For which people?
Sen. Kamala Harris has cemented herself as a presidential contender, but her mixed criminal justice record has created distrust
Jamal Trulove was innocent, but he spent nearly seven years in prison.
The father of four was convicted in 2010 of murdering his friend, Seu Kuka, in the Sunnydale housing project in San Francisco. Kuka was shot nine times in his head and back shortly before 11 p.m. on July 23, 2007, and, despite a crowd around the body when police arrived, only one person said they saw the shooting, a neighbor who was unable to identify Trulove.
The appeals court ruling that overturned Trulove’s conviction found that the prosectuor had committed misconduct when she argued that the witness had risked her life and the lives of her family to testify. “This yarn was made out of whole cloth,” Justice P.J. Kline wrote.
Since his release in 2015, Trulove has won a $13.1 million settlement from the city of San Francisco and has been a vocal critic of the chief district attorney whose office brought the flimsy case against him to trial. Just after he was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, she was elected attorney general of California. Then in 2016, she won election to the U.S. Senate.
Now, Kamala Harris is running for president of the United States, one of 10 Democrats who will share the debate stage again on Thursday.
“Kamala Harris talks about how she’s proud of her work as California AG but, never as head DA of San Francisco, where evidence of my framing by the SFPD was covered up by ’HER’ office just to get a conviction,” Trulove wrote on Twitter in August.
But in fact, Harris has made her experience as a prosecutor a key component of her presidential campaign. On Monday, she released what she called a “comprehensive plan to overhaul the criminal justice system.”
Even her slogan—“For the people”—invokes the introduction of every prosecutor in a courtroom.
“I believe we must have the ability to prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump and it will take a prosecutor to do that,” Harris told the Democratic National Committee in San Francisco on Aug. 23. “And I’ll tell you, we’ve got a big long rap sheet to work with.”
Outside the grand ballroom where Harris gave her speech, a lone protester wandered the halls with a sign that read, “Kamala convicted innocent people in order to advance her career.”
Defining Kamala Harris
Harris and her supporters say she worked to reform the criminal justice system from the inside as district attorney and attorney general while taking principled stances against the death penalty, targeting large complex criminal enterprises and going after big banks that hurt homeowners during the foreclosure crisis.
“She was one of the earliest leaders to fight human trafficking and invest in reentry,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at Harris’s first presidential campaign rally in Oakland in January. “She was one of the earliest leaders on criminal justice reform. Back when it was still popular to be tough on crime, she was smart on crime.”
Criminal justice reform advocates, however, have pointed out that in her first race for district attorney, Harris unseated her boss, a former defense attorney who was actively working on reforms, by criticizing his conviction rate.
She took a stand early as DA by refusing to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer, but as attorney general appealed a court ruling that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional. Advocates for the rights of sex workers have said that she opposed a ballot measure to decriminalize prostitution and led the charge to prosecute Backpage, an online listing site that sex workers say was paramount to their safety.
After rising to the double digits in polls after the first Democratic debate on June 27, Harris faltered following the second debate on July 31, when she was challenged on her record as a prosecutor by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Gabbard claimed that Harris jailed people for minor marijuana offenses and fought to keep exonerating evidence for death row inmates from coming to light. “The people who have suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology,” Gabbard said.
Among the places where Harris is struggling to gain traction is her home state, where she has at times trailed former Vice President Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in some public opinion surveys. Harris bolstered her campaign in California in August, bringing on seven new staffers. But she remains well behind Biden, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders in national polls.
Joe Tuman, a professor of political communications at San Francisco State University, said that most Democratic voters primarily want a nominee who can beat Trump. But polls show that most top-tier Democratic candidates could win in a head-to-head match-up, so Harris needs to find a way to differentiate herself from the moderate Biden and the progressive Warren and Sanders.
Tuman said he believes that Trump fears Harris more than he does Biden, Warren or Sanders, pointing out that the president has yet to brand her with a nickname, such as “Sleepy Joe,” “Pocahontas” or “Crazy Bernie.”
“I think truthfully that is not a debate he wants to do,” Tuman said. “The moment he starts doing the nonsense he did last time around, Kamala would put him in his place very quickly.”
Through a spokesperson for her campaign, Harris declined to be interviewed for this story.
Principle and compromise
Kamala Harris was born in Oakland to parents who met as graduate students in UC Berkeley. Her father, Donald Harris, is an economist originally from Jamaica, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher from India. Both were active in the civil rights movement.
In 1969, Harris was bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley as part of the second class to integrate the 95% white school. That led to her most viral moment of her campaign so far: During the June debate, she confronted Biden about his past opposition to busing. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”
By the next day, her campaign was selling “that little girl was me” T-shirts.
Her parents divorced when she was seven; she and her sister moved to Montreal with their mother when she was 12. She attended high school in Canada, college in Washington, D.C. and returned to California to attend law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco.
Harris started her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, where she primarily prosecuted child molestation cases. In 1998, she was named head of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office’s career criminal division. Even then, Harris had to contend with questions about her relationship with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and whether he had a role in her appointment, which a spokesperson for Brown denied at the time.
Brown, a powerful San Francisco politician who had been in the state Assembly for four decades, dated Harris while she was a young prosecutor in Oakland. As Assembly speaker, he appointed her to two state commissions. After term limits were enacted for the Legislature, Brown was elected mayor.
In the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, Harris’s boss was Terence Hallinan, a former defense attorney who had represented members of the 1960s counterculture before he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1988. As district attorney, Hallinan opposed capital punishment, advocated for decriminalizing prostitution and supported medical marijuana.
He also sought to root out corruption and alluded to that being a reason Harris ran against him in 2003 and how she ended up being an unexpectedly good fundraiser. Harris broke a voluntary $211,000 spending cap by $91,446, the city’s ethics commission found. Her campaign said the error was unintentional and reached a settlement that cost $34,000 in penalties and corrective measures.
