LOS ANGELES—A federal judge on Monday grilled lawyers representing Los Angeles prosecutors about whether racial bias was a factor in the decision not to prosecute politically connected activist Ed Buck in the 2017 overdose death of a black man.
The pointed questioning came during a hearing in a lawsuit filed by the family of Gemmel Moore, who died in Buck’s home, against District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Assistant District Attorney Craig Hum, and the County of Los Angeles.
After Moore overdosed on methamphetamine, his family provided authorities with substantial evidence, including the names of several other victims, that Buck engaged in a pattern of drugging, video-taping, and sexually assaulting black men.
In July 2018, Lacey and her colleagues declined to prosecute Buck. Six months later, after another man, Timothy Dean, died in Buck’s home, Moore’s mother, LaTisha Nixon, filed a lawsuit accusing them of wrongful death, civil-rights violations, and discriminatory conduct by failing to take seriously the complaints of black women.
“Why didn’t they follow up and bring charges against Mr. Buck?” Judge Cormac Carney asked defense attorney Farid Sharaby, who represents the defendants, on Monday.
“Is there anything to Ms. Nixon’s concern that the reason she and others are being told to pound sand is because she’s black? I’m just trying to understand what’s a plausible basis for this—when you have specific allegations of misconduct, but you’re not meeting with these victims? You’re not prosecuting them? Why didn’t they?”
Monday’s hearing was centered on a motion filed by the defense to dismiss the causes of action against Lacey, who is black, and the other officials, who claim that their conduct was not motivated by racial bias.
In a Dec. 24 response to that motion, Nixon’s attorneys wrote that “Ms. Lacey was aware that young black men were making complaints about torture and abuse at the hands of Ed Buck since the time of Mr. Moore’s death.”
“She assigned Mr. Hum to work with counsel representing Mr. Moore and… made public statements regarding the investigation which acknowledged that she knew about the substance of the complaints made by Ms. Nixon against Mr. Buck. At no time did she reach out to Ms. Nixon to follow up on her complaints. Instead, Ms. Lacey ignored them,” they wrote.
In arguments at the hearing, Nixon’s attorney, Nana Gyamfi, told stories of her client’s alleged mistreatment at the hands of public representatives. Last February, for example, Nixon made plans to speak with Lacey at her office and deliver a petition with some 30,000 signatures requesting further investigation into Buck. But when Nixon, her attorneys, and a crowd of supporters approached the District Attorney’s Office for that meeting, Gyamfi said, they were turned away by a wall of armed guards.
“The way that Ms. Lacey responded to her speaks to the racial animus,” Gyamfi said. “She didn’t just send someone downstairs to say, ‘I changed my mind. I don’t want to have this conversation.’ She instead sent down about 12 sheriff’s deputies, as well as three other people from her office, who indicated that they would not take the petitions and that they would not meet with anyone. When we begged and Ms. Nixon begged for her, at least, to be able to come in... that was flatly refused. Ms. Nixon was treated like a criminal.”
Gyamfi went on to argue that her team intended to review complaints filed by black women with the county Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office of violence against themselves or their loved ones—specifically when the perpetrator was not black—see if there was a pattern of ignoring their concerns. “We think we’ll find that the situation is even more egregious,” Gyamfi said. “When we look at, not just the case of Ms. Nixon, but the cases of black mamas who have tried to reach out to Ms. Lacey about the killing of their children by police officers, you’ll find that same failure to respond.”
In response, Sharaby argued that Lacey, Hum, and the county could not be guilty of discriminatory conduct or intent, because they had granted several alleged victims immunity, meaning they could speak freely without fear of being charged. “Ms. Lacey set up this system where you have black young men speaking to the police and incriminating themselves, but they won’t be charged by the D.A., and the purpose of that is to see if there’s evidence to charge a white person,” Sharaby said. “So that allegation completely gets rid of their equal-protection complaint that she’s discriminating against black people.”
Gyamfi argued that these immunity letters came only after intense pressure from Nixon, her counsel, and the public, and cannot be cited as evidence of the officials’ goodwill.
And Judge Carney seemed to agree, pushing back heavily on Sharaby’s argument. “One of my concerns though is, that Mr. Buck seems like a terrible man,” Carney said. “What he did was terrible. Ms. Nixon—I don’t know how long before all the facts about Mr. Buck came out—but she was giving the D.A.’s office a heads up about this guy. I’m just wondering, why weren’t they listening? Why weren’t they sitting down and talking to her?”
Sharaby cited prosecutorial immunity, arguing that you “can’t force the D.A. to prosecute somebody with a civil lawsuit,” but Carney cut him off.
“If you’ll indulge me, put aside the legalese for a moment. You have pretty descriptive reports of terrible conduct from Mr. Buck—why wouldn’t the D.A.’s Office, law enforcement follow up on that?” the judge pressed. “As a matter of good policing practices, as a matter of public relations. It’s not like general allegations of misconduct. It’s Mr. Buck drugging, video-taping, sexually assaulting, and raping black men. They’re giving you specific names of who this is happening to. And the D.A. says, ‘We’re not going to talk to you.’ I just don’t understand that.”
“Well,” Sharaby said. “The Sheriff’s Department investigated the incident—based on the evidence they gathered—they gave the evidence to the D.A. and they make their judgment based on the evidence they have. That’s the answer.”
In September, after a third alleged victim survived an overdose in Buck’s West Hollywood apartment, federal authorities arrested the longtime Democratic donor and charged him with operating a drug house, battery, assault, and administering meth resulting in Moore’s death. A month later, a federal grand jury indicted Buck on a second count for the death of Dean.
Carney will decide on the motion later this week.