"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who is seeking reelection Tuesday. The following interview was conducted Feb. 23. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Sheriff's Deputy David March, a Saugus resident, was murdered in the line of duty April 29, 2002. His suspected killer, Armando Garcia, fled to his native Mexico, where he is a free man today. Isn't in your power to issue an arrest warrant?
Cooley: We can issue an arrest warrant. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be brought to justice...
We already have a want out for Armando Garcia. I'd love to see him in our custody. I'd love to see him facing the death penalty. I'd love to see him get the death penalty for what he did.
However, if you let the Mexican authorities proceed with the prosecution, they can proceed under so-called Article 4 prosecution against their national for having committed a crime anywhere in the world. They can mete out any sentence they think is appropriate. They could acquit him, or they could give him a lenient sentence. And we would, under current California law, be forever barred from prosecuting him.
We're trying to get our state law changed, so that a foreign conviction or acquittal does not operate as a bar to our prosecution. We hope that (legislation) passes this year. Then I'd feel a lot more comfortable letting the Mexican authorities do what they're going to do to Armando Garcia if they're going to do anything, because I'd know that eventually, we'd have a shot at getting him back here, assuming things change in Mexico, and prosecuting him for the execution murder of David March, for which we could then seek the death penalty.
Signal: When you say he is wanted, you have issued an arrest warrant that is valid here in the U.S., right? If he steps on American soil, he can be apprehended.
Cooley: Right. However, the best-case scenario would be for the Mexican authorities to drop this preposterous proposition they have of banning the extradition of anyone from their country to another country if they face a life term.
Our law calls for a life term for second-degree murder, first-degree murder, killing of a police officer; there's life without the possibility of parole, or the death penalty. What they should do is honor our laws, respect the fact that the murder occurred here, and let us prosecute him for that crime and mete out the appropriate sentence under our laws. That's what Mexico should be doing.
I think that our efforts, and (widow) Teri (March's) efforts, and the efforts of many of the other victims, are bringing a public awareness to this difficult issue, which will hopefully cause our federal government, particularly the State Department, to engage Mexico in a sincere discussion about Mexico changing their asinine policies regarding extraditing murderers who committed murder in some other nation.
Signal: Teri March says she is being told the federal government won't act until Mexico says "no" to extraditing Armando Garcia, and that Mexico hasn't said "no" because it hasn't been asked, and it hasn't been asked because no arrest warrant has been issued.
Cooley: The arrest warrant really is not the provoking issue. It's a matter of our State Department they know we have a want for him. There are hundreds hundreds of murderers in Mexico that are wanted for murder in the United States. Any one of those cases could cause our State Department to act.
So far, we've seen a lack of will on the part of the State Department to just tell Mexico, "We are abandoning this (extradition) treaty because you're not following it." That is within the purview of our federal authorities, and they should get much more aggressive on this. That's the reason I speak out on this issue, Teri, the rest of the March family and many others are talking about this.
(U.S. Sen.) Dianne Feinstein has a resolution in the Senate. (U.S. Rep. Howard) "Buck" McKeon brought a resolution in the House of Representatives. (Assemblyman) Keith Richman brought a resolution in the state Legislature. It is the L.A. County D.A.'s office that's been raising this issue even before David March was executed by Armando Garcia.
Signal: Even without Armando Garcia in custody, these discussions could still be happening in Washington, couldn't they?
Cooley: Of course.
I think that the federal authorities, including our attorney general and our secretary of state, have not made this a top-priority issue in their discussions with Mexico.
Every time I read about the president visiting with (Mexican President) Vicente Fox, I read to see if that's one of the items on the agenda. It never seems to make the agenda. And I think that we've got to keep speaking out, clearly, loudly, and together, and more of us, especially law enforcement, in saying this is not right. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens, and it's not being done in this case when someone can kill someone here and flee to Mexico within two to three hours and have a safe haven.
We were fortunate in the case of the murder of Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka, of returning his murderer, David Garcia. David Garcia was a second-generation U.S. citizen. The Mexican authorities decided in that case he was an undesirable illegal alien, and they bent to the request to bring him across the border. And he's going to get the appropriate justice. He's going to get hopefully the death penalty for killing Matthew Pavelka.
Signal: Was your office involved in his return to the U.S.?
