Former prosecutor Kathleen Cady uses her connections not to advocate for the rights of victims, but to silence them and change sentencing policies.
Despite millions of dollars spent and intense publicity, the recall effort against Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón failed for a second time last fall. The campaign hoped to capitalize on the popular bipartisan narrative that “crime waves” are besieging liberal city centers, despite mixed data. Its organizers face allegations of mismanaged finances and fraud as well as the recent revelation that 367 recall signatories were deceased before the petition was circulated. However, the recall committee has in turn accused Los Angeles County election officials of improperly invalidating signatures, and a review is still underway months later. Seven months after its initial failure, the campaign’s website is still accepting donations.
Left unsaid in the recall postmortem is the extent to which anti-Gascón voices have already shaped criminal justice in Los Angeles. Since at least 2021, Kathleen Cady, former prosecutor and co-chair of the recall committee, has appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court as a victims’ rights attorney — not to give victims the opportunity to speak, but to file briefs, make legal arguments, and change sentencing policies. Cady did not respond to requests for comment.
Cady has appeared in dozens of cases since Gascón took office, and she continues to represent victims in Superior Court and in parole hearings. She may have lost the recall, but per the New York Times, she has created “a kind of shadow district attorney’s office” with the assistance of current and former prosecutors.
Though the recall campaign collected about 520,000 valid signatures of LA residents, DA Gascón was elected by about 2 million voters in November 2020 after running on a progressive, reformist platform. Cady was not elected by voters or appointed by any elected official, but her advocacy has shaped resentencing cases across Los Angeles County and undermined popular initiatives approved by voters. Cady maintains that her aim is to uphold victims’ rights, but others in the legal community believe Cady is prosecuting by proxy and hurting both defendants and victims in the process.
What Rights Do Victims Have?
Contrary to popular belief, victims and victims’ next of kin are not parties to criminal cases. They may appear as witnesses, or make statements at sentencing, but district attorneys represent “the People” — not the victim. Still, victims are not powerless in the criminal justice system, and many states have followed California in adopting a Victims’ Bill of Rights, also known as Marsy’s law. Organizations like the ACLU have argued that equating victims’ rights with defendants’ rights undermines due process because rights against an individual are fundamentally different from rights against the power of the state.
Marsy’s law was passed by voters in 2008, and it significantly expanded the rights of victims to include reasonable notice of case events, restitution, and the opportunity to provide sentencing recommendations to the court. There are 17 enumerated rights, but six of them are “upon request” and require the victim to opt in. Victims may choose to opt in at any time, but they are typically advised of their rights when a case is first prosecuted.
Sentencing Reforms for Juvenile Offenders
Recent reforms in California sentencing law have given certain defendants chances for early release. Proposition 57 increased opportunities for good conduct credits and parole hearings and barred prosecutors from trying juveniles as adults without a transfer hearing and a judge’s approval.
Prop 57 was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016, with over 64% voting “yes.” In 2018, the California Supreme Court decided the juvenile offender provision applied to any case that was still pending on appeal, which entitled some juveniles charged as adults to transfer hearings — even if those defendants were now adults.
One of Gascón’s initial policies as district attorney was to refuse to transfer any minor defendant out of juvenile court, including defendants whose transfers to adult court were being reevaluated years after sentencing. Since the juvenile justice system cannot imprison defendants past the age of 25, that meant immediate release for some.
Cady’s filings in Superior Court call DA Gascón’s failure to hold transfer hearings “unlawful,” “appalling, unethical,” and “outrageous.” But those same filings omit important language from Marsy’s law to make it appear that Gascón’s office violated the statute.
A defense attorney, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identity of their client, brought the missing “upon request” language to the judge’s attention. When confronted by the judge about the misstatements of law, Cady apparently apologized and called it a mistake, though the same omissions were found in multiple briefs over the course of several months.
The defense attorney told Knock LA that this particular case had been in litigation for 10 years. The victims had never been mentioned, much less included by the DA’s office until it seemed like the defendant could win relief. “They wait until a judge does something they don’t like, then invoke Marsy’s Law.”
Marketa Sims, former directing appellate attorney for the LA County Bar Association’s Independent Juvenile Defender Program, believes that Cady’s advocacy is more about expanding Marsy’s Law than enforcing it: “Cady wants to change policy, not just give victims an opportunity to speak. But her arguments are not tethered to the law, and she doesn’t have standing to make them.” Sims and her colleagues were able to defeat Cady’s efforts to transfer defendants back to adult court in at least 10 separate cases.
“Standing” is essentially the right of a party to challenge another party in court, and because victims are not party to criminal actions, they do not have the right to make legal arguments. Still, that has not prevented Cady from making them — and it hasn’t prevented some judges from listening.
