough on crime.” As San Francisco district attorney, she raised the prosecution rate of the office from 52% to 67% and noted in her own book that “getting smart on crime doesn’t mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes.”
Harris defended California’s draconian three-strikes law, the only one of its kind in the nation that triggers a life sentence for a third strike that was a minor felony. She opposed a ballot initiative that would have changed the law so that life sentences can only be triggered by serious or violent felonies. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Harris was California’s “top cop” and usually fell in line with other prosecutors.
Harris has shown stereotypically Democratic leanings on the basic issues. She is pro-choice, an environmental activist, anti-gun, anti-Bashar al-Assad (Syria), and a supporter of the DREAM Act.
While Harris is trying to be “the next Obama,” becoming the first African-American female president, she is facing serious questions from black community leaders, especially regarding her career as a prosecutor.
“These are not narrow, niche issues. In fact, many of them—criminal justice reform, drug legalization, foreclosure fraud—are ones that particularly affect communities of color,” wrote Branko Marcetic at “JacobinMag.com.” “And despite her rhetoric now, Harris has often been either inactive or on the wrong side of them.”
Jill Filipovic of “NBCNews.com” wrote, “As San Francisco district attorney, Harris’s office often took aggressive stances on upholding convictions, even where there was evidence tampering or suppression, which may have kept wrongly convicted people in jail for decades.”
The Democratic Party is currently going through a reinvention and a reimagination. This is usually the reaction after an emotional, trying setback. When that happens, parties don’t usually start at the center. They start at one wing and move toward the American center over time. As much as Harris will try to campaign as a progressive—and already has the support of California Gov. Gavin Newsome—she has failed to garner the immediate attention from the base she will need to win the 2020 Democratic primary.
S.T. Patrick holds degrees in both journalism and social studies education. He spent 10 years as an educator and now hosts the “Midnight Writer News Show.” His email is [email protected].