Cooley: We were very involved in that part of it, and we were very involved in identifying where he was. I put a tremendous amount of our office's resources attorneys and D.A. investigators into it, as did LAPD, as did the L.A. County Sheriff, as did the Glendale Police Department, San Fernando Police Department and others. This was an all-out law enforcement effort federal authorities were great, too to apprehend the killer of Officer Matthew Pavelka. And we succeeded in that case. And hopefully we will have the same opportunity to bring justice for the killer of David March.
Signal: You said California would be forever barred from retrying Armando Garcia if Mexico arrests and tries him first?
Cooley: Yes. California is one of ... six or seven states that has this unnecessarily broad double-jeopardy statute that says that we would be barred from prosecuting if the individual has either been acquitted or convicted in some other jurisdiction, even though the crime occurred here.
It's much too gratuitous. It was put in our state penal code in 1872, which by the way was copied from South Dakota, which was not the state-of-the-art of the law at that time. We want to amend that law so that any prosecution of Armando Garcia, acquittal or conviction, does not bar us from eventually getting our piece of Armando Garcia.
We want a piece of Armando Garcia. And hopefully it will be the appropriate death penalty for killing a law enforcement officer, one of our protectors. That's the death penalty.
Signal: You sponsored state legislation last year to eliminate this double-jeopardy statute, right?
Signal: What's the status? Didn't it stall out last year?
Cooley: The last time I checked, it has been going through the various committees. Some of the initial objections last time seem to have dissipated.
Signal: What were the objections?
Cooley: There were some ... collateral concerns about, does this mean the "death penalty 2"? And things of that nature. Some of the really anti-death penalty advocates were concerned it might broaden our ability to seek the death penalty.
And there were some logistical problems. Our author became very ill, (Assemblyman) Marco Firebaugh ... This year we're on track. I think it's going to go through. And then the whole field will be clearer for us to let Mexico apprehend him and prosecute him, and hopefully for us to eventually get him.
Signal: Has Mexico offered to turn him over to you if you'll agree to a sentence of no more than 60 years?
Cooley: Not exactly. Mexico has in general said that they deem any sentence beyond 60 years, including life with the possibility of parole, to offend their penal sensibilities. Cruel and unusual punishment according to their constitution, or so they say.
What they want to do is, they want to dictate to any other state not just us but Texas or any border state, any state in the United States ... that the sentence has to be within their sentencing limitations. And that's unacceptable. We don't have a determinate sentence for murder. We have life terms for second-degree murder, first-degree murder, and special-circumstance murder. It doesn't even begin to fit.
Signal: We don't have a legal mechanism to accommodate it?
Cooley: No, we don't. We can give him manslaughter, maybe get 10 years out of him, which is the maximum. He'd be out in, what? Eighty-five percent of that.
We would be then allowing a foreign government to dictate to us a second system of justice for those who were clever enough, smart enough, resourceful enough or lucky enough to get to Mexico. And that offends my sense of equal protection under the laws.
Signal: Come here, kill a cop, go home, you'll get manslaughter.
Cooley: Right. And if you have that attitude, all you're going to do is encourage more of it. And we're in the deterrence business, not in the encouraging criminality business.
Signal: Let's change subjects. Santa Clarita is one of the safer places in the United States. What do you think contributes to that?
Cooley: The good people who have chosen to live in this fine community. It's ... one of the top ... safest cities of over 100,000 in the United States of America, and (the community is) to be commended.
You have a conscientious population that supports enforcement of the laws, and basically you've got a lot of good people out here who care very much about their community. They're very involved in their community. And you've got some good local leadership that is, I think to the extent possible, supporting the purchase of sheriff's deputies for the Santa Clarita station. It takes good people, basically, to keep the crime rate low.
Signal: Do you sense any underreporting of crime here?
Cooley: I have no sense of that whatsoever. The Sheriff's Department is an incredibly highly respected, highly disciplined law-enforcement organization with rules regarding when to accept reports and how to investigate matters. I don't think that there's any underreporting or conscious effort to underreport to make it look like the crime rate is lower. Nothing along those lines ever even occurred to me.
Signal: One consistent problem in this valley has been out-of-control driving, by both teens and adults, and not necessarily under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We've got 50-mph speed limits and wide-open spaces.
In a high-profile case in 2000, while Gil Garcetti was district attorney, a young man was speeding and lost control of his vehicle and four people died, including three teenagers. The D.A.'s office recommended the mid-term sentence, which worked out to 8 1/2 years. What is your policy for prosecuting out-of-control teenage drivers who cause death or injury?
Cooley: If the facts support the charges, we'll certainly bring the charge.