Prosecuting by Proxy
Marisa Harris, formerly an attorney with Loyola Law School’s Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing clinic, says that the law was clear that her client should be released after Gascón’s office withdrew their motion to transfer the case to adult court. That release was delayed by Cady’s intervention, leaving her client stuck in Men’s Central Jail for months. “He was doing really well in prison, and had been doing well for years. He was taking his rehabilitation seriously — if anyone was safe to release, it was this client. If we’d had to go to parole the next day, he would’ve been found suitable.” Without relief under Prop 57, he was 10 years away from his first parole hearing.
Although the judge did not let Cady argue in court, it was clear that he read her filings, which cited a 50-year-old case as authority that stated the judge could decide to hold a transfer hearing, even if the DA’s office refused to ask for one. “He said that she didn’t have standing, but she put the information in front of him that he relied on for his ruling. And that information actually came from the DA’s office.” Indeed, someone from the DA’s office leaked an internal memo to Cady about this issue, which she filed as an exhibit to her motion. In effect, Cady made the argument for the prosecutor, who was prevented by Gascón’s policies from making it himself.
The gambit failed. Harris appealed the judge’s decision, citing newer law, and after the appellate court asked the judge for an explanation — an unusual admonishment — he quietly withdrew his ruling and conceded that the defendant should be released. That procedural back-and-forth took three months, which meant three extra months of sitting in a crowded, dangerous jail without rehabilitative programming or support.
It also meant months of anguish for the victims, who Cady brought to court at every opportunity, even when there was no reason for them to be there. At the first court appearance, Cady appeared to not know the family members’ names. Harris was shocked that “when the judge asked who was sitting with her, they had to introduce themselves to the court.” Similar instances were recounted by three other attorneys who had cases that Cady intervened in; Cady would fail to know her clients’ names when asked, and was unable to speak with them because they were monolingual Spanish speakers.
Harris says it is unclear if the families knew the state of the law or what would happen at the hearing. “I don’t know what Cady told them, but it seemed like the victims’ family believed there was something they could do or say to change the outcome. They were devastated.”
Juan Meraz, a defendant in a different Prop 57 transfer case, also waited many extra months for release because of Cady’s involvement. He says it felt like a chance was given and then taken away, and the uncertainty “almost emotionally broke” his family. It was especially hard on his young son. Meraz was 16 when he was sentenced to life without parole in 2009 for two gang-related homicides. Twelve years in prison had radically transformed Meraz, who took advantage of every rehabilitative opportunity despite a life sentence. At the first hearing, one victim said he didn’t think Meraz should be free, but he forgave him. A family member of another victim said she hoped he’d changed and that he would try to fix the mistakes he’d made. The DA on the case cried and said it was her “worst day as a prosecutor.”
At the next court date, the victims had Cady representing them, who argued that a transfer hearing had to happen despite the law being clear. Meraz was eventually released, and is doing well; he works three jobs, coaches his son’s baseball team, and goes to school. He also helps other men who’ve recently been released adjust to life on the outside. “This is my first time being an adult in society, but I’m putting everything I’ve learned into action.”
In some instances, Cady went further than arguing as if she was still a prosecutor; she also sought to recuse Gascón’s entire office from cases, or failing that, particular prosecutors that she deemed too defense-friendly.
Alisa Blair, who recently left the DA’s office for a position as policy and special projects director for the Community Based Public Safety Collective, handled a number of the office’s transfer cases before her departure. Blair was with the Los Angeles public defender’s office for many years before joining Gascón’s administration, a fact which Cady considered damning in and of itself. Cady also accused Blair of failing to reach out to victims to keep them apprised of case updates and get their feedback.
But Blair showed Knock LA earlier emails she received from Cady after Blair reached out to victims, ordering her to cease contact because they were represented parties and could not be spoken to without Cady’s consent. These motions to force Blair’s recusal were never successful, perhaps in part because they made these misrepresentations.
Cady lost those individual battles, but she may have won the war on transfer cases. Multiple sources expressed their belief that Cady’s advocacy in court and in the press contributed to Gascón’s decision to walk back the elimination of juvenile transfers to adult court — a policy that he ran and won on in 2020.
Fighting for Death Sentences
Though there were a finite number of adult defendant transfer cases to litigate, Cady also sought out other resentencing cases being handled by Gascón’s office. Gascón campaigned on eliminating new death sentences in LA County, and his office has also reevaluated old death penalty cases that have been pending on appeal or on habeas corpus petitions.
Governor Gavin Newsom issued an indefinite moratorium on executions in 2019, but California has not executed a death row inmate since 2006. Death penalty litigation is often drawn out for decades, and the costs are staggering. Although capital punishment in California has been largely theoretical for years, it adds $184 million to the budget each fiscal year. A 2011 study of California’s death penalty found that “taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978, or $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then.”
