The limits of the law are tested not by the easy subjects, but by the difficult ones.
I first met Daniel Larsen at an outdoor cafe in Encino, CA, a half-hour drive north of Los Angeles. He sidled up to the shaded table holding a large McDonald’s cup in his right hand, which gave way to a forearm and bicep filled with tattoos. His head was clean-shaven on both sides, save in the middle where a mohawk of sorts was slicked straight back. A smile stretched across his face. His lawyer from the California Innocence Project was with him.
Larsen is one of those difficult subjects. He is a 51-year-old former neo-Nazi who has undoubtedly done awful things in his life. A recent court filing from his own lawyers read that by “any objective measure Daniel Larsen is a ‘bad person.’” But he is also a man who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. That is where Kamala Harris comes in.
His name has appeared, briefly, in a number of profiles detailing the complicated history of Harris’s rise and her ongoing efforts to toss the rug over the uglier aspects of her professional past as she runs for president. Somewhere along the line, Larsen’s misguided path tangled with that of a 2020 candidate, and he exited the victim. The story is not a simple one.
On paper, Harris’ journey to the crowded Democratic field is fairly straightforward—she was a highly skilled lawyer who worked her way up to being the San Francisco District Attorney, then parlayed that into a role as attorney general, and then moved from there to the Senate in 2017—but it also comes with plenty of baggage. Her record as both district attorney and attorney general has repeatedly dogged her as she battles for the Democratic nomination.
Harris has slowly taken steps to recant the effects of her policies in a few select areas, like her push to prosecute parents of truant children (though even then, she has imposed a limit on the blame she’s willing to shoulder). As a senator, she’s championed legislation aimed at helping public defenders, the people she once faced off against in California courtrooms.
But broadly speaking, Harris has owned her past with little apparent regret. (She has recently begun using her history as a prosecutor as a stump speech applause line.) When the New York Times published a scathing op-ed in January from Lara Bazelon, a law professor and the former director of the Loyola Law School Project who called Harris’ rebranding as a criminal justice reformer, in essence, a sham, her team put up a shield. Campaign officials and aides told CNN that the claims lacked context, and that as attorney general, Harris “did not seek any 25-year-to-life sentences on any low-level crime.” At a CNN town hall in January, she defended her law enforcement work to an audience member. “As a prosecutor, my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected,” she replied.
As much as it demands a flexible definition of who constitutes the “most vulnerable,” Larsen’s story prompts a different conclusion. It certainly requires a more detailed review than a name-drop in relation to Harris’ 2020 candidacy, not simply for the particulars of the case or even the legal arguments, but as a glimpse at her leadership tactics. Harris’ campaign, when asked about Larsen’s case by Splinter, essentially replied that she was not responsible for the injustices he dealt with. The truth is much more complicated than that, but there is one fact that should be remembered as it relates to this particular case: Daniel Larsen was repeatedly found innocent, and for years—including when Kamala Harris was the attorney general of California—the state actively fought to keep him in prison. Then, Harris’ office helped keep him from getting the money he was owed for his false imprisonment.
To understand why requires an understanding of the conservative law enforcement history of California, of Harris’ role in advancing that history, and of the tightly bound relationship between the attorney general’s office and the board in charge of making the wrongly convicted somewhat whole again.
Once you understand that, you might be able to appreciate what’s required of politicians coming from the prosecuting side of law enforcement, and why it’s so common for a man wrongfully imprisoned for a decade-and-a-half to currently find himself sleeping in a converted bedroom in a friend’s garage as he tries to piece his life back together.
Larsen has made what he himself describes as a bounty of detestable choices.
He opened our conversation by sketching out a timeline of his troubled childhood. Raised between his two grandparents and constantly moving around within the Los Angeles Valley, he was first locked up in juvenile detention in 1985, when he was 17. The following year, he went to prison for the first time for residential burglary. While incarcerated in Chino for 13 months, he was initiated into a gang. Larsen declined to name the gang when I asked, citing a fear for his personal safety, having dropped out in 2007. His lawyer made several statements that hinted at the gang’s white supremacist roots—a cursory Google search of Larsen’s name and review of court documents from his case revealed it was a neo-Nazi group known as the Low Riders.
As Larsen entered into adulthood over the ensuing decade, the gang activity became an ever-present part of his life, even when he returned home.
