Democratic presidential hopeful and California Senator Kamala Harris has spent a considerable portion of time on the campaign trail defending her record as San Francisco district attorney and attorney general of California. As former “top cop,” Harris, who billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” has defended her tenure against closer looks at the contradictions her record contains.
“Harris did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types,” wrote Lara Bazelon, former Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent director in a recent New York Times op-ed, “she gave it all away.” Harris, who began her tenure as “tough on crime” rhetoric resonated within both parties, spent her time as district attorney and attorney general balancing the nature of her roles with her knowledge of the excesses of the criminal justice system. Her decision not to seek the death penalty against Isaac Espinoza, convicted of shooting a police officer in 2004, rankled fellow democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein, who went as far as to call for the death penalty at the officer’s funeral. On the other hand, her anti-truancy program, aimed at reducing chronic absence for school-age children, targeted the parents of truant children while threatening prosecution.
According to a report by the Washington Post, Harris’ inaction with regard to a crime lab scandal may prove a tougher hill to climb.
In 2010, near the end of her seven-year run as district attorney, Sharon Woo, one of Harris’ top deputies told a colleague that crime lab technician Deborah Madden had become “increasingly UNDEPENDABLE.” The technician took cocaine from the lab a few weeks later, a move that could have tainted evidence and caused significant concern with regard to hundreds of cases pending at the time.
Madden, who was convicted in 2007 for her role in a domestic altercation, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years probation, along with a temporary suspension from her position at a crime lab.
Madden later admitted she had taken some cocaine for personal use, according to her sentencing memorandum. Madden plead no contest to a possession charge, which was removed from her record after her completion of a drug treatment program.
Neither Harris nor the prosecutors working for her informed defense attorneys of the potential concern. Harris’ office prosecuted cases that relied on lab testing for three months after Woo’s email.
According to the Post, after initially fighting back by alleging judicial bias and blaming police for the failure to inform while estimating less than two dozen cases had been affected, Harris’ office eventually dismissed around 1,000 drug-related cases, including many in which sentences had begun.
Chris Kelly, Harris’ then-opponent in the primary for attorney general, said that Harris “systematically violated defendants’ civil and constitutional rights” due to her office’s decision to hide damaging information.
From the Post:
A review of the case, based on court records and interviews with key players, presents a portrait of Harris scrambling to manage a crisis that her staff saw coming but for which she was unprepared. It also shows how Harris, after six years as district attorney, had failed to put in place written guidelines for ensuring that defendants were informed about potentially tainted evidence and testimony that could lead to unfair convictions.
Harris, in an interview with The Washington Post, stressed that the crime lab was run by the police. But she took responsibility for the failings, including that she had not developed a written policy so that her office would notify defendants about problems with witnesses and evidence, as required by law.
“No excuses,” Harris said, sitting in a small, windowless office near the U.S. Capitol. “The buck stops with me.”
Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo told Harris’ office that the duty to inform was theirs alone. ““It’s not the police department who has the affirmative obligation,” Judge Massullo said according to court transcripts, “it’s the district attorney. That’s who the courts look to. That’s who the community looks to, to make sure all of that information constitutionally required is provided to the defense.” Massullo placed the blame squarely on Harris, chiding her for failure to disclose Madden’s record and suspension.
Harris was also accused of misconduct by San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, a onetime friend who alleged that Harris’ office also failed to disclose the names of police who had committed misconduct.
Harris says the scandal taught her lessons that she has carried into her campaign for the presidency. As voters and pundits continue to examine her record, Harris would be well-suited to make those lessons clear.
Correction: 3/7/2019 8:42 a.m. EST: The headline has been updated to more accurately reflect the story.