I think you've made a point that there is quite a bit of that out here in the he Santa Clarita Valley. This is a more common crime and phenomenon in areas of a large distance. You don't get as much vehicular manslaughter, high-speed driving leading to death or injury, in the urban area because, first of all, traffic is not moving that quickly. They don't have the wide-open spaces.
It's even worse in the Antelope Valley, I can assure you, where people drive further distances to do whatever they're going to do. And it is a problem in any place in the county or the state of California or the United States. Young people tend to think they're immortal. They are a little more reckless and less responsible drivers, and this takes strict enforcement by local law enforcement and good parental guidance and control of their children...
In terms of an 8 1/2 year sentence, the mid-term for someone who has not been previously convicted of an offense is the presumptive sentence...
Signal: Is prosecution the answer? What message should go out to teenage drivers?
Cooley: The first message is, be responsible. You're the next generation of citizens, and you should obey the laws. Don't let your youthful enthusiasm misguide you when you're operating a motor vehicle. They are very dangerous if not handled properly. And so they've got to have their own sense of morality and good judgment when operating a motor vehicle.
Another message is ... especially if you're under age, or any age don't drive if you've been ingesting any alcoholic beverages. That's a pretty deadly combination. It lowers one's inhibitions.
Then, I guess the last answer is, if you do cause death or injury because of your reckless driving (or) driving under the influence, we are going to prosecute you, either in juvenile court or adult court. So know that we are going to follow the laws of California and seek to convict and punish those who cause harm to others.
Signal: Despite the low crime rate, at the newspaper we've heard complaints that not enough is being done to stop users and makers of methamphetamines.
Cooley: If a law enforcement officer comes across someone who is in possession of methamphetamine, they're obligated, manditorily, to arrest that person. They don't have the discretion to say, "Oh, we'll let you go this time."...
It's in the penal code. It's a misdemeanor for them not to bring that matter at least cause the arrest and bring it to the attention of the prosecutorial agency. So I doubt if they're not doing that. I'm sure that they are.
However, you're right. Up here in this area, and the Antelope Valley, methamphetamine tends to be the preferred drug. It's a phenomenon we've seen since the mid-1980s. Some people think maybe it's a little lighter drug than heroin or cocaine, and no, it isn't. It's just as debilitating. It's associated with other criminality when people are under the influence of it or addicted to it. And we have to identify those people, get them into court, hopefully get into some kind of a program of rehabilitation.
The court and the justice system (do) provide a wide variety of those programs: Proposition 36, delayed entry of judgment, diversion programs, drug court, which has been very, very effective. There's all kind of things out there to help the abuser and the illegal user.
And then we have to save our big guns and our best efforts for ... the traffickers, and those that are going to profit immensely by taking advantage of other people's failings and weaknesses. ... We have to go after them in a very harsh way and lock them up as best we can for as long as we can.
We've been very effective here in Los Angeles County. ... The reason we have so many seizures here, high volumes of drugs, narcotics, and forfeited assets from the trafficking trade is because L.A. is a distribution hub for the rest of the country. A lot of the drugs come in here and then are distributed out of here by these networks. We try to crack down on them and we're actually pretty good at it.
Signal: Do you always file charges for possession?
Cooley: Oh, yes. That doesn't mean that the charge is necessarily going to end in conviction because the law contemplates giving, especially, the first-time arrestee being prosecuted, sort of a way out of the system through diversion, delayed entry of judgment, Prop. 36 programs
Signal: How is Proposition 36, which requires treatment instead of incarceration for possession, working out?
Cooley: Well, some people say it has mixed results. We're studying it, as is the court. Many of the people who go into Prop. 36 don't stay in the program, can't live up to its rigors.
I'm not sure it was such a good idea to establish that system as part of our state constitution via the initiative process, especially when our drug courts were working so effectively, with such a high rate of success. But it was imposed on us, and since we take the oath to follow the law, we're going to do our best to make it work.
Signal: You took that oath about 3 1/2 years ago, and one of the first things you did was to change the way the "three strikes" law would be implemented.
Cooley: Yes, I did. I viewed my predecessor's policy as being kind of unpredictable, not being even-handedly applied throughout Los Angeles County. It was relatively unclear. (It) left a lot to the subjective nature of the individual prosecutor and de-emphasized, almost completely, the nature of the new offense.
My policy really flip-flopped my predecessor's policy. We emphasized the nature of the new offense.
