At her swearing-in ceremony last week, new District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer playfully borrowed an ominous line from "Game of Thrones," HBO’s bloody medieval fantasy of power lust, betrayal and assassination: “Winter has come.”
And it was on. The boo birds had been given clearance to take flight. Darkness had descended on the kingdom. If there were two ways to interpret some action by the new district attorney, any action at all, the more sinister one was the default choice.
A newly crafted image depicting a broken sword superimposed over the scales of justice would be going on the district attorney's letterhead in place of the official, generic county seal, with its bucolic tableau of rolling hills, agricultural bounty and other symbols of the region's economic identity. Well, there you go: Surely that proved Zimmer was self-important and anti-bucolic.
Portraits of past district attorneys, going back to the county's 1866 founding, would be coming down from their positions of honor in the office. Well, that was clearly evidence that Zimmer was plotting a Lenin-esque purge of history. What was next? Re-education camps? (Zimmer later canceled the decree.)
And now Satan himself had been given an office in the building: Former longtime District Attorney Ed Jagels, who hired Zimmer three decades ago and endorsed her run for office last year, was coming back as an unpaid, part-time legislative consultant. Surely the less desirable aspects of his tenure would seep into the DNA of the Zimmer administration to the detriment of all that is good and just.
What might be next? Would she be putting Darth Vader on retainer?
We seem to be getting a little overexercised here. The woman has barely warmed her chair.
Zimmer has the chops for the job. Before taking office, she was the supervising deputy district attorney in the gangs unit, and she demonstrated prosecuting passion. But her resume goes well beyond that: In her 33 years with the DA’s office, she has prosecuted a variety of misdemeanors and felonies, including sex crimes, homicides and narcotics offenses.
She has been a supervisor for nearly 20 years, the last 10 of them as chief of the gang unit, and prosecutors who have worked under her have expressed respect for her leadership.
This is not to say Zimmer's way of doing things doesn't deserve scrutiny. Several prosecutors have privately complained that they're paying a price for having supported her 2018 election opponent, Scott Spielman, the highly regarded top assistant of retired DA Lisa Green; Spielman has since taken a position with the Tulare County District Attorney's Office.
Zimmer seems to have banished several Spielman supporters to satellite outposts in Lamont, Mojave and elsewhere — including a former prosecutor of the year. (One of Spielman's most prominent in-office advocates, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael Yraceburn, who filed a still-unresolved campaign finance complaint against Zimmer supporters with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, remains on the job for now.)
But, other than the office promotions and de facto demotions — a not-insignificant series of developments — it's hard to see how things will change much. Zimmer will be a hard-charger, but then so was Green, who had Jagels' enthusiastic support as his replacement eight years ago.
The wild card here, though, is Jagels, who is not just Zimmer's predecessor-mentor, as he was for Green, but now a physical presence in the office, too.
That could be both good and bad; the Jagels influence cuts both ways.
Remember the joke: “Kern County: Arrive on Vacation, Leave on Probation”? The widely circulated make-believe motto was born of Jagels’ lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude. Jagels seemed to be of the mind that the end always justifies the means. And look where it got him.
Prosecutorial misconduct was raised as an issue in appellate court decisions affecting Kern County convictions 108 times over a quarter-century period coinciding with Jagels' tenure.
To put that in a per-capita context, misconduct came up 15 times per 100,000 population on Jagels' watch compared with seven times per 100,000 in Los Angeles County over the same period.
Prosecutorial misconduct tainted one of the biggest cases of Jagels' time in office: That of Bruce Sons, convicted of first-degree murder in the 1994 shooting death of California Highway Patrol Officer Richard Maxwell. Jagels' right-hand man and 20-year colleague, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Tauzer, was found to have withheld crucial evidence about Maxwell, paving the way for a retrial that eventually set Sons free based on time served for a lesser-charge conviction.
Kern County had the highest rate of death-penalty sentences in the state during Jagels' time in office, a record that speaks to Jagels' tough-on-crime stance but ignores the gallingly expensive, futile reality of capital punishment in California.
But, while local law enforcement officials sometimes bristled at Green’s independence and her apparent unwillingness to allow them to call all the shots, they loved Jagels for his aggressive, good-old-boy, pro-cop attitude.
Are we going back to that?
Again, that remains to be seen.
What we will surely get is a DA, and a DA's mentor, willing and anxious to go after state laws they feel inhibit law enforcement and detract from public safety.
They have wasted no time. On Friday, Zimmer's office announced that an unidentified Kern County court, undoubtedly at the behest of her office, had ruled that Senate Bill 1391 represented unconstitutional legislative interference with Proposition 57. That's the 2016 state ballot initiative that gave juvenile courts permission to transfer to adult courts certain felonious offenders as young as 14; SB 1391 came along in 2018 and banned such transfers. Prosecutors like Zimmer and Jagels believe the law strips them of valuable leverage.
The Kern County court decision will surely be reviewed at the state court level, but Zimmer, et al., have served notice.
Next up, in all likelihood: Reversing AB 109, the 2011 law that shifted incarceration of nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious felons from state prisons to county jails; upgrading the charge under Penal Code 148.5 of falsely reporting an active shooter from a misdemeanor to a felony; and toughening the penalty for PC 32 after-the-fact accessory to a crime to align more closely with federal sentencing guidelines for that charge.
No matter how one might feel about those laws, this is clear: The legislative Democratic supermajority that has steered Sacramento in its current direction can and does affect crime and punishment along with everything else. And to the extent that a supermajority of any persuasion will always run the risk of legislative overreach, so too does the capital's progressive echo chamber threaten to mute the debate on law-and-order issues. And debate is generally a healthy thing.
Zimmer's priorities, as demonstrated by Jagels' presence, give the conservative side of that debate a voice. What Sacramento does with it from there is another matter.
Let the palace intrigue begin.