Prosecutorial Accountability In Action
A cultural shift is happening across the country.
On Wednesday, June 14, Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson pled guilty to one felony and resigned. Many of us started calling for his resignation and prosecution in January. It only took six (6) months for it to become reality. Prosecutorial accountability in action!
Why Peterson Had to Go
In May, a civil grand jury recommended that Peterson be removed from office. The grand jury relied upon the fact that Peterson misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money. But, Peterson has done more than steal $66,000 over the last five years. Peterson represented an old way of thinking about criminal justice that is not in line with the people who live in Contra Costa County.
Mark Peterson advocated against criminal justice reform at every turn. Voters in Contra Costa County voted overwhelmingly in favor of Prop. 36, Prop. 47 and Prop. 57. These bills all helped relieve the overburdened California prison system. In 2012, Peterson opposed Prop. 36, which reformed California’s draconian three-strikes law. He told the Mercury News that the 3 Strikes law “gives prosecutors a powerful bargaining position.” He also opposed Prop. 47 and Prop. 57.
Peterson is both ignorant and dismissive of the structural racial inequities in the criminal justice system. After the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for murdering Michael Brown in Ferguson, Peterson wrote “All Lives Matter,” and argued that “crimes are perpetrated disproportionately by poor people of color.”
As the District Attorney, Peterson decided to charge Black children in Contra Costa County as adults 12 times more often than white kids. While African Americans make up 9.6 percent of the total county population, they represent 41 percent of the juvenile probation population. Peterson regularly overcharged and prosecuted Black, Latino and poor women for petty theft crimes while excusing his own felonious conduct.
The Flip Side of Unequal Justice
While Peterson has showed a disdain for the people he represents and serves, he has shown favoritism to bad actors in law enforcement. He conducted the most perfunctory investigation of the Richmond police officers who were allegedly complicit in a massive sex trafficking ring. He initially refused to prosecute any of them.
Peterson turned a blind eye to the community’s concerns about sexual exploitation and obstruction of justice. The Richmond Police Department initially denied and later admitted that it arranged to transport the 19-year-old survivor-victim witness to Florida. Once there, she was promptly arrested, charged with a felony and incarcerated facing a possible 15-year sentence under extremely dubious circumstances. Peterson’s office made no effort to assist me in securing her release from jail or returning her to California.
Peterson’s 2014 investigation of the murder of Richard “Pedie” Perez, an unarmed man shot by Richmond Police Officer Wally Jensen, was so flawed that the family and much of the community remains outraged that a murderer may have gotten away. There is compelling evidence that Officer Jensen initiated a physical confrontation by repeatedly tackling Pedie. Pedie was unarmed and intoxicated. After tackling Pedie, Jensen backed up, pulled his gun and shot Pedie three times, killing him.
Peterson also refused to investigate whether the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) was defrauded in connection with a $1.6 billion school construction bond program. There is compelling evidence that the WCCUSD provided contractor SGI with rent-free office space, a 10 percent markup on general contracting reimbursements and reimbursement for office furnishings, supplies and cellular service. An investigation also found that SGI received substantial increases in pay, averaging 69 percent, when 10 or 20 percent would have been reasonable.
The Michael Gressett Scandal
In 2015, Peterson rehired his friend and supporter, Deputy DA Michael Gressett. In 2008, Gressett was charged with a violent sexual assault against a female co-worker involving an ice pick and a handgun. Eventually, Contra Costa County paid $450,000 to settle the victim’s civil case for rape. She accused Gressett of sodomy and false imprisonment. The criminal case against Gressett was dismissed on a technicality. Later, the Attorney General’s office decided not to refile the criminal case because the victim had moved to Florida and refused to return to California to testify against Gressett.
How The Community Brought Him Down
Peterson’s downfall was the culmination of months of organizing and a community that “woke up.” Citizens, everyday people became aware of his actions and rejected his reasoning. First it was activists holding a public trial in front of his office in January. Peterson was “found guilty” on a 7-count indictment. To his credit, County Supervisor John Gioia stood up to represent the interests of his community and called for Peterson’s resignation.
Then it was the civil grand jury recommending his removal. Next, it was a vote of no-confidence by the prosecutors’ union. Local editorial boards called for his resignation. Most people were absolutely appalled by the fact that Peterson intended to run for re-election.
Peterson’s resignation is a victory for the people of Contra Costa County. The community found its voice and used its voice to reject lawlessness by its chief law enforcement officer. Peterson’s prosecution proves that law enforcement officials can be held accountable under the law. All it takes is a will to look, speak up and act out! #Stay Tuned & StayWoke.