Gascon’s special assistant Mario Trujillo gave a sweetheart offer to the client of Traci Blackburn, who donated to his campaign. The offer was apparently negotiated by Tiffany Blacknell, who is a Gascon official. Here’s how it happened.
Traci Blackburn was representing a defendant who was accused of committing murder and multiple attempted murders. On December 15, 2020 she appeared downtown in front of Judge Mark Arnold. She had a hearing on the case with Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Herring. Although the case was eligible for the death penalty, Herring followed Gascon’s controversial directives to move to dismiss the enhancements. If granted, this would change the case from a death penalty case all the way down to a second degree murder.
Family Members Cry as LADA Dismisses the Enhancements
Judge Arnold asked if dismissing the enhancements was in the interest of justice. Herring gave his new boss’s position. The victim’s mother, father, sister, and other family were at the hearing. They spoke to the Judge Arnold, who tried to explain what was happening. “If he’s found guilty and those allegations were true, yes. It would reduce his sentence significantly, a lot.”
Judge Arnold asked, “What do you think about eliminating all of these allegations that Mr. Herring’s office is looking to eliminate?” A family member replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s fair.” The judge said, “Do you understand what I’m asking you?” Apparently the family member began to cry and the judge came down off the bench to console them.
Judge Arnold asked, “Why are you crying?” The victim said, “I just feel that we need justice and he needs — it’s not fair that he — doesn’t get as much years.” The judge asked “So you don’t want to see these things get dismissed?” She replied, “No.” The victim’s mother said, It’s not fair that they would lower many years. To me it doesn’t seem fair because – because somebody who is doing harm to people, they should pay.”
Judge Arnold denied the motion to dismiss. “I don’t believe that your stated reasons justify dismissal in the interest of justice.” At this point, Ms. Blackburn jumped in but Arnold cut her off, citing the law regarding 1385 dismissals. He also correctly pointed out that the gun enhancements may only be stricken at the time of sentencing. Then Arnold gave Ms. Blackburn a chance to argue, even though she did not make the motion. She said that the DA can charge a case however they want, and the court cannot interfere. This is George Gascon’s position. “If the charging agency says that they want to delete the charges, I think that’s within their purview. For the court to step in and say they won’t do it” is illegal. Judge Arnold replied, “Tell me any case that says that if they move to dismiss an allegation or a charge, that that in and of itself justifies dismissal.” Ms. Blackburn did not have a case and the judge’s ruling stood.
The Conflict of Interest
Judge Arnold asked Mr. Herring, the prosecutor, if he’d like to go over the 28th. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Blackburn, the defense attorney, told the judge that Mr. Herring was off the case. This was after Mr. Herring hade made his appearance, made a motion, and discussed the case with the victims.
Blackburn informed the court that she had reached a deal to settle the case. Apparently, no one was more surprised than the prosecutor, Mr. Herring. Blackburn told the court, “Mr. Herring is not the attorney of record on this case, it was Mr. Trujillo.” She’s referring to Mario Trujillo, an early supporter and member of Gascon’s new administration. The assigned DDA, Mr. Herring, who was present, said, “It’s news to me that I’m not the attorney of record on this case.” The judge was also confused.
Blackburn said that Mario Trujillo had conveyed her a new offer of seven years. DDA Herring said, no, his supervisors were not making an offer. He said, “I’ve also been told from a separate set of supervisors there is no offer, and that’s why we are in a conundrum today.” Apparently Herring and his supervisors intended to try the case, not settle it at a discount. Blackburn told the judge that despite what the DDA said, his office was making an offer. It came from Mario Trujillo.
Tiffany Blacknell, who is mentioned in the transcript, is another attorney in Blackburn’s office. Although Tiffany Blacknell is a public defender, she worked hard to get George Gascon elected and was on his Public Policy Committee as far back as January 2020. She came under fire in August for calling LAPD “barbarians” and an “occupying army.” She has advocated defunding the police and abolishing prisons.
It is not yet known what her role was in this seven year offer. On its face, it appears that she discussed settlement of this case with the DA’s office at the highest level. It’s unclear if she merely delivered the offer to her colleague Blackburn or actively negotiated it. Blacknell appears to be working for Gascon on his policy goals while working against Gascon for the defendant in this case. Obviously, this seems to put her in a precarious ethical position.
Another problem appears in the transcript. If Trujillo and Blacknell negotiated a disposition behind closed doors, they may have violated Marsy’s Law, as it appears that no one consulted the victim’s family. Indeed, a family member appears on the record and seems very upset about what’s going on. Mr. Herring is the only one that complied with the law and he had no idea that Trujillo and Blacknell were negotiating behind his back.
Here’s the complete transcript:
Is This a Sweetheart Offer?
Herring is the assigned prosecutor on this case. He and his supervisors did not make an offer to Blackburn and her client. In the criminal courts, a “no offer” case is a case where the prosecutor seeks the maximum sentence after trial. The maximum penalty for murder and multiple attempted murders is obviously higher than 7 years.
By contrast, Trujillo’s offer is a fraction of the defendants’ exposure at trial. To him, this was clearly not a “no offer” case. Still more puzzling is why Trujillo decided to undercut his own colleagues. And finally, why did Trujillo not tell Herring what he was doing?
Is This a Scandal?
Traci Blackburn’s conduct as a defense attorney is problematic. She donated money to Gascon and then asked him for leniency. To most people, this looks like a conflict of interest. Tiffany Blacknell’s conduct may be even worse. She may have been working for the DA while negotiating against him on behalf of a criminal defendant. It looks like she used her access to DA administration to go over the head of the assigned attorney to get a sweetheart offer. Court watchers immediately suspected Trujillo of giving Blacknell and Blackburn a lower offer than the defendant deserved because they worked to elect his boss.
One thing seems clear: high-ranking Gascon officials should not be representing criminal defendants or giving away plea bargains to their donors.
After the Transcript Leaked, None of the Involved Parties Could Be Found
Bill Melugn at Fox 11 reported on the follow up hearing, which took place on December 28. Judge Arnold ordered that hearing to clear up who was the prosecutor and what was the offer. But no one showed up. Trujillo, Blacknell, and Blackburn simply did not come to court.
A supervisor from Mr. Herring’s gang unit did show up. He told the judge that any offer made by Trujillo is invalid because it never went through him nor the proper channels. Judge Arnold asked whether Trujillo called him to talk about the case. He replied, “not once.” When Judge Arnold was told the deal was invalid, FOX 11 reports that he said, “It’s a good thing…because there’s no way I could look at myself in the mirror with a plea bargain of seven years on this case.”
Attorney Sam Dordulian is representing the family pro bono. “That’s the kind of back door underhanded unethical deal that is just completely inappropriate, and yet it was done on this case, or yet they tried to do it.” said Dordulian.
Traci Blackburn, the defense lawyer, was formerly the public defender’s training coordinator.
The LA Times published an article with a detailed look at the underlying crime and the December 28th hearing.