Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón is getting slammed for scrapping his office’s “Lifer Unit,” with critics — including prosecutors from his own office — accusing the progressive prosecutor of turning his back on victims and their families.
The critical department — which alerted victims to their assailants’ parole hearings — is set to be disbanded by the end of the year and its prosecutors reassigned because the office is already “greatly understaffed,” Gascón said last week.
“It’s beyond disgusting,” said Deputy District Attorney John Lewin, who prosecutes high-profile murder trials.
“I’ve done this for 30 years and … I’ve never met or dealt with a victim’s family that did not want to know what’s going on and whether the person who killed their loved one might be getting out,” he said.
One woman, who spoke to The Post under the condition of anonymity, said she was unaware the man who brutally stabbed and raped her almost 40 years ago was up for parole until someone in the Lifer Unit contacted her.
“At the beginning of the trial, I was told he wouldn’t be eligible for parole for 120 years,” she said, holding back tears. “I thought he was going to go away forever. And I found out the day before he was to go before the parole board. This is someone who should never be free in society and is still capable of harming people.”
“For Gascón to say that notifying victims would be ‘triggering’ … that’s not his choice,” she said, referring to the DA’s claims that notifying victims can be “triggering” to them.
“He’s stomping on my rights not only as a victim but as a woman. That in itself is traumatizing,” she said.
Jessica Cordé, whose son was killed in 2019, said Gascón has once again abandoned victims by dissolving the unit, accusing the woke prosecutor of only being interested in “numbers and politics.”
“The State of California doesn’t see us as victims anymore. They see us as a problem,” Cordé told The Post. “George Gascón said we need to ‘check our humanity’ and that we want to see people locked up in cages. He obviously doesn’t have a murdered kid. He is not looking to heal the broken hearts of the community.”
Lewin and other critics also suggested that the choice to disband the unit could be a violation of California’s Marsy’s Law, which says victims and their surviving families have the right to be informed of and to participate in their assailants’ parole procedures.
Most of these cases involve defendants who are serving life sentences for crimes such as murder, attempted murder or aggravated sexual assault crimes.
“It is a dereliction of duty and I believe is a violation of Marsy’s Law,” Lewin railed. “[Gascón] has the nerve to say that this is not our job, that’s it’s the Department of Corrections job to notify these victims. Well, whether it is our job or not, it’s our ethical responsibility to do so.”
Under California’s Marsy’s Law, victims and their families can sign up to be notified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But they often don’t sign up for various reasons, leaving them in the dark about future hearings.
Lewin said only about 25 percent of victims and surviving families in LA County sign up to be notified by the CDCR.
Officials with the DA’s office countered that the CDCR is responsible for contacting victims and families — not prosecutors — and pushed back on the suggestion that disbanding the unit would violate state law.
“Victims experts have informed us that this is not a trauma-informed approach, and we agree,” the office said in a statement. “Contacting victims and their next of kin can be very triggering especially if they do not welcome the intrusion. We consulted with the CDCR and they have confirmed that it is their responsibility to contact victims who want to be notified and provide information and support to those victims.”
The office said the Lifer Unit initially had 15 prosecutors but was cut down to three even before Gascón took office in December 2020.
The office added: “This is not a violation of Marsy’s Law, which very clearly states that only those victims who request notifications must be contacted.”
Prosecutors also assisted victims and surviving families by updating them with information in preparation for the assailant’s parole board hearing before Gascón took over as DA.
Almost immediately after taking office, however, Gascón implemented a policy that said prosecutors would no longer attend those parole hearings, while adding the office would “continue to meet its obligation to notify and advise victims under California Law, and is committed to a process of healing and restorative justice for all victims.”
Officials with the DA’s office said victims and families could continue to get help by contacting its “Victims Services Representatives,” who assist with victim impact statements, mental health counseling resources, coordinating financial assistance through the California Victim Compensation Board and other services.
Prosecutors and victims, however, said Victims Services Representatives would not have the same information and access to cases as the Lifer Unit, especially those cases that are decades old.
Kathleen Cady, a former prosecutor, said victims and their families can’t readily access important files such as an inmate’s risk assessment report and criminal files, which is pertinent to review before appearing and speaking in front of the parole board.
“One of the things that prosecutors could do during a parole hearing is ask the inmate clarifying questions,” Cady said. “The prosecutor, who has knowledge of the case, who has seen the police reports and the prison records, can ask further questions. But now they don’t have anyone representing The People at these hearings who could provide an opinion as to whether or not the inmate is suitable for parole.”
That notion was echoed by Cordé, who said she has had to appear in front of a parole board by herself and continues to fight to keep her son Marquis LeBlanc’s murderers in prison.
LeBlanc died at a party in Pomona, Calif. in April 2009 after a group of suspects stomped, dragged and stabbed him in the heart before shooting him in the head. One of the convicted killers, Martin Haro, was 15-years old at the time of the murder. Haro went before a parole board after 11 years and was granted parole last year.
“It’s set up for us to lose,” Cordé said. “We’re not privy to the information the parole board has, or what a district attorney has. When I went in there, I didn’t know what a ‘risk assessment’ was. I didn’t know about programs he was getting or prison behavior. I knew nothing about those terms. All I could do was go in there and speak about my son’s case because whatever information that was pertinent to the parole process, they withheld it from me. It was set up for me to lose. … and that’s what’s going to happen to other families and mothers.”
A frustrated Cordé went on her own “Fight like a Mom” campaign, which eventually garnered the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who reversed Haro’s parole in May 2021.
However, Haro will once again appear in front of the parole board next month.
“He’s looking at numbers and politics, but I’m talking about people,” she said of Gascón. “My son is dead forever, so there is no way to open my heart to a murderer because my son was sentenced to death. So no matter what he gets, he has already gotten better treatment than my son.”
Cady, who has volunteered her time and represented many victims at parole board hearings, said some families don’t receive notices because their cases occurred decades even before the program existed.
Many families and victims never anticipated that the prisoner someday would be eligible for parole, so they don’t bother to update their information if they move, Cady said.
The former prosecutor added that families often don’t know about changes in the law, including one where prisoners who are over 50 years old and have served 20 continuous years could be eligible for Elder Parole.
Under Gascón, defendants have been allowed to challenge their convictions and seek re-sentencing.
Michele Hanisee, President of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys, said while Marsy’s Law does not clearly state who is responsible for notifying victims of parole hearings, prosecutors with knowledge of the cases usually stayed in contact with families for years and updated them on any changes.
That stopped under Gascón’s tenure, Hanisee said.
Hanisee told The Post that it would be up to victims or their surviving families to challenge Gascón’s directive to scrap the unit.
“Gascón has taken the contradictory position that our job ends at sentencing … and yet he has a sentencing unit that he’s packed with staff from the Public Defender’s Office,” Hanisee said.
“He’s even ordered prosecutors not to tell victims that there’s free help from experienced attorneys. He thinks our job ends at sentencing when it comes to parole hearings for people who have committed crimes punishable by life (in prison)— unless he wants to let them out early— and then our job doesn’t end there,” she added. “We’re supposed to help get these criminals get out and not help victims who are suffering.”
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