Another Failure for George Gascon's Criminal Justice Reform

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File

I'm surprised to see this story covered by the LA Times. A 16-year-old named Denmonne Lee planned a robbery that resulted in the murder of a veteran. Lee didn't pull the trigger but he did plan the crime and give the gun to his accomplice. Afterwards, Lee bragged about it to his girlfriend. 

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But because of his age and because George Gascon had taken over the DA's office before the case went to trial, efforts to charge Lee as an adult were dropped. Instead he was considered a model juvenile prisoner who had been successfully rehabilitated. Here's a description of the murder:

Lee walked up to the VP Fuels and Drive-Thru Dairy in Lancaster on Feb. 19, 2018, and asked the cashier, Ruh, for a cigarette, according to testimony given during an appellate court hearing. The request was a distraction so that his accomplice, Deonta “Fatboy” Johnson, could get close to Ruh with a gun and demand that he open the cash register, court records show.

After a brief exchange, Johnson shot Ruh, 61, three times. Detectives said Lee walked away from the scene “smiling,” and later detailed the crime to his girlfriend, claiming his gun “had a body on it,” according to court testimony.

Lee was arrested that March and charged with murder. A hearing to transfer him to adult court began in April 2020, but Lee changed attorneys and hearings were delayed until after Gascón took office, records show.

While he was in juvenile custody, Lee got a phone and sent his girlfriend a death threat after she allegedly called the police on him. This wasn't a generic threat. He said he was going to "shoot that b— right between her eyes."

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Gascon's office says that even if he hadn't become DA, Lee would not have been tried as an adult because of his age and because he had no violent history. The wouldn't comment about the death threat made to the girlfriend. 

It's disputable whether Lee could have been tried as an adult. What does seem clear is that Lee's attorney delayed the case until Gascon was in office and after that no more efforts to try him as an adult were made, in keeping with Gascon's policy announced on his first day in office.

Lee was considered a criminal justice reform success for a while:

...according to the district attorney’s office, Lee performed so well when he was transferred out of the high-security Sylmar compound in March 2023 that probation officials recommended that he be moved to a less restrictive “step down facility.”

Once he got out, he enrolled in community college and found a job with a group called Mass Liberation which exists to help ex-cons reenter society. And then in January he allegedly participated in another murder. He was arrested for the crime in April of this year.

In the case of [Eric] Ruffins, the second killing in which Lee is accused, the victim was shot dead in the 15600 block of Atlantic Avenue, in an unincorporated area near Compton, around 5 p.m. on Jan. 19, according to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

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Once again, Lee isn't accused of pulling the trigger. He was just there when it happened. Why does this keep happening to him?

The widow of Lee's first victim, who had been encouraged by his apparent rehabilitation, said she now felt like a fool. "You gave me hope when you apologized to me about killing … my husband. I forgave you; now I feel like a fool," Michelle Brace said in a message given to the Times. Brace is now planning to leave California but said she'd wouldn't leave until after the November election. She wants to see George Gascon "out of office."


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David Strom 12:40 PM | July 23, 2024
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