INTERVIEW - An Interview with DA challenger Jonathan Hatami.
In 2024 there will be several critical races for voters to consider with the office of LA County District Attorney the most interesting of all. Incumbent George Gascon, the controversial incumbent has weathered two unsuccessful recall attempts as a plethora of candidates have entered the race.
The first candidate I interviewed was Jonathan Hatami, a former US Army Prosecutor who currently serves in the DA’s office. I asked Mr. Hatami a series of wide-ranging questions and here is the full interview below.
The primary election is scheduled for March 5th.
- Why are you seeking the office of District Attorney?
I spent almost my entire adult life serving the public, first in the Army and now a in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for the last 17 1/2 years. I’m currently assigned to the Complex Child Abuse unit, and I’m running against George Gascón to be your next Los Angeles County District Attorney. As of today, I’m handling 17 active child murder cases. I was the lead prosecutor in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, an innocent little boy that was brutally tortured for over 8 months and eventually murdered by his mom and her boyfriend. The boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, was sentenced to death on June 7, 2018, and Pearl Fernandez was sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. My wife is a 16-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Even though she is a detective now, because LASD is short-staffed, she has always worked patrol at least 2-3 times per week. I want the mother of my children to come home safely. I want all our Deputies and Officers to come home safely. I worry about that every day.
We have a public safety crisis here in Los Angeles County. When George Gascón became DA on December 7, 2020, he implemented numerous dangerous and radical blanket policies. He didn’t collaborate with law enforcement, any of his experienced DDA’s, or any of his justice partners. As a result, crime has drastically increased over the last three years, especially property crimes. We are clearly not any safer. Gascón also completely abandoned victims of crime and their surviving family members. I am running for DA because I am raising my children in this community, my wife and family live in this community, my friends and neighbors live in this community, and all of your children live in this community. Their safety is important to me. It’s everything. Gascón has completely failed to implement real reforms, provide public safety, and stand up and fight for justice for victims of crime. Angelenos are afraid to walk their dog, leave their place of employment at night and go to their car, go to the beach or park, use public transportation, wear jewelry or a watch, jog down the street with ear buds on, go shopping at the mall, or even take their children to school. It’s not fair or right. We must have a change. I’m running to prioritize public safety for all Angelenos.
My platform: (1) follow the law as written; (2) support victim’s rights, victim advocacy and Marsy’s Law; (3) protect the public, children, families, and homes by prosecuting violent crimes; (4) assess every case on an individual case-by-case basis-no blanket policies; (5) most juveniles should be rehabilitated. However, transfers will be determined by a committee for murders, sexual assaults, hate crimes, attempted murders, child molest, gun violence crimes and other violent crimes; (6) Only seek death on most heinous cases, such as child torture and murder, mass murder, serial murderers, and murders of police officers, with a committee decision plus 100% evidence and defense input. LWOP is, by law, an appropriate alternative penalty for most, but not all, heinous cases; (7) mental health issues, addiction issues, and veteran’s issues will always be towards rehabilitation first by supporting veteran’s court, collaborative courts, and care courts; (8) we will never hire an employee who is not qualified, bias, or promotes hate; (9) DDA’s will be given more authority to work with the defense to settle cases appropriately, proportionately and fairly always considering the rights of the victims; (10) the office will be accountable to the community and transparent with an open-door policy to all; (11) we will attend parole hearing, provide safety to the public, and hold everyone to the same standard of law, care and justice; and, (12) fully prosecuting hate crimes and individuals preying upon our workers and committing wage theft.
- What in your background differentiates you from the incumbent and the other candidates in the race?
