The ongoing race for District Attorney is the most contentious campaign for Santa Barbara County’s top prosecutor position in decades. Any race that pits one experienced and passionate courtroom pugilist against another is bound to be aggressive and fierce, but in this case, emotions are hotter and more sensitive than ever, as the circumstances leading up to the June 8 vote involve the untimely illness and recent death at age 61 of District Attorney Christie Stanley.
The hand-picked successor of Thomas Sneddon — who retired as DA after 24 years of stable leadership — Stanley won a staggering 69 percent of the primary vote against two other candidates in 2006. But, early in her term, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, eventually became unable to effectively serve, and finally resigned this past January. She died on April 25, and hundreds came to pay their respects at her funeral last weekend.
The proud, tightly knit department struggled during Stanley’s long illness to find the right way to handle the difficult situation. Strong disagreements eventually emerged, and the two people running to take her place — Joyce Dudley, a 20-year veteran known for convicting sexual criminals and abusers, and Joshua Lynn, the office’s chief trial deputy who recently took down Jesse James Hollywood — represent the office’s opposing reactions.
On paper, it might be hard for any voter to delineate between the two candidates. Both are longtime Santa Barbarans: Dudley, 57, moved here 37 years ago; Lynn, 40, was born and raised in Santa Barbara. Both are career prosecutors who’ve been in the office for more than a decade (Dudley since 1990, Lynn since 1995). Both have won the Guerry Award, the county’s top law enforcement prize. Both have prosecuted everything from minor misdemeanors to complicated murder cases. Both teach at the Santa Barbara College of Law. Both say they have what it takes to bring back departmental morale while tackling the budget and improving relations with the public. Heck, both of their first names start with J.
But when Stanley’s illness began to seriously affect the department on a day-to-day basis, Dudley and Lynn took dramatically different approaches. Dudley saw an office lacking in leadership and compared it to a racehorse with no jockey: “It does well for a while, but eventually runs off course.” Those who shared that assessment encouraged Dudley to run. Last summer, she informed Stanley, who was still intending to run for reelection at the time, and then Dudley announced her candidacy at a September 1 press conference in front of the courthouse, marking the first time ever that an incumbent District Attorney in Santa Barbara County would faced a challenge from within the office.
By Paul Wellman (file)
Joshua Lynn and Joyce Dudley are vying to replace Christie Stanley (top left), who tragically passed away April 25 after battling lung cancer most of her term.
To Joshua Lynn, Dudley was taking advantage of a sick woman battling for her life. While her colleagues were taking on more responsibilities and working late into the night, Lynn claimed Dudley was out campaigning. “There wasn’t a lack of leadership,” he said, “There was a lack of unity.” And he wasn’t alone in this opinion. Former DA Tom Sneddon, for instance, thought Dudley’s campaign kickoff was “poorly handled,” and one defense attorney called it “completely tacky.”
Less than one week after Dudley’s announcement, Stanley said she would not run for reelection and, instead, endorsed Lynn, effectively kicking off his campaign. Soon after, Stanley, increasingly weak from her illness, named Lynn as acting DA. Dudley immediately claimed Stanley was “anointing her successor,” but Lynn countered it was a necessary move, devoid of politics, because Stanley was about to undergo surgery. In January 2010, Stanley, weaker still, officially retired, and the Board of Supervisors appointed North County administrator Ann Bramsen as interim DA.
Inside the DA’s office, regardless of whose side they’re on, most everyone is looking forward to the end of the race in June. “We want things to just settle down and be normal,” said one prosecutor, who declined to be named, as have several others in the legal profession who were interviewed for this story. Many fear retribution depending on the outcome, while some are attempting to avoid any part of the controversy. Even defense attorneys are afraid to talk, fearing not for themselves but their clients. As one said recently, “I want no part of the whole thing.”
Whether retribution will result inside the office has been a hot topic, as evidenced during the first debate between the candidates in early April. Both were asked to promise not to retaliate against anyone who supported their opponent. Lynn accepted, explaining that he had made that very pledge back in October and that he’d been asking Dudley to do the same. But Dudley was less clear, saying it would be a breach of public trust to promise anyone anything. While her comments initially spooked a few Lynn supporters, she’s recently clarified that no one, Lynn included, would suffer any consequences, including but not limited to losing their job.
Altogether, the ongoing race is turning out to be one of the nastiest countywide elections in recent memory, perhaps the most gloves-off fight for the District Attorney’s office ever. It’s been so bad, in fact, that at the request of interim DA Ann Bramsen, the remaining public debates have been canceled. The decision was officially made out of respect for Christie Stanley, but the request actually came prior to Stanley’s death; the reason, for the sake of department morale.
