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Andy Lopez case at center of DA race

District Attorney candidates Victoria Shanahan (left) and Jill Ravitch (right).

Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 at 7:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 28, 2014 at 7:54 a.m.

The race for Sonoma County District Attorney is heating up as both sides accuse the other of politicizing the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy on Oct. 22. Voters will have a choice between two very different candidates, incumbent Jill Ravitch and challenger Victoria Shanahan, when they submit their June 3 ballot.

Ravitch comes with 27 years of trial experience, three years of experience managing the department and a slew of high-profile endorsements from elected officials. Shanahan, who has worked in the district attorneys' office in both Mendocino and Sonoma counties and has 12 years of trial experience, is taking a different approach by not seeking any political endorsements.

Both candidates questioned their opponent's response to the Lopez shooting, when the youth was killed after a sheriff's deputy mistook the airsoft gun that he carried over his shoulder as a real weapon. The case has polarized much of the community, exposed distrust between the public and law enforcement and has launched a series of actions aimed at preventing future tragedies.

Shanahan said Ravitch should have handled the investigation internally utilizing a grand jury instead of relying on the Santa Rosa Police Department; and accused Ravitch of delaying the release of the case report until after the election to avoid any political backlash from her decision. Ravitch said the department doesn't have the resources to handle such an involved investigation, and emphatically stated that her office was working to release the report as quickly as possible.

Ravitch countered that Shanahan has used the Lopez tragedy — which is the only event incident that drew sharp criticism of the office during Ravitch's first term — to politicize the campaign, which she said was “shameless.” Shanahan said she believes Ravitch should have rescused herself and sent the case to the Attorney General's Office for review because of her perceived political ties to Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas.

“Call me shameless, it's drawing attention to the inherent issue we have with this case, which is that Jill Ravitch should have recused herself,” Shanahan said. “The perception is that we're all (the DA's Office and the Sheriff's Department) in cahoots.”

Ravitch said Freitas simply endorsed her, nothing more.

Ravitch doubted that Shanahan could effectively adjudicate the Lopez case, because her husband is a Sonoma County Sheriff Deputy, which could taint her decision on cases that require her to question law enforcement action. Shanahan said there is clear protocol on when an attorney should recuse themselves, and said she would not let her marriage influence her decision.

“I don't compromise my principles for anyone, that's not how I was raised,” she asserted.

Ravitch touted her experience and ability to find creative solutions for problems that arise. For example, when the board of supervisors slashed her budget, she secured a $1 million grant to fund a prosecutor specifically to better prosecute domestic violence cases. Another grant allowed the office to hire a prosecutor focused on convicting drunk drivers.

“On my eighth day in office, I was asked to cut 25 percent from my budget,” she said, “We negotiated that down to 11 percent.”

Ravitch said her biggest accomplishment in her first term was opening the Family Justice Center, which last year helped 1,300 clients with issues of domestic, elder and child abuse; sexual assaults and other crimes. The center is a one-stop-shop for victims, with everything from counseling services to legal aid.

Shanahan said, if elected, she would first focus on updating the officer-involved shooting protocol to improve transparency and ensure such cases are investigated by the DA's Office, and would also work to establish guidelines for how to try cases of marijuana crimes. She said currently, the office is being over ambitious about charging low-level offenders who are largely abiding by the state's medical marijuana laws. She's also interested in reworking the environmental crimes unit to more effectively prosecute those who harm the environment.

The two candidates each questioned the other's abilities to effectively manage the $22 million department with a staff of approximately 120 employees, including 46 prosecutors. Ravitch cited Shanahan's lack of management experience. Shanahan said when Ravitch was first elected, the department experienced a “breakdown in case management” during which people who committed the same crime received significantly different sentences, creating confusion for the prosecutors. Ravitch said she firmly believes in looking at the entire person's history when sentencing.

“Two defendants charged with the same crime may have very different backgrounds and circumstances, be it substance abuse, prior convictions, or anything in between. Thus, sentences handed down may differ,” Ravitch said. “Since I took office, our felony conviction rate is at a 10-year high according to the California Department of Justice.”

