Inmate deaths at the County Jail, trial performance and the future of the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office took center stage Wednesday as the two men vying to head the department sparred in a sometime- contentious candidate debate.
District Attorney Dan Dow and challenger Judge Mike Cummins took turns responding to audience members' questions at a 60-minute debate hosted by the Latino Outreach Council in the Board of Supervisors' chambers.
Dow, who's seeking his second term as the county's top prosecutor, touted his office's accomplishments in the last four years and discussed his department's ongoing efforts to combat what he calls a "rise in crime."
Cummins, a retired Stanislaus Superior Court judge and current San Luis Obispo defense attorney, spent most of the debate attacking Dow's performance as a leader and defended his own career as well as his choice to legally change his first name to "Judge Mike."
Since entering the race, Cummins has criticized Dow's decision to not use his office to investigate the death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland, who died in January 2017 shortly after being released from a full-body restraint chair after nearly 46 hours.
Dow has argued that it's not his place to investigate the jail, but rather the Sheriff-Coroner's Office's. He also claims that the FBI has "asserted federal jurisdiction" over the jail investigation, though an FBI spokeswoman has refuted that claim to The Tribune, saying local investigations have no bearing on the federal agency's efforts.
Cummins is being supported by the SLO Democratic Party and the SLO Progressives, as well as Holland's family, which established a political action committee to support Dow and Sheriff Ian Parkinson's challengers following a $5 million settlement from the county. Cummins also has been endorsed by San Luis Obispo Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the local defense attorney's association.
Dow, on the other hand, has received endorsements from nearly all the local law enforcement associations and police chiefs, as well as about half of his current prosecutorial team and a host of local elected officials.
On Wednesday, the debate got off to a pointed start when Cummins said the biggest problem for the DA's Office over the next few years would be challenges to since-closed criminal cases due to a member of Dow's staff.
In March, records in a child molestation trial of an Arroyo Grande man revealed that one of Dow’s 105 employees never graduated from Cal Poly as stated on her resume.
Tracy Nix, a forensic interviewer for the DA’s Office who’s worked for the county since 1997, regularly interviews children victims of sexual and other abuse and testifies about her findings in criminal proceedings. Records subpoenaed by an attorney in the case showed that Nix never graduated from Cal Poly as she claimed on the witness stand.
Nix previously told The Tribune she believed she had graduated and only learned in March that she had received incompletes on two classes.
Dow has declined to comment about the matter to The Tribune, calling it a personnel issue, even after he hired a third-party investigator to look into Nix’s employment. The county says Nix is still employed.
Questions over Nix’s previous testimony have the potential to lead to a review of cases she has worked on, if defendants or their attorneys file legal challenges.
Asked about the matter, Dow defended his employee and said that she does not testify as a witness in cases.
"I was as shocked as anybody when I learned through a recent trial that she didn't have a degree," Dow said. "We're dealing with the issue, and I'm not going to comment on the specifics."
Dow disputed that Nix's employment issue would lead to challenges to old cases and claimed that Nix doesn't testify as a witness in cases.
"It's interesting that my opponent, who's been both a judge and a defense lawyer, is awfully quick to come to a conclusion of guilt before he has one shred of evidence," Dow said. "He doesn't have the facts."
Inmate deaths and mental health
Asked what should happen following an in-custody death at the jail, Dow said it's the Sheriff's Office who should investigate.
But Dow also addressed Holland's death specifically.
"When I saw the video for the first tim e... it was shocking. It was troubling," Dow said. "I was very glad to know the case was being investigated by the FBI."
Dow said the FBI is the proper agency to review the matter and that they've "assured" him and the Attorney General's Office that any alleged state-level crimes would be referred to his office or the state for prosecution.
Though he admitted it was beyond the scope of the DA's Office, Cummins said he wants to see the Coroner's Office separated from the Sheriff's Office.
"There's an inherent conflict there," Cummins said.
While discussing Holland's death, Cummins erroneously misstated that the Coroner's Office had ruled Holland's death "accidental." The Coroner ruled Holland's death as "natural."
But Dow said that Cummins' call for a local investigation into Holland's death is also a conflict.
"My opponent has promised to investigate the sheriff and yet he's taken $25,000 from the (Holland) family, who's asked him to do so," Dow said. "I think that makes him unqualified for the position he seeks."
Dow took on Cummins' political activity, alleging that in November, Cummins revealed he planned a run for state insurance commissioner and planned to change his first name to "Judge."
"He said he did it because he wanted to get more votes," Dow said. "That's not the kind of person we need leading the DA's Office. ... He has a fine profession as a defense lawye. There's nothing to hide behind by having to change your name to judge."
Cummins countered that he's long been known by the name "Judge Mike," including in his country rock band, Judge Mike & the Lawless. He also said he wanted political materials to reflect his 13-year career as judge.
"I was a judge longer than Mr. Dow was an attorney," Cummins said, quoting from two communications allegedly sent by Dow in which Dow also called him "Judge Mike."
In response to a question about low-level crimes, Dow said his office has created a number of court diversion programs, including misdemeanor diversion and veteran's treatment court.
"We've got a lot of college students in our community. Many of us when we were young and stupid, we made some bad choices, some mistakes," Dow said.
He said his office recently did a recidivism study and found that the percentage of first-time low-level offenders re-offending went from 33 percent to 9 percent, though he did not specify the time range.
Cummins agreed that diversion programs for low-level crimes are appropriate given limited resources, and he encouraged continuing to explore alternatives to incarceration.
Both men said they support some amount of bail reform, though Cummins said he supports a proposed bill to revise current pre-trial procedures, including how bail is assessed.
"We're always going to have cash bail," Cummins said.
Dow, while saying that cash bail is "not a fair system," said the bill Cummins cited is currently poorly written, and added that the system is not as large a problem in California as in other states.
Future of the office
Asked about what plans he had for future policy or programs in the DA's Office, Cummins said he didn't have any yet.
"Once I get into the office and I see what is there and what is not there, I think I'll have better opportunity to make that determination," Cummins said. "I don't have a new project on the tip of my tongue."
Cummins did say, however, that he wants to do more to help the homeless.
Dow, however, said he expects to have a new court diversion program for the homeless up and running by the end of the year and has also asked the Board of Supervisors to fund a full-time elder abuse prosecutor.
Asked about what makes them the better candidate, Cummins said experience while Dow said leadership.
"I've done every job in the courtroom that requires a California bar card, I know how DA's Offices operate, and as far as the idea of how to manage an office, I can do it just fine," Cummins said.
"I wish it were that easy. Managing people is a challenging job," Dow responded. "One thing I believe that is very important in an office is continuity — our office does not need to have a new person come in that doesn't have any management experience."