So Who’s Backing Whom?
The Office of the District Attorney is arguably the most powerful elected position in the county. Sure, the Board of Supervisors makes policy, but there are five different board members. The sheriff arrests people, but if the DA doesn’t prosecute, the arrests mean nothing. With the power to pursue, or not pursue, any criminal charges he or she deems fit, including capital punishment, the DA literally commands the life of citizens. As such, the position requires the utmost intelligence, character, and honesty, and putting those deeply personal traits on the table for all to dissect is one reason why this election has become so emotionally charged. “Is it contentious?” asked Sneddon, who saw little opposition during his two-decade tenure. “Yes it is, and it needs to be.”
Many people on both sides of the race believe that the office will more or less revert back to normal once a leader is chosen, but there are still two very distinct camps with strong opinions forming behind each candidate. Both enjoy endorsements from the legal and law enforcement communities, but absent from either side is the Deputy District Attorneys Association, which more than likely will not endorse either candidate, as it needs a 75 percent supermajority of all union member votes to do so.
Lining up to support Joyce Dudley are Sheriff Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association, the County Firefighters Association, the City Fire Fighters Association, SEIU Local 620 (which includes some DA office employees), and four current prosecutors in the department, including Senior Deputy DAs Hilary Dozer and Ron Zonen, along with some recently retired veterans who still volunteer at the office, such as 37-year veteran Gerald Franklin, who’s reportedly given her campaign $12,000. Though the race is nonpartisan, Dudley is an avowed Democrat, and enjoys the general support of progressives countywide, along with good support from the right.
The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, Lompoc Police Officers Association, Guadalupe Police Officers Association, former sheriff Jim Thomas, and nine current prosecutors in the DA’s office, including Senior Deputy DAs Lee Carter and Aimee Libeu, have all endorsed Lynn, who is also courting the county’s Republican circles. Lynn’s most significant endorsements, however, are those of former district attorney Tom Sneddon, as well as former assistant DA Pat McKinley, and recently retired assistant DAs Eric Hanson and Gene Martinez — a combined 168 years of experience in the DA’s office. “It’s very telling that everyone in management says it’s a no-brainer,” said Sneddon, who hired both Lynn and Dudley. “And these are all people who know both candidates very well.”
What Issues Are at Play?
Underlying this dramatic political race is the county’s $40-million budget deficit. One countywide trimming strategy was an early-retirement program, which many of the District Attorney office’s top managers, senior prosecutors, and longtime investigators opted for recently, but those positions must then remain unfilled for at least six months. Though the office was able to avoid mandatory furloughs in 2008, they are now being enforced throughout the department. Though the June 8 election is too late for the incoming DA to address the current budget cycle — the Board of Supervisors will be finalizing budget decisions that very week — both candidates have their own ideas on how to keep fighting crime in a cash-strapped economy, but there’s no way to deny that times are tough. “No matter how hard that person may try, they can’t suddenly create more money from property taxes or more funding sources for the county,” said Darryl Perlin, a recently retired prosecutor who’s supporting neither candidate.
Lynn’s supporters have been impressed with the 18 or so months he served as an administrator in the DA’s office. “He has the experience, he’s done the job, and the transition would be smoother,” said Senior Deputy DA Lee Carter, who worked on the budget as part of the interim administration. Dudley has challenged Lynn’s claim that he “spent 119 days straight” working on the budget, but Carter said Lynn has been “as involved as anybody.”
For her part, Dudley cites experience years ago as director of the county’s Head Start program, where she ran several branches with more than 100 employees and had to spearhead budget cuts during her five years there. She is pushing a progressive, creative agenda that includes not cutting programs because of the budget, but expanding units, starting new ones, like an arson unit, fostering more community involvement, and encouraging harder work by the DA’s office. She plans to pursue federal funding to enhance the budget, and in cases where it’s appropriate, Dudley wants to pursue forfeiture funds in embezzlement crimes. She wants to involve members of her department to see not only where costs can be cut but also where new programs can be established. She wants to motivate the staff to be more passionate about their jobs, which in turn will lead to people working harder. “I don’t think they’re slackers,” she said. “I just think they’re not inspired.”