I am a prosecutor with over 17 ½ years of experience in cases involving child abuse, homicides, torture of children, sex trafficking, hate crimes, elder abuse, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and child molestation. George Gascón has zero experience being a prosecutor. He has never handled one case. I also was a victim and survivor of crime. I was the victim of child abuse and a parental kidnapping. I know what it feels like to be victimized and powerless. I am now a survivor. My mother was also run over by a drunk driver in 2010 and severely injured, and that drunk driver was an off-duty LAPD officer. That case was prosecuted by my office. So not only have I been the victim of a crime, so has my mom. I understand what it feels like to be a victim and what it feels like to be a family member of a victim. That is why I am supported by thousands of victims, survivors and surviving families. I will fight for them and make sure everyone in Los Angeles receives equal justice under the law. Through my learned experiences as a prosecutor and child victim I understand what it means to show compassion and empathy, how important it is to just listen and be there for someone, to show that prosecutors also have a heart, and to do our best to help our victims of crime receive justice and find some type of closure and get their power and life back as much as they can.
I was raised poor, by a single working mom, I served 7 years in the United States Army as an enlisted Infantry soldier, I paid my own way through junior college, state university and law school with Pell grants, the GI Bill and financial aid, I am the child of an immigrant father, and I will be the first Iranian American District Attorney in the nation. I will be a DA of the People and for the People.
I was the first Deputy District Attorney to step forward and publicly challenged George Gascón’s radical blanket directives on December 15, 2020, on ABC Television risking my job, my family’s well-being and livelihood to fight for victims. Four days later George Gascón’s spokesperson publicly said that I was “unfit” and “delusional” and that I was going to be “disciplined.” I have been fighting against Gascón’s radical policies ever since. I led from the front and by example. We need a leader in the District Attorney’s office, not a politician or bureaucrat.
- How will you manage and lead the attorneys in your office? What is your management style?
From the front, by example, and with integrity. I served in the Army for 7 years. I was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant. I have led soldiers. I believe in teamwork. I believe in leading from the front. I also believe in leading by example. I want to uplift the DDA’s in my office. I want the DDA’s to feel good about coming to work. I want to support them and their families. George Gascón has run the office as a partisan politician. He doesn’t care about honesty, integrity, justice, accountability, equity or the law. We must hire more DDA’s. We are short almost 200 DDA’s. More DDA’s translates to better services for our community and a better working environment for the office. We must treat everyone with respect and dignity. There are numerous hostile work environment lawsuits pending. We must make the office a great place to work. Then, our DDA’s and support staff can better serve Los Angeles. We must foster diverse ideas that reflect our diverse community. The office can’t be run by a dictator. It must be run by the People’s DA. A People’s DA who has been a prosecutor and can lead from the front and by example. We must have a common mission that above all, promotes public safety. And we need to do that as a team, not just one person, all of us.
- What major endorsements have you secured to date (list up to three)?
Elected District Attorneys of Riverside County, Mike Hestrin, of Fresno County, Lisa Smittcamp, and of Kern County, Cindy Zimmer.
Eleven Police Officer Associations including Beverly Hills POA, El Monte POA, and Glendale POA.
My United States Congressman, Mike Garcia.
- What kind of relationship will you have with other branches of county government like the courts or the Sheriff, and Board of Supervisors?
A great one. I’m endorsed by my retired Supervisor Michael Antonovich. I personally know and have worked with my current Supervisor, Katherine Barger. Supervisor Barger and I have been on multiple panels regarding the fentanyl crisis in Los Angeles. I know Sheriff Luna and Chief Michael Moore. I know LA City Councilmembers Park and McOsker. I’m also endorsed by: Joe Vinatieri, Mayor of Whittier; Rex Parris, Mayor of Lancaster; Jason Gibbs, Mayor of Santa Clarita; April Verlato, Mayor of Arcadia; Rosario Diaz, Mayor of West Covina; Oralia Rebollo, Mayor of City of Commerce; Tim Hepburn, Mayor of La Verne; John Harrington, Mayor of San Gabriel; Eniko Gold, Mayor pro tem of Hidden Hills; Andrew Lara, Mayor pro tem of Pico Rivera; Andrew Mendez, Mayor pro tem of Azusa; and Martin Herrera, Mayor pro tem of El Monte. So, I will have a great relationship with my fellow elected officials, leaders, and judges. It will be one of teamwork in order to make LA the safest county it can be. You must be willing to collaborate, compromise and work together with all our LA County justice partners in order to be an effective DA. Something Gascón has failed to do.