Hallinan had also indicted the entire Police Department command staff in a scandal known as “Fajitagate.” Three off-duty officers allegedly attacked two men leaving a bar, demanding a bag of fajitas they were carrying. Hallinan alleged a coverup by the department. When he ran for reelection, the sheriff and Police Officers Association endorsed Harris.
Harris criticized Hallinan’s record, saying that of 12,000 felony arrests in San Francisco, the district attorney’s office had only a 29% conviction rate. “We have the lowest conviction rate for violent crime in the state and there is no excuse for that,” she said.
Harris won the runoff election with 56% of the vote. But early in her tenure, an unpopular stand soured her political relationships with the Police Officers Association and other elected officials. Officer Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed in April 2004, but Harris refused to seek the death penalty for his killer. During Espinoza’s funeral, Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for the death penalty and received a standing ovation from the 2,000 officers in attendance. After the service, Feinstein said that if she had known Harris was opposed to the death penalty she wouldn’t have endorsed her for DA. Fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer tried to persuade the state attorney general to take the case from Harris.
But in 2010, both Feinstein and Boxer endorsed Harris for attorney general. During the campaign, Harris’s office was hit with a massive scandal. A Police Department crime lab technician was found to have been stealing and tampering with cocaine evidence. She also had a previous criminal conviction that the DA’s office had not disclosed to defense attorneys in cases where she handled evidence and testified.
The Police Department halted all narcotics work at the crime lab and more than 1,000 drug cases were eventually dismissed. Judge Anne-Christine Massullo found that Harris’s office had systematically withheld evidence of misconduct from defense attorneys. Harris unsuccessfully tried to argue that Massullo was biased in the case because her husband was a defense attorney.
Harris could claim many successes as district attorney, such as improving conviction rates, clearing a backlog of homicide cases and instituting new diversion programs that contributed to a massive reduction in recidivism rates.
In her first campaign for state attorney general, her Republican opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, ran as tougher on crime than Harris on most issues, but he was a greater proponent of reforming California’s “three strikes” law than Harris. While DA, she opposed one reform effort in 2004, Proposition 66, which failed at the ballot box.
Cooley was perceived to have an advantage because he supported the death penalty, which became a major issue in the campaign. Harris pledged that while she personally opposed capital punishment, she would carry it out whenever her office received a death row appeal, a stance similar to her predecessor, Jerry Brown. Harris won by less than 1 percentage point.
As attorney general, Harris fought to uphold capital punishment when a federal judge ruled California’s law was unconstitutional in 2014, saying that the state’s system was so dysfunctional it violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Its unpredictable delays led to death sentences being carried out arbitrarily, the judge wrote.
Harris at first demurred whether she would appeal, but in a statement a month later she wrote, “I am appealing the court’s decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.”
There has been perhaps no greater shift in her policy positions than on sex work. She has made the decriminalization of prostitution a part of her presidential campaign. “We should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed,” she said in an interview with The Root in February.
But as DA, Harris staunchly opposed what she called a “ridiculous” 2008 ballot measure that would have decriminalized prostitution in San Francisco. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco,” Harris told the New York Times.
Also as attorney general, Harris defended the state in a lawsuit brought by the Erotic Service Provider Legal Education and Research Project, which argued that laws criminalizing prostitution were unconstitutional because consenting adults had a right of association. She also prosecuted Backpage.com, an online advertising site frequently used by sex workers. Her office filed pimping and money laundering charges against the company’s operators in 2016. Backpage’s operators were later indicted in federal court.
Advocates argue that Backpage was important to sex workers’ safety by allowing them to vet potential clients. And documents recently obtained by Reason magazine undermined the central premise of the prosecution, revealing that U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors had found the company was cooperating with law enforcement and making a concerted effort to keep ads featuring exploited minors off the site.
“Kamala Harris in her capacity as the California attorney general played a role in subjugating the Constitution so she could make headlines with those arrests to further her own political career because she was running for U.S. Senate,” said Maxine Doogan, an organizer with the project. “It’s on our backs that she has consistently stepped on us and used us to further her own political career.”
After her election to the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris co-sponsored two bills that removed “safe harbor” protections for internet platforms in sex trafficking investigations. As with Backpage, sex workers advocates argued that the two bills put them in greater danger because the legislation eroded their ability to communicate and conduct business online, where they could vet clients ahead of time and warn each other of danger.
The fact that Harris has considered decriminalizing prostitution now that she’s running for president has only made the sex work community more wary of her.
“I think people like Kamala are going to say what they need to get elected,” said Kristen DiAngelo, founder of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project. “But do I trust her? No.”
Those Harris skeptics were outnumbered at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in late August in San Francisco, where she had the most vocal contingent. Led by Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, her supporters were inside and outside the hotel chanting, singing and cheering.
The lone protester, Mary Murrin of San Francisco, at one point walked back and forth in front of the group. “When Kamala Harris was district attorney in San Francisco she created a regime where what mattered was not innocence or guilt … it was all about the conviction rate,” Murrin said. “It was just about winning.”
In an email after the meetings, Gibson McElhaney said she was unfamiliar with the criticisms. “What wrongful convictions? How were they deemed wrongful?” she wrote. “Not familiar with the death penalty issue. As far as I know, Sen. Harris has always been critical of the death penalty and have no knowledge of where this was ever sought on her behalf.”
Her group cheered loudly as Harris entered the grand ballroom for her speech and they stood and left as she wrapped up, chanting as they walked to the hallway. As Sanders began his speech, they could still be heard: “She’s smart, she’s strong, with Kamala you can’t go wrong.”