My view was that for the individual who has committed the two or more prior qualifying or serious felonies, if that person commits a new one (a) violent or serious (felony) that would be the third strike the presumption will be, we will pursue that individual and seek (a sentence of) 25 (years) to life. Because not only have they proven that they're a violent and serious criminal based on their convictions, but they've recidivated and committed another one. And that's where we're going to spend our resources.
By the same token, if the new offense is not serious, not violent and the most common of these are petty theft with a prior, small possession of drugs, a forgery, things of that nature ... a felony, but it's considered not a serious (or) violent felony the presumption will be, we're not going to seek 25 to life.
The prosecutor can still make a case in writing to say, even though this is not serious and not violent, this person deserves 25 to life and here's why, and get approval for that. But they'd have to go through a rigorous process of approval.
It's really a matter of presumptions, and it has worked very, very well. I've had nothing that I've done in terms of a policy issue that has been better received throughout the criminal justice system. The judges respect it. It took a real burden off of them in trying to individually second-guess decisions. It eliminated a lot of unnecessary litigation. Law enforcement, I think, respects the fact that it brings proportionality. And I think that the public at large sees it as being a fair exercise of prosecutorial discretion that does implement the intent of the people who passed this law.
Signal: Four years ago, when you bested him at the polls, Gil Garcetti had been accused of moving too slowly to investigate the LAPD Rampart scandal. What would you have done differently?
Cooley: The Rampart situation ... has been pretty well resolved. I appointed an ad-hoc Rampart task force headed by Bill Hodgman, one of our head deputies in the office...
Under my predecessor, three convictions had been obtained, and after I came into office we obtained six more convictions. We looked at everything LAPD had done. We worked very cooperatively with them. And I think that's where things broke down between Mr. Garcetti and LAPD. They just weren't cooperating. We had a very cooperative relationship, myself and (former LAPD Chief) Bernard Parks, and we resolved those cases.
We did it in writing. We did it in a very public way. We did a complete inventory and analysis of all the cases and we published a report showing the public what we had done and what our reasons were on various cases...
Most importantly, we developed protocols for the first time in L.A. County history where all law enforcement agencies would agree to refer their investigations of alleged law enforcement employee criminality to us in a timely manner so we can be at the front end of these things and work with them to make sure that the Rafael Perezes and Nino Durdens don't have such a long run and do as much damage as they did. They did a lot of damage to a very fine department and the criminal justice system that went far beyond their individual crimes.
Signal: What about O.J. Simpson?
Cooley: Well, you've got to start any case by filing it in the right venue. Mr. Garcetti, for whatever reason and he actually gave about six or seven of them at various times, based on who was asking the question chose to file the case downtown. That was not the proper venue under the law. The law for Los Angeles County is that the district attorney should file the case in the victimized community. And that means in the Superior Court judicial district where the crime occurred, which in the O.J. Simpson case was the West District, located in Santa Monica. So the first mistake out of the box was not filing in the right place. I think that sort of sent it in the wrong direction.
Also, I think that there was a real unusual, unnecessary focus and attention by everyone involved in the case, ... including Mr. Garcetti, on the incredible attention that was coming to it. And they were trying to sort of take advantage of the Klieg lights and the (national) interest and they forgot what their mission was.
Their mission was to present a good, solid case in court that a jury could agree on unanimously, and I think a murderer is running free.
I have no problem saying that. O.J. Simpson can sue me if he wishes. He may have been acquitted, but I was convinced of his guilt, and it was a great, colossal, prosecutorial failing.
Signal: Your chief opponent on March 2, former Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco, has gathered some Democratic Party support. District attorney is a nonpartisan office, but in reality, how big a role does partisan politics play?
Cooley: In a perfect world it shouldn't, and I've run a nonpartisan office. I think that I was elected overwhelmingly, in a landslide, after Gil Garcetti spent $1 million calling me a Republican, among other things. It didn't sell.
The public gets it. This is a nonpartisan office where someone's party affiliation should not play a part. We had John Van De Kamp, who was a good D.A.; he was a Democrat. We had Bob Philibosian; he was a good D.A.; he was a Republican. ... I'm a Republican, and I think I'm a pretty good D.A.
Nick Pacheco is falling into the same trap that Gil Garcetti did. He's trying to say, "I'm the Democrat running for D.A." ... So right out of the box, he doesn't understand what being D.A. is all about.
District attorney means you fairly, honestly, across the board, perform your tasks as a prosecutor, and you do it in a nonpartisan way...
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.