On March 9, the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends aired a blistering segment attacking newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón and his decision to bar prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against a pair of accused child murderers. The guest for the segment was Jon Hatami, head of the DA’s child abuse unit and the lead prosecutor on the case. If it is unusual for a prosecutor to batter his boss on national TV, it is extraordinary for one to say, as Hatami did that morning, “We now have a district attorney who is pro-criminal, anti-victim, and who refuses to follow the law.”
But these are extraordinary times in the Los Angeles DA’s office. Gascón unseated incumbent Jackie Lacey in November and vowed to shake things up inside the nation’s largest local prosecutor’s office. And on his first day on the job, he delivered with a dizzying set of reforms, from suspending the death penalty to getting rid of cash bail to ending the practice of charging juveniles as adults. The backlash has been as big and dramatic as the implications of the changes; it has been furious and, increasingly, politically opportunistic.
Less than three months into his term, the 67-year-old Gascón faces a recall effort launched by law-enforcement officials and the families of crime victims, including the aunt of ten-year-old Anthony Avalos, the boy whose murder Hatami lamented in the sensational death-penalty segment on Fox & Friends. Gay rights advocates took Gascón to task for scrapping sentencing enhancements for hate crimes. (He later reversed his decision.) He’s been rapped by a judge and his own deputy DAs for dismissing gang enhancements and firearm allegations from pending cases, and for his pronounced preference for social-justice-minded outsiders over veteran prosecutors on his leadership team. Recently, there have been votes of no confidence from the city councils of Beverly Hills and Santa Clarita.
The public flap is a sign of the opposition that Gascón is generating from all sides. But it has been Hatami’s relentless media attacks against his boss that have driven the narrative of an overreaching DA. A week after Gascón took the oath of office, resting his left hand on a copy of the Constitution held by his wife, former Univision news anchor Fabiola Kramsky, Hatami became the first deputy DA to say on camera what many were saying privately: that by ordering prosecutors to dismiss enhancements and “three strikes” allegations, Gascón was ignoring the law and making L.A. less safe.
On Fox 11 L.A., Hatami went on to accuse Gascón of creating and disseminating a “snitch form” for defense attorneys to tattle on prosecutors who disobeyed the DA’s order to drop enhancements. (Gascón’s office denies involvement in the creation or dissemination of such a form.) Max Szabo, a Gascón spokesperson, fired back, telling Fox newscaster Gina Silva that Hatami’s “delusional theories raise questions as to one’s fitness to practice law.”
Gascón knew some of his controversial reforms would come under fire. But he didn’t expect one of his deputy Das to be leading the charge.
Hatami, a prosecutor for 15 years, is used to playing to the camera. As the lead prosecutor in one of the most infamous child-abuse cases in California history, he features prominently as the deputy DA who wears his heart on his sleeve in the Netflix documentary series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. Eight-year-old Fernandez was tortured and murdered by his mother, Pearl, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, allegedly because the pair believed the first-grader was gay. In the documentary’s climactic scene, after the jury has returned a guilty verdict against Aguirre, reporters swarm an emotional Hatami outside court. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles, fighting back tears. “I was a victim of child abuse.” The outpouring was cathartic to viewers, but chagrined some old-school deputy DAs.
In its broadest contours, the feud between Hatami and Gascón boils down to this: Hatami is one of the most recognizable faces in the DA’s office, a prosecutor of some of the most heinous crimes—death-penalty cases involving badly abused and murdered children. Gascón opposes the death penalty on the moral and practical grounds that it is exorbitantly expensive, racially biased, and risks executing innocent people. For both Gascón and Hatami, the election debate over crime and punishment didn’t end once the votes were counted. The agonies inflicted on children like Fernandez have been recast by Gascón’s critics as debating points for keeping capital punishment on the table as punishment for the most abominable crimes.
With every televised back-and-forth between the new DA and his media-savvy deputy, a simmering rift within the Los Angeles prosecutor’s office spills into public view. The DA wields wide discretion to carry out what he interprets as his voter mandate, but there’s little he can do about outspoken in-house critics like Hatami, who technically work for the county, not the DA, and enjoy considerable job protections through the civil-service commission.
“Obviously, I’m not going to get promoted,” Hatami told Los Angeles. He says he could be transferred to a less desirable assignment, maybe one far from home. (In DA-office jargon, this is known as “freeway therapy.”) But considering Hatami’s high profile and the potential blowback, Gascón could elect to just ignore him. “There’s all this publicity, and he’d look bad if he did it,” Hatami adds.
There’s also another wrinkle: Hatami is suing Gascón, the county, and a Gascón spokesperson for libel, defamation, retaliation, and the creation of a hostile work environment.
The lawsuit traces the personal feud between the two men to some provocative remarks Gascón made about the Fernandez case during a televised interview shortly after the election. Asked by Spectrum News 1’s Alex Cohen why he felt the need to ban capital punishment in Los Angeles when Governor Gavin Newsom already issued a moratorium on death sentences, Gascón said that the DA in the Fernandez case—Hatami—had sought the death penalty to satisfy a personal grudge against Aguirre, convicted with Fernandez of murdering her son.
Gascón told Cohen that Aguirre was not the “heavy” in the murder and that when the defendant refused the prosecution’s plea deal for life without parole, “it rubbed the DA the wrong way.” Gascón felt that the death sentence, under the circumstances, was a “high premium to pay to soothe somebody’s ego.” The words stung Hatami, who said he found them not only insulting but potentially damaging to future appeals of the case. (A spokesman for Gascón said the DA declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.)
Insiders say that Gascón is ensconced in his new home in the Naples Island neighborhood of Long Beach, working remotely to limit his exposure to COVID-19. A February visit to his office in the Antelope Valley was met with protest from victims’ families concerned with his plan to establish a resentencing unit to review the cases of 30,000 convicted offenders. Meanwhile, Hatami is a regular on Fox News and has been appearing with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at “victims vigils” that double as signature-gathering efforts for recall proponents.
Hatami is the most public of the bevy of current and former prosecutors testing the waters for a possible run for the top job if Gascón falters. He says he’d first have to discuss it with his wife, Roxanne, an L.A. sheriff’s detective, and his two sons. But “the longer I’m involved in this movement,” he said, “the more it seems like a possibility.”
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