By Louis Casiano
Published January 19, 2019
As speculation grows over U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’s presidential aspirations, the California Democrat's record as a prosecutor and state attorney general are attracting new scrutiny.
The perception that Harris, 54, acted as a “progressive prosecutor” during her tenure as the district attorney of San Francisco and then California’s attorney general contradict her actions, a University of San Francisco associate law professor argues in an op-ed piece.
"Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” Lara Bazelon writes in the New York Times.
“Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Bazelon then lists multiple instances where the Democratic senator failed to embrace criminal justice reforms – either opposing them or declining to state an opinion.
She cites Harris’ reluctance to take a position in 2014 on opposition to Proposition 47, a voter-approved ballot measure that reduced certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors. Bazelon also takes issue with Harris for not supporting standards on body-worn cameras for police officers.
According to Bazelon, Harris also opposed a 2015 bill requiring her office to investigate officer-involved shootings. Bazelon's Times piece criticizes Harris's decision to continue to prosecute death penalty cases as state attorney general even while supposedly opposing capital punishment.
Deemed worse, according to Bazelon, was Harris’ record in wrongful conviction cases. The writer cites the case of George Gage, who is serving a 70-year prison sentence for allegedly sexually abusing his stepdaughter. The case was largely built on the stepdaughter’s testimony, which some have called into question.
Harris' prosecution of Daniel Larsen – serving a 28-year sentence for possession of a concealed weapon – also raised questions. She also defended the murder conviction of Johnny Baca, in which judges found a prosecutor lied at the trial and relented after video of an oral argument received national attention, Bazelon writes.
“It is true that politicians must make concessions to get the support of key interest groups. The fierce, collective opposition of law enforcement and local district attorney associations can be hard to overcome at the ballot box. But in her career, Ms. Harris did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away,” Bazelon writes.
"All too often, she was on the wrong side of that history,” Bazelon writes in the Times.
But even with her criminal justice record coming under a microscope, some see Harris as a prime contender to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Republican strategist Colin Reed recently picked Harris as his early favorite to stun what is expected to become an increasingly packed field. But her greatest vulnerability lies in her professional record, he said.
“Harris will be forced to explain past positions that are anathema to liberals, such as defending the death penalty, laughing at the idea of marijuana legalization, and threatening parents with jail time for truancy,” Reed wrote in a Fox News opinion piece. “In politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.”