In terms of campaign finances, Ravitch is trouncing Shanahan, with $56,139 in the bank as of March 17, compared to Shanahan's $3,525. As of March 17, Ravitch had spent about twice as much at $27,512 compared to Shanahan's $12,023. The race for Sonoma County District Attorney is heating up as both sides accuse the other of politicizing the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy on Oct. 22. Voters will have a choice between two very different candidates, incumbent Jill Ravitch and challenger Victoria Shanahan, when they submit their June 3 ballot.

Ravitch comes with 27 years of trial experience, three years of experience managing the department and a slew of high-profile endorsements from elected officials. Shanahan, who has worked in the district attorneys' office in both Mendocino and Sonoma counties and has 12 years of trial experience, is taking a different approach by not seeking any political endorsements.

Both candidates questioned their opponent's response to the Lopez shooting, when the youth was killed after a sheriff's deputy mistook the airsoft gun that he carried over his shoulder as a real weapon. The case has polarized much of the community, exposed distrust between the public and law enforcement and has launched a series of actions aimed at preventing future tragedies.

Shanahan said Ravitch should have handled the investigation internally utilizing a grand jury instead of relying on the Santa Rosa Police Department; and accused Ravitch of delaying the release of the case report until after the election to avoid any political backlash from her decision. Ravitch said the department doesn't have the resources to handle such an involved investigation, and emphatically stated that her office was working to release the report as quickly as possible.

Ravitch countered that Shanahan has used the Lopez tragedy — which is the only event incident that drew sharp criticism of the office during Ravitch's first term — to politicize the campaign, which she said was “shameless.” Shanahan said she believes Ravitch should have rescused herself and sent the case to the Attorney General's Office for review because of her perceived political ties to Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas.

“Call me shameless, it's drawing attention to the inherent issue we have with this case, which is that Jill Ravitch should have recused herself,” Shanahan said. “The perception is that we're all (the DA's Office and the Sheriff's Department) in cahoots.”

Ravitch said Freitas simply endorsed her, nothing more.

Ravitch doubted that Shanahan could effectively adjudicate the Lopez case, because her husband is a Sonoma County Sheriff Deputy, which could taint her decision on cases that require her to question law enforcement action. Shanahan said there is clear protocol on when an attorney should recuse themselves, and said she would not let her marriage influence her decision.

“I don't compromise my principles for anyone, that's not how I was raised,” she asserted.

Ravitch touted her experience and ability to find creative solutions for problems that arise. For example, when the board of supervisors slashed her budget, she secured a $1 million grant to fund a prosecutor specifically to better prosecute domestic violence cases. Another grant allowed the office to hire a prosecutor focused on convicting drunk drivers.

“On my eighth day in office, I was asked to cut 25 percent from my budget,” she said, “We negotiated that down to 11 percent.”

Ravitch said her biggest accomplishment in her first term was opening the Family Justice Center, which last year helped 1,300 clients with issues of domestic, elder and child abuse; sexual assaults and other crimes. The center is a one-stop-shop for victims, with everything from counseling services to legal aid.

Shanahan said, if elected, she would first focus on updating the officer-involved shooting protocol to improve transparency and ensure such cases are investigated by the DA's Office, and would also work to establish guidelines for how to try cases of marijuana crimes. She said currently, the office is being over ambitious about charging low-level offenders who are largely abiding by the state's medical marijuana laws. She's also interested in reworking the environmental crimes unit to more effectively prosecute those who harm the environment.

The two candidates each questioned the other's abilities to effectively manage the $22 million department with a staff of approximately 120 employees, including 46 prosecutors. Ravitch cited Shanahan's lack of management experience. Shanahan said when Ravitch was first elected, the department experienced a “breakdown in case management” during which people who committed the same crime received significantly different sentences, creating confusion for the prosecutors. Ravitch said she firmly believes in looking at the entire person's history when sentencing.

“Two defendants charged with the same crime may have very different backgrounds and circumstances, be it substance abuse, prior convictions, or anything in between. Thus, sentences handed down may differ,” Ravitch said. “Since I took office, our felony conviction rate is at a 10-year high according to the California Department of Justice.”

In terms of campaign finances, Ravitch is trouncing Shanahan, with $56,139 in the bank as of March 17, compared to Shanahan's $3,525. As of March 17, Ravitch had spent about twice as much at $27,512 compared to Shanahan's $12,023.

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