Lynn prefers a more traditional focus on fighting crime within the system that already exists. He wants to speed up the court process, a scheduling mess that often gets bogged down in unnecessary continuances, delays, and procedures. This will result in getting criminals prosecuted more quickly, reduce jail overcrowding, and move the system forward. “Our job is to enforce the law and keep the community safe,” he said. Despite serious cuts to the DA department over the past years, Lynn is confident that he and others, such as Bramsen and Gordon Auchincloss, have made the Board of Supervisors understand “just how important we are.” The measuring stick, he said, will be if the public feels safe, if business owners feel like they’re getting justice, and if the department continues to make strides against gang violence. The critical question in good times and bad, said Lynn, is, “Are we truly being protectors of the public?”
To that end, Lynn has said loudly and repeatedly that gang violence will not be tolerated under his regime. “We are going to make it something that’s not worth doing,” he said. “We’re going to take it to them.” As chief trial deputy, he said he’s already allocated more resources to juvenile court because he believes it’s important to start reaching kids when they’re young.
Dudley, on the other hand, said juvenile court is too late for the kids, and prefers to use the term “youth violence” as opposed to gang violence. She said the DA’s office needs to be a constant presence in the schools and get involved in programs that give kids a sense of self-worth. That all sounds nice to Lynn, but he’s responded that, especially with a reduced staff, the DA’s office must focus on its main job, crime prevention through prosecution, and that a prosecutor’s role is not one of social work.
There are places where the candidates’ opinions converge. Both support the return of the truancy program, which was successful for more than a decade before budget cuts killed it, and believe it’s the best opportunity to get parents involved. Both are open to a gang injunction in Santa Barbara, a project currently being pursued by the DA’s office, Santa Barbara Police Department, and Santa Barbara City Attorney that would prohibit known gang members from congregating in certain areas of the city. Both view capital murder (they have each sent criminals to death row) and charging youth as adults as two of the most important decisions the DA can make. “There is nothing we deal with more seriously,” said Lynn, who advocates making each decision on a case-by-case basis. Both take a similar approach to the three-strikes law. But Dudley echoed Lynn when she explained, “It has to be a horrendous, horrendous crime.”
By Paul Wellman
Joshua Lynn was born and raised in Santa Barbara. He attended Santa Barbara High School, studied political science at UC Santa Cruz, and attended law school at the University of San Diego. After marrying his high school sweetheart (they now have two young children) and returning to Santa Barbara, Lynn worked as an unpaid intern at the DA’s office until the next deputy DA job opened in November 1996. “I was given 123 misdemeanor files and told, ‘Your courtroom is over there,’” he recalled.
After years of prosecuting all kinds of cases and spending time in the gang unit, Lynn was named chief trial deputy in 2008 by Stanley, a critical position responsible for staffing courtrooms and assigning serious cases. The administrative role forced Lynn to take on fewer cases, but he does currently have a capital murder case set to go to trial in the fall. Lynn will be prosecuting Robert Ibarra for the 2004 murder of Elias Silva, who was stabbed 48 times in his Goleta apartment. Lynn already sent Ibarra’s cohort in the crime, Joshua Miracle, to death row, though Miracle pleaded guilty in that case.
In his 15 years as a prosecutor, Lynn’s highest profile case was the prosecution of Jesse James Hollywood, who was convicted of first-degree murder last year for arranging the kidnapping and killing of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Though Lynn argued for the death penalty, the jury in the case sentenced Hollywood — on whose story the 2007 movie Alpha Dog was based — to life without parole. Lynn’s detractors have claimed that it was another deputy DA, Ron Zonen, who did the heavy lifting in that case — Zonen was taken off the case for helping the producers of the film while Hollywood was hiding out in Brazil — and that it was close to a slam-dunk case because Hollywood’s three co-conspirators had already been convicted and sent off to prison. The parents of Nicholas Markowitz clearly credit Lynn for the conviction, however, and have come out strongly to support his campaign.
But as the courtroom crowd occasionally witnessed during the Hollywood trial, Lynn’s temper sometimes flares under stress, and that case was not the first time. More than a decade ago, when Lynn was a young prosecutor, according to Santa Barbara legal lore, he once got right up into the face of defense attorney Bob Sanger, started yelling, and backed him into a doorway. At least one person who witnessed the incident thought it might come to blows. Though he now admits to losing his cool back then, Lynn claimed that Sanger had insulted the family of a young victim and that he had raised his voice “out of passion for the victim.” Said Lynn recently, “I take full responsibility. I regret I acted that way.”
Those flare-ups have become a target for Dudley, who believes Lynn’s “anger-management issues” may impact his decisions. Of course, many prosecutors and defense attorneys are quick to assert that Lynn in no way has the hothead market cornered in the DA’s office, and even longtime leader Tom Sneddon was known to blow up from time to time. Plus, Lynn says his intensity can be interpreted positively, explaining, “I’m very, very passionate about what I do.”