I also will implement a program where we have neighborhood DDA’s that live in each city in the county report to the city council members of each city once a month and then report back to me what specific issues each city is facing and how we can better serve each specific city and their specific communities and make sure our public is safe.
- What will be your approach in prosecuting gang activity and violent crime?
Follow the law, fight for victims, protect the public, and do the right thing. We will not have blanket policies. When it comes to gang activity and violent crime, I will be 100% the opposite of Gascón. I will look at the evidence and apply the law fairly and justly.
Every blanket policy enacted by Gascón will be removed the first day of my administration. We will go back to doing the work and obtaining justice for our community. If you commit a gang-related murder, and it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, we will charge the gang allegation. If you commit a violent crime with a firearm, we will charge the firearm allegation. If you commit a hate crime, we will charge the hate crime allegation. If you break a child’s arm or fracture a baby’s ribs, we will charge the Great Bodily Injury allegation. If you poison and kill a child with fentanyl, we will charge second degree murder. If you kill someone in a street takeover, we will charge second degree murder. If you go into a school and kill children, or go into a synagogue, church or mosque and kill innocent Angelenos, we will charge the special circumstance allegation.
Individuals committing violent crimes will be held accountable under my administration and prosecuted fairly, justly and to the fullest extent of the law.
- How would you manage a high-profile case? Would you try the case yourself?
Like any other case. Everyone deserves equal justice under the law. No matter if you are famous or not, rich or not, well-known or not, a media case or not, all victims and their families are entitled to the same treatment as “high-profile” cases get. And all defendants are entitled to the same justice as wealthy or famous defendants. I have handled cases, unlike Gascón.
Unlike Gascón, I will be extremely transparent to the media. I understand they also have a job to do. Further, the public has a right to know how the DA is handling the public’s cases and the criminal justice system. And some cases require more information given to the media than maybe others. But all cases are equally important. The children I fight for are usually from a lower socio-economic class and are children of color, but their cases are “high-profile” to me. And to their families.
Unlikely that I personally will handle major cases because they can take years to prosecute. The job of the DA will likely not allow me to handle a trial that could take months. But because we are short-staffed, I will lead by example. That means doing a preliminary hearing here or there, or standing in for my DDA’s in court if they need help. That I will do.
- What do you see as the root cause of homelessness in Los Angeles County and what can your office do to stem the tide of street encampments and stationary RV’s?
We do have a homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. Mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction and disease are likely the root causes of homelessness in LA County. The removal of Drug Court by Gascón’s Prop 47, the support for open air drug markets by Gascón, the fact we only have really one mental health facility in the county, Olive View, and the failure to arrest and then treat individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol or with mental illness has made the crisis worse. Gascón’s policies are inhumane and allow people to be in the streets and addicted. I believe in treatment and recovery. I also support the CARE courts. Sometimes that requires tough love and leadership not partisan politics.
The DA should use the bully pulpit to do whatever she or he can to help the unhoused crisis. The DA should collaborate with the BOS and other agencies to help and alleviate the unhoused crisis. The DA should also prosecute crime that is provable and fight for the rights of victims even if the defendant is an unhoused person, especially violent crime. We need to build a state-of-the-art county jail that also has an inpatient mental health unit and an inpatient drug and alcohol unit.
So, first, we need to use separate courts to address mental health and addiction issues, as opposed to violent crimes. These courts do exist in some jurisdictions, but they require collaboration between the DA’s office and the judges. Unfortunately, that has not been possible in LA, because Gascón has damaged relationships with judges. Second, we need to fund programs that provide treatment for those who can be helped with mental health and addiction issues. While the DA’s office can’t provide funding for treatment, it can and should collaborate with organizations that do, in order to ensure that the people most likely to benefit are taken care of. Finally, we need to prioritize housing for homeless children and veterans. Children and veterans are among the vulnerable of the unhoused population and allowing them to remain homeless dramatically increases the likelihood they will become victims or perpetrators of crime, or both.
