Jackie Lacey, 55, the chief deputy district attorney for California's Los Angeles County could have gone for a lucrative and decidedly sexier career in entertainment law. Now a candidate to become the county's first African-American and first woman to serve as district attorney, she in fact started out on that track in 1984 after passing her bar examination. But after seemingly endless hours of taking depositions, she soon realized she was on the wrong path and landed a job in the Santa Monica city attorney's office.
"I hadn't trained to become a trial lawyer, but in the first week I was given a DUI case and was hooked by the courtroom dynamics and holding people accountable for breaking the law," Lacey recalls.
Fast-forward 27 years and Lacey now heads an office of more than 1,000 prosecutors and aims to run the nation's largest local prosecutorial agency. In addition to overseeing special units related to hard-core gangs, major narcotics and major crimes, she has been instrumental in creating special courts that address drug abuse, mental illness and veterans' and women's re-entry, programs that she says help restore people and lower recidivism rates. She has developed programs that track gang crime, prosecute graffiti cases and ensure that domestic abuse and child abuse cases receive the attention they deserve. Lacey also launched the county's first animal cruelty prosecution program. She is particularly proud of having won the county's first conviction for in a hate crime case in which three white supremacists beat an African-American man to death.
"None of my competitors can say they have the breadth of experience I've had in all of these different areas, including assisting the DA and reviewing every major case involving public corruption and organized and complex crime," she says. "It takes a while to learn what you need to know about all of those areas and I've had the opportunity to do that."
Lacey says she's a tough but fair prosecutor and believes the attorneys with whom she's faced off in court would say the same. She's received endorsements from her boss, the current D.A. Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles Times and other local media outlets and from two of the county's former top public defenders, which Lacey considers "the highest praise."
"Lacey is the candidate least likely to grandstand or to make political hay out of crisis, and most likely — because of her understanding of the prosecutor's role as a result of her tenure as Steve Cooley's top deputy and her thoughtful approach to fiscal and justice challenges — to keep county residents safe while securing the rights of the accused and making the best use of scarce tax revenue," the LA Times wrote.
On June 5, Lacey will face off five other candidates seeking to become the county's next D.A. Her competition, the Los Angeles Times reports, includes John L. Breault III, the county's longest-serving prosecutor; Bobby Grace, an African-American deputy district attorney who has convicted some of the county's worst criminals; gang homicide prosecutor Alan Jackson, whose expertise enabled him to be a regular on Dateline NBC's Unsolved Case Squad; senior deputy district attorney and African-American Danette Meyers, who prosecuted actress Lindsay Lohan for drunk driving and theft; and city attorney Carmen Trutanich, who won the endorsement of California Gov. Jerry Brown.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will have to compete in a November runoff. Lacey suspects there may be a runoff, but is confident she'll be one of the top-two vote getters.
"There's nothing like working for the prosecutors office where you get a chance at times to be a hero to people. It sounds corny but the fact that someone who doesn't have a lot of means can turn to you and say thank you for getting justice for them or a loved one, there's no greater satisfaction," she says.
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Jackie Lacey and singer Macy Gray. (Photo: Michael Delmonte)