New Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has wasted no time shaking up America’s largest criminal justice jurisdiction. He promised to implement sweeping policy changes if elected and made good on that pledge immediately after he was sworn in last week, sending shockwaves throughout the D.A.’s office, L.A. County, and beyond.
He’s already made a series of controversial moves, including an attempt to drop special charges against a suspected murderer accused of killing two people last year, one of which was an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputy.
FOX 11 News recently reported it had “confirmed that Gascón’s office is seeking to dismiss all gun enhancements and special circumstances” against Rhett Nelson, who police say shot and killed LASD Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano while he was off-duty, standing in line at a fast food restaurant on June 10, 2019. He later died in the hospital. Nelson is also accused of fatally shooting Dmitry Koltsov, a famed 31-year-old snowboarder, from his vehicle earlier that day.
NEW: Under new D.A. George Gascon’s reforms, I’ve confirmed his office is trying to dismiss all enhancements & special circumstances against the alleged double murderer/cop killer accused of shooting LASD deputy Gilbert Solano in the back of his head. His sister is irate. @FOXLA pic.twitter.com/SxnPiOuRPG
— Bill Melugin (@BillFOXLA) December 15, 2020
Nelson, 31, was charged with two counts of murder and second-degree robbery and attempted murder.
Sentence enhancements and special circumstance allegations are intended to act as extra punishments, added on to the charge of an underlying offense. This case includes special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, along with accusations of using a handgun in the commission of those crimes.
If convicted as currently charged, Nelson would face a possible maximum sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, Greg Risling, a spokesman for the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, told The Daily Wire prosecutors would ask a judge to drop the special circumstance allegations and gun enhancements at an upcoming preliminary hearing on January 11.
“Our office will be seeking to dismiss the special circumstance allegations, which make the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and enhancements at the next court hearing pursuant to the recent special directives,” he said.
That would mean Nelson could eventually be released from prison even if he is convicted of murdering Deputy Solano and Mr. Koltsav.
A spokesperson for D.A. Gascón’s transition team issued a statement to FOX 11 explaining the decision.
“The defendant is facing a sentence of 40 years to life in prison, but there is no sentence that can undo the harm caused in this case,” it read. “If convicted there is a possibility that – decades from now – the parole board could determine he’s been rehabilitated. Such a determination, many years from now, would ultimately be a reflection of a system and the public alike weighing their continued interest in incarcerating a man who no longer poses a threat to society at extraordinary taxpayer cost. Eliminating that remote possibility today may not be in the public’s interest decades from now.”
Deputy Solano’s sister, Christina, sat down with FOX 11 to discuss D.A. Gascón’s strategy, which he has said strives to find the proper balance between reducing violent crime and increasing public safety “without overincarcerating.”
“(Gascón) should be there for the families, we are the victims here, not this person who shot him,” she told the outlet. “I don’t understand what his purpose is to let these murderers out of jail, I don’t get it, he’s like the Devil, I don’t understand it.”
While many of Gascón’s new critics were relatively silent during the campaign, the man who became known as the “Godfather of progressive prosecutors” while serving as San Francisco’s top law enforcement official had dropped several clues about what could be forthcoming if elected in L.A.
As The Daily Wire reported in October, Gascón had vowed not to prosecute some offenses to the fullest extent allowed. He said he would require prosecutors to obtain approval before pursuing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and would not enforce California’s controversial “Three-Strikes Law.” He also promised to end gang enhancements and said he would never seek the death penalty.
“I don’t believe that necessarily having the type of sentencing schemes that we have, where we’re sending people to prison 40-50 years or longer periods of time, has any connection to public safety,” Gascón told The Appeal earlier this year.
He referenced other countries around the world with punishments “usually around 20 years” for serious offenses.
“After 20 years, it’s a year-by-year evaluation of psychological and dangerousness assessment,” Gascón continued. “I think that we need to start moving in that direction. One of the things that I did in San Francisco was that we looked hard at any sentence over 20 years.”
“If I were to be elected DA in LA, I would probably lower that threshold to 15 years, where we have to have a strong executive review of any commitments that will go much longer. That’s not to say that it would never happen, but it’s not automatic.”
Gascón’s campaign was primarily backed by criminal justice reform advocates, New York-based mega-donor George Soros, and liberal philanthropists from the Bay Area. His predecessor, Jackie Lacey, who was widely considered the establishment candidate, had the support of law enforcement unions.