- With the 2028 Summer Olympics coming to Los Angeles, how will your office prepare for such a 17-day international event?
By working and collaborating with local law enforcement, the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor, our city councilmembers, and the Federal government. Los Angeles County is the best County in the world. We must make sure all visitors and tourists are safe. That requires making sure our public transportation is as safe as it can be. That also requires making sure anyone preying upon visitors and tourists is prosecuted. Also, using the bully pulpit to assure that everyone is safe and welcome in LA.
We have a lot of work ahead of us before we are ready for 2028 because the policies implemented by Gascón have made LA unsafe. I am ready to get to work and make sure we have a safe and successful 2028 Summer Olympics in LA.
- Does Los Angeles need additional jail space? What capital improvement initiatives would you support for the DA’s office?
Yes. Los Angeles County needs a state-of-the-art new county jail that can properly house inmates who are committing crimes, can protect the public from violent individuals, can monitor with cameras if there are any violations of due process, and has in-patient mental health facilities, in-patient drug and alcohol disease facilities and other rehabilitative programs. The key is in-patient, locked facilities with rehabilitative programs with a transitional unit once individuals are rehabilitated and released.
- Do you believe in zero-based budgeting? Is the DA’s Office under-funded or over-funded leading to waste, fraud and financial abuse?
Although zero-based budgeting has its pros, it can take an enormous amount of time and is not very feasible in a county as large as Los Angeles. It is hard to measure all your needs years out in a county of 10 million. But ultimately, budgeting is the purview of the Board of Supervisors, not the DA.
All budgeting must be as transparent as possible. The DA should utilize all grants to offset the cost to the taxpayer. There are many grants we can use to fund task forces for gangs, fentanyl, street takeovers, smash and grab burglaries, etc. Further, the DA’s office is not overfunded. We are short over 200 DDA’s. Hiring more DDA’s, making sure we have a good work environment, hiring more victim advocates and promoting more DDA’s will be a priority of mine. That will only help our community become safer.
- What is your position on Cash Bail, Qualified Immunity and the Death Penalty?
Currently we do have cash bail for all “violent” felonies in Los Angeles. So, whatever Gascón is telling the public, we have cash bail here in LA. What the Court has implemented is $0 bail for ALL “non-violent” felonies and ALL misdemeanors. I oppose a blanket $0 bail policy based just on the crime itself. I believe that the priority of bail should always be public safety, not if you can afford bail. Currently home burglaries, human trafficking, sexual battery, organized retail theft, smash and grab burglaries, and other crimes are magistrate review and presumptive $0 bail. That makes no sense. It’s unreasonable. As such, all defendants should go before a judge within 48 hours for ALL felonies and violent misdemeanors such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual battery. At the hearing, where there is a judge, a defense attorney and a prosecutor, the judge can determine if the defendant is safe to be released without bail. That means looking at the defendant’s actual crime, the defendant’s prior criminal history, if there is violence, the defendant’s failures to appear, taking into consideration the safety of the public and the victim, and looking at alternatives to custody that still provide public safety. We will be guided by public safety, fairness to all and victim’s rights. We will work each individual case.
Qualified immunity is the law in California. I believe in supporting and upholding the law, which is the job of the DA. Are there ways to improve qualified immunity – yes. But we must involve all justice partners in that discussion. Right now, we have a shortage of police officers and deputies in the thousands. LAPD and LASD are having an extremely difficult time recruiting new recruits. Many officers and deputies are demoralized, and suicide has become a serious problem. Removing qualified immunity will only make things worse for LA, not better. But there are always ways to improve our community by bringing all parties to the table. And ultimately, that must be decided by the Legislature.
Currently, I support maintaining qualified immunity for Officers, Deputies and District Attorney Investigators. Eliminating qualified immunity for officer, deputies, and DAI’s is unfair, unjust, it would cause a major financial hardship to the law enforcement community and their families, and it would also cause many good individuals to not become members of law enforcement or to leave the profession all together. That will ultimately hurt the public safety of all Angelenos.