In 2021, 65 death penalty habeas petitions were sent from the California Supreme Court back to Los Angeles Superior Court. That list of cases was then leaked and obtained by Cady and other recall proponents. Cady has apparently used this list to proactively reach out to victims and next of kin, because when some victims then contacted the DA’s office for an explanation, they discovered that the case was not yet under review. And in cases under review, where the DA’s office did contact victims, the victims were often shocked to learn that the judgment from 20, 30, or 40 years ago wasn’t final. They were never contacted by previous DA administrations about the status of the case.
Cady sought to disqualify the DA’s office from the prosecution of a habeas case after the office agreed to resentence a defendant to life without parole. This agreement followed the Atkins V. Virgina decision, which found that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute an intellectually disabled person.
Cady appeared on Fox News to discuss these death penalty cases and provided them with a list of the names, ages, and offenses of inmates who have been resentenced from death to life without parole under Gascón’s tenure. One of the listed names was near identical to another death row inmate, which led a distraught and surprised victim’s relative to contact the DA’s office for answers. The misunderstanding was explained; the man who killed her relative had not been resentenced, just someone with a very similar name. In fact, the family of the victim of the resentenced inmate had been contacted and did not oppose the life without parole sentence.
A Victim Left Behind
Being a victim of crime, or experiencing the death or harm of a loved one, is deeply traumatizing, and the adversarial court system is not designed with victims’ needs in mind. The people that Cady represents may well be grateful for her advocacy, even if it doesn’t lead to the result they’re hoping for. However, at least one victim has been left feeling abandoned — not a victims’ rights client, but a victim and her family in one of Cady’s last cases as a prosecutor.
A source within the DA’s office informed Knock LA that Cady hurriedly settled, on the eve of her retirement, a case involving sexual abuse of a minor. Documentation confirmed that Cady was the prosecutor, the timing of the conviction, and that the defendant was convicted of one count of lewd acts with a minor child under 14. The other count, for continuous sexual abuse of a minor child under 14, was dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement. He received a three-year sentence, far less than the 16-year maximum for the original charge. The victim’s mother agreed to speak to Knock LA with the assistance of a Spanish interpreter, and on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s identity.
The victim’s mother only spoke to Cady once, but she said it was not a very helpful conversation — no one from the DA’s office asked what her daughter or the family wanted, and they were not included in the negotiation of the sentence. She only found out he was sentenced and in prison after calling victim notification services; she was never told how many years he received.
“They didn’t support my daughter enough. The detective was supportive, but he was doing the work of getting dates and evidence. He was good with that, but from the district attorney, no one really helped us or told us what to do for my daughter. I wish there had been more information for my daughter, for me, for our family. I wish there had been advice for what she should do to move through this trauma. We’re all still struggling… Will this help them realize that they did a poor job with my daughter?”
The DA’s office has since informed Knock LA that they are trying to connect her daughter to victims’ services.
Optics Over Data
Cady’s advocacy for victims in LA Superior Court is outside the bounds of what is outlined in Marsy’s Law, and it is unclear what victories her clients have to show for it. Cady has leveraged her role as a victims’ rights advocate and former prosecutor into bylines, media appearances, and a prominent position within the recall movement.
While the recall against Gascón is long gone, three candidates have emerged to run against the district attorney in 2024: Jonathan Hatami, John McKinney, and Maria Ramirez. They largely echo Cady’s sentiments. All three worked have worked as prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. Cady has appeared with Hatami on a Heritage Foundation panel on “rogue prosecutors.” The Heritage Foundation is an explicitly conservative think tank pushing GOP policies. She also appeared with McKinney at a 2022 event for the failed recall campaign.
Cady’s central premise, that Gascón is a rogue DA who won’t hold criminals accountable, ignores rising crime rates in rural areas and in cities with tough-on-crime DAs, like Sacramento. It also fails to acknowledge law enforcement’s role in solving and deterring crime. As reported in the Los Angeles Times last year, “while prosecutors’ felony filing rates have not changed since Gascón took office, law enforcement’s success in capturing dangerous criminals has.”
The Los Angeles Police Department solved 77% of all homicides in 2019, but that figure fell to 66% last year. In sheriff’s department territory, that clearance rate fell from 71% in 2019 to approximately 40% last year, according to data provided by the agency.” Sheriff Alex Villanueva was a vocal ally of the recall campaign, amid public scandals and his later failure to win reelection. Gascón may object to deploying such statistics. Following the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, he remarked that “people don’t care about data. This is about emotions. This is about how you perceive and feel. And you cannot use data to deal with feelings.”
Some Los Angeles residents may feel unsafe, and they may feel that Gascón is responsible for that. But when the recall effort failed in August, the campaign did not rally outside City Hall, the Criminal Justice Center, or the DA’s office. They chose a park in Beverly Hills, adjacent to Rodeo Drive. That part of Los Angeles is about 80% white, with a median household income of about $100,000 and a median property value of $2 million. If Cady and her supporters are supposed to represent what LA really wants, their choice of venue evokes a different feeling altogether.