Joe Biden took the brunt of the attacks during this week’s Democratic primary debates — but top-tier rival Sen. Kamala Harris of California had her turn in the hot seat as Biden and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard teamed up to challenge her prosecutorial record.
And a review of the cases in question shows that while Biden and Gabbard at times overstated things or omitted details, their allegations were largely factual.
After getting his clock cleaned by Harris during the first debate, a more aggressive former vice president went on offense Wednesday accusing Harris of keeping nonviolent prisoners behind bars during her tenure as California attorney general because they were a source of cheap labor for the state.
“What happened? Along came a federal judge and said enough is enough and he freed 1,000 of these people,” Biden said as he argued that Harris was forced by a judge to release the prisoners.
Gabbard also jumped in to land heavy blows on the top-polling candidate – accusing Harris of keeping “people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”
She unleashed a litany of other accusations regarding Harris’ record that put her in a rare position — playing defense.
So what do the facts show?
Biden and Gabbard were apparently pointing to a Daily Beast article from January that spotlighted comments from lawyers in the attorney general’s office saying that releasing parolees would prevent Calfornia from using the prisoners to help fight wildfires.
In response to that article, the Harris campaign said that “Harris was shocked and troubled by the use of this argument. She looked into it and directed the department’s attorneys not to make that argument again.”
At this week’s debate, Harris didn’t directly respond to the attacks but did defend her record as the Golden State’s attorney general.
“I am proud of the work we did. Work that has received national recognition for what has been the important work of reforming a criminal justice system and cleaning up the consequences of the bills that you passed when you were in the United States Senate for decades,” she told Biden as she jabbed at him for his role as a senator from Delaware crafting the now controversial 1994 crime bill.
Biden also criticized Harris over her earlier tenure as San Francisco district attorney.
The former vice president’s claim – that around 1,000 drug cases were dismissed due to a crime lab scandal at the San Francisco district attorney’s office – is factual.
The lab was shuttered after it was determined that a top technician – who also testified in court regarding drug cases on behalf of prosecutors – had mishandled drug samples seized from suspects.
Harris’ office didn’t run the lab – the city’s police department had oversight. But a court ruled in 2010 that the district attorney’s office violated the constitutional rights of defendants by failing to disclose what it knew about the tainted drug evidence.
Harris told The New York Times earlier this year that she was unaware of the lab controversy until the scandal exploded and highlighted that her office put in place new reforms.
During the debate, Gabbard took issue with Harris labeling herself as a progressive prosecutor.
“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard claimed.
And she charged that Harris “in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so.”
The congresswoman from Hawaii was likely pointing to the murder case of Kevin Cooper – who was convicted in 1983 of a quadruple homicide. The death row inmate came close to execution in 2004 when Harris, as attorney general, denied Cooper’s request for newly advanced DNA testing. In February of this year, newly elected California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered new DNA testing.
Harris has said she now supports DNA testing and encouraged Newsom to approve Cooper’s request. But she hasn’t offered specifics on why as attorney general she didn’t approve Cooper’s request for further testing.
While Gabbard’s claim that Harris at the time didn’t allow for the DNA testing is accurate, Cooper’s innocence has yet to be determined.
Gabbard also slammed Harris’ record on marijuana convictions.
“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” the congresswoman argued.
The figure apparently comes from a Washington Free Beacon article in February.
As Gabbard indicated, Harris has softened toward the issue since. Harris said in an interview earlier this year that she smoked marijuana as a college student, laughing at the memory.
Last year, she signed onto a bill by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – a rival for the 2020 Democratic nomination – that would legalize marijuana at the federal level.