I’m not “pro-capital punishment,” but I’m also not “anti-capital punishment.” I’m for respecting the will of the public by following the laws they enact. Capital punishment was passed by the California voters in 2012. It was again passed by the California voters in 2016. It is the will of the voters and the law in California. And, despite what ideologues claim, the death penalty can only be considered for first degree murder with a special circumstance. So, what do I believe? I believe every case is unique, and the decision to pursue the death penalty or not, cannot be made wholesale if we respect the law and the will of the public. Every case should be filed based upon the law and the evidence. The most heinous crimes require the most serious punishment. So if a person intentionally murders a child by torturing them to death, or sexually molests, then murders a child, or goes into a school, synagogue, or church and commits mass murder, or intentionally kills an on-duty police officer, AND there is 100% evidence (evidence beyond all doubt), capital punishment should be an option; it is required to be considered by the law of the state of California.
The process to pursue the death penalty is, as it should be, an onerous one. First, the case needs to first go through a preliminary hearing or grand jury. Then, that case needs to go through a rigorous special circumstances committee made up of experienced Deputy District Attorneys where all the evidence is presented including where the defense also gets to make an in-person presentation of any mitigation (so all the evidence from both sides is presented). Then, if the committee decides to seek capital punishment, that case goes to trial before a jury. And then all 12 jurors must first convict the accused, then separately unanimously agree to death. And then, a judge must agree to sentence the defendant to death. To be clear, there is a separate jury trial for punishment versus guilt. The jury must return two verdicts. That is, the jury can, even after a defendant is found guilty of murder with special circumstances, opt to not apply the death penalty.
- What will be your recruiting policies for deputy district attorneys?
We are short almost 200 DDA’s. Gascón has run our office into the ground and morale is at an all-time low. We have also lost many experienced DDA’s to other offices and early retirement. They don’t want to work for Gascón. Being understaffed has caused a very severe morale issue within the office. We need to foster a good working environment where young attorneys want to become a part of our LADA team. We need a common mission, which should revolve around public safety. We need to foster a good, healthy, productive, and supportive work environment. We also need to focus on hiring a diverse workforce that reflects the population and communities we serve. How do you go about that: (1) Create an office where young people want to work, An office that is positive and fosters a commitment to justice and doing the right thing; (2) bring in summer law clerks and college students as clerks and volunteers to show them how great of an office we have-already creating a base of new applicants; (3) actively recruit at college campuses; (4) send our experienced DDA’s to high schools and colleges to talk about what it means to become a LADA prosecutor, which is something I regularly do; (5) promote diversity of not only ethnicity but also diversity of thought. The DA’s office should reflect the community; (6) become a part of regular employment fairs throughout LA County and surrounding counties; (7) use social media to attract and recruit more applicants; and (8) have a mentorship program where more experienced DDA’s help bring up and support younger DDA’s.
- What previous LA District Attorney do you admire most and why?
Jackie Lacey. She truly cared. She cared about her DDA’s. She cared about their families. She cared about her community. She had a heart. She always believed in doing the right thing.
- State three (3) points you want the voter to know about you before they cast their ballot?
My number one job in life is being a father. Being a dad to my children. I always wanted to be a Dad since I never really had one. A big part of being a dad is being their protector. As DA, I will always prioritize the safety of ALL children.
When you look at that ballot, and look at all the candidates, ask yourself one simple question, “Who on that list will fight for your child if she or he is a victim? Who on that list will fight for you, your family member, your elder parent, or your neighbor if she or he is a victim? Who on that list will fight for you if you are a victim?” I am that person.
If you want a District Attorney that will prosecute violent crime, protect your children, follow the law, and hold wrongdoers accountable, but also have a heart to help others and implement real reforms, I am that person. I’m a veteran. I’m a Dad. I’m a husband to a police officer. I’m a real prosecutor with a heart who cares deeply about public safety, my community, children and victims.
(Nick Antonicello is a thirty-year resident of Venice and covers the candidates and offices that represent the neighborhood of Venice. Have a take or a tip on all things Venice? Contact him via e-mail at [email protected].)