Candidates Clash At DA Forum

The view from the moderator's podium. KLH | Union

The view from the moderator's podium. KLH | Union

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

ARCATA – A district attorney candidates debate last week was mostly non-confrontational but the topic of plea bargains triggered spirited back and forth exchanges.

District attorney candidates  Allan Dollison, Elan Firpo, Maggie Fleming and Arnie Klein advanced their views – sometimes strongly – in a March 20 debate event held at the Arcata Community Center and sponsored by the Arcata Police Association, the Mad River Union, radio station KHSU and Arcata High School’s Pepperbox newspaper.

The debate included a variety of questions submitted by residents and forwarded by the event’s moderator, Kevin Hoover, editor-at-large of the Mad River Union. 

The most lively moments came during a segment where candidates were given the chance to have an open conversation on plea bargains. Former County Prosecutor Arnie Klein commented on current County Prosecutor Elan Firpo’s handling of the controversial involuntary manslaughter plea deal in an Arcata fatal stabbing case that was originally charged as a murder.

Klein described the plea bargain as “a softball deal” and both he and Dollison have criticized it in press releases. Dollison said he believes the case wasn’t handled correctly but added that Klein’s use of the word “evil” in his press release on the situation “went too far.”

Firpo has been taken off the case at her request and she said its politicizing has made it “a travesty.”

Klein pursued the conversation allowed by the format, telling Dollison that “when you take a human being’s life, that’s evil – that’s not overstating it, Allan.”

He said he’d be at killer Juan ferrer’s April 3 sentencing hearing to deliver an “impact statement” on the family’s behalf. An autopsy report details three wounds, including a defensive hand wound, Klein continued.

Firpo said she was upfront to the family that a prosecutor has the responsibility to oversee a case and “I would never dump a case onto a family’s lap for them to decide how to handle a case, that’s not what we do – a District Attorney’s office is not vigilante justice.”

She declined response to Klein’s assertions, saying they were “just unprofessional.”

Earlier, Maggie Fleming emphasized her 17 years of experience as a county prosecutor and said that years of work are necessary to learn how to effectively evaluate plea deals. Statewide and nationwide, plea deals typically involve 90 percent of cases but the percentage in Humboldt may be higher, she continued.

“I don’t think enough cases are actually proceeding to trial,” she said, adding that “the defense must always recognize that you are willing to try the case.”

Fleming added that as DA, she’d review all plea deals to ensure consistency.

Dollison had said that 95 percent of all cases are settled with plea bargains. He said that if he’s elected, he’ll require consultation with victims and their families in serious crime cases.

He said he pursed that approach when he was a prosecutor and met with a family on the East Coast when he was there for military training, taking a train to upstate New York “on  my own dime” to see them.

“They were very impressed that I did that and throughout that case, I kept in constant contact with the family,” he continued.

All the candidates shared common ground on the topic of marijuana growing, agreeing that smaller grows shouldn’t be priorities but large scale, environmentally harmful ones should.

In opening statements, Fleming said she’s shown her dedication to the DA’s Office and “I will work harder than anyone to do the job right, every day.”

Dollison said he prosecuted thousands of cases in his six-and-half years as a county prosecutor and he highlighted his military experience as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and combat veteran in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Firpo said that although “we are in possibly dark times right now, I have a plan to make a better Humboldt County.” She said she wants to address under-staffing and regain lost grant funding.

Those issues were also explored by the other candidates and Klein said he’s running because the DA’s Office is now “under-staffed, over-worked, unprepared and untrained.”

Outlining the changes they’d make if elected, Dollison said he’d push for more county funding by informing the Board of Supervisors about “the public safety crisis we’re having.”

Firpo said one of the first things she’d do is assign deputy DAs to work with specific police agencies to improve communication and significantly increase the office’s number of prosecutors by the end of her first term.

Klein said he’d also lobby county supervisors for more funding and if it isn’t delivered, he’d hold a press conference at the county courthouse telling the public that “the Board of Supervisors does not care about you.”

Fleming said she’d address the office’s preponderance of inexperienced prosecutors by actively recruiting law school graduates. She’d also emphasize the use of addiction and mental health treatment to reverse crime trends, she said.

Gallegos on the case

District Attorney Paul Gallegos last week granted Firpo’s request that she be removed as prosecutor in the Juan Ferrer case, and took it over himself.

With a sentencing hearing set for April 3, victim Douglas Anderson-Jordet’s family now says Klein represents them, and that they want Ferrer’s plea deal vacated.

“We were misrepresented and misinformed,” said Donna Johnson.

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