“I came from a broken home, so it was easy to step into that uniformity because it gave me everything I lacked,” Larsen said. “I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Oh, it’s your father or your brother,’ but it is all that wrapped up into one. And as a young man, you don’t see it in those terms because you’re thinking on a day-to-day basis, not thinking about the future or the risks. Just how the cycle of life is for you, which is survival. I got everything I wanted out of it. And then when it became different and you start hurting people and being hurt, I think that was kind of intoxicating.”
Katy St. Clair, the public information officer at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, told Splinter on a recent phone call that these kinds of cases—where a young person turns to organized crime as a replacement for emotional and financial support systems and is subsequently ingratiated into the conviction cycle—are far too common given the now-realized effects of lifelong intermittent incarceration.
“This is what people are talking about when they say people of color and people in poverty get ensnared in the law enforcement net early on. It’s a yoke around their neck from there on out,” St. Clair said. “They’ve done studies showing how kids in juvenile hall or that are put in juvenile detention have a much harder time after they get out than kids that are not put in juvenile hall and are given other interventions. It’s the same way with jail.”
Three of the lawyers who represented Larsen conceded to Splinter that working with him was difficult at times, given his checkered past and poor ongoing choices.
“Nobody’s saying Danny was an angel,” Larsen’s current lawyer, the California Innocence Project’s Katherine Bonaguidi, told Splinter. “[The police] had their reasons to want him off the street.”
But all three CIP lawyers consistently came back to the same essential point whenever they touched on Larsen’s flaws: The man was not guilty of the crime he was convicted for. The fact that he was an imperfect candidate for the state to work with to release, and the fact that both former California Attorney General and Governor Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris chose not to, is why his case matters all the more.
The way Larsen tells it, the night he was arrested in 1998 was a fairly standard one for him. By this point, he was 30 years old.
On June 6, according to police reports and court documents recounting the night in question, he and a couple of Low Rider associates went to the Gold Apple, a bar in Northridge that’s since closed. Larsen said that the bar was a regular hangout spot for gang members and ex-cons, and that his group went there that night because “somebody [at the bar] owed a friend of mine money.” Fully aware of the potential for violence, Bunker Hewitt, a member of Larsen’s group, brought a knife along.
“I really wasn’t aware he’d taken a knife with him,” Larsen said. “To be honest with you, I had a pistol, but I gave it to my girlfriend before I got out of the car when we got there. So I had no weapon on me at all.”
At the Gold Apple, Larsen and Hewitt saw Brian McCracken, who was there on his own accord and not privy to their intentions. Years later, McCracken would testify that while he knew Larsen enough to recognize him, he didn’t know Hewitt. He testified that while standing at the bar, a man in a poncho approached him and flashed a knife, with a blade about five to six inches long. The man reportedly said, “You know, I could kill you right now.”
It was this knife that would seal Larsen’s fate. Police would testify, with scant evidence at best, that they saw him throw the knife under a car. But according to Larsen, it was Hewitt, and not him, who had been carrying the weapon.
“When I was there, I got into a fight with somebody and they left. At first, I thought they were the ones the called the police. But I don’t think they were,” Larsen said. “I think Brian McCracken was the one who called. In due time, as that night progressed, Bunker and Brian got into a conversation and Bunker pulled out the knife.”
Also at the Gold Apple were Jim McNutt, a six-foot-seven retired Army Sergeant First Class and former police chief, and his wife Elinor. They were at the bar with Jim’s stepson, Daniel Harrison, to celebrate a birthday. According to their testimony, when Jim and Elinor first arrived, around 7:30 p.m., Harrison was in a car arguing with a man that would turn out to be Hewitt. Larsen stood outside the car, keeping watch over the conversation. As the heated discussion heightened, McNutt walked over to the car to check on his stepson.
“We went outside and that’s when I saw Jim, the McNutts. We went over to that car. And [Harrison] had gotten into a little verbal argument with Hewitt,” Larsen told me. “And then 5-0. Everybody split up. I really didn’t run too far, I just took a couple steps back. And then they said, ‘You, freeze!’”
At this point in the story, Larsen pointed behind me, to a car; specifically, he was pointing to a French bulldog hanging its head out the passenger side window. “That’s my favorite dog,” he said, before snapping back to 1998.
“They told me to put my hands up so I put my hands up; they said, ‘On the ground,’ I got on the ground, prone position,” he said. “Then they came and handcuffed me and took me away. And that was that.”
Larsen already had two felony convictions on his record when he was arrested. He was charged with violating Section 12020(a) of the California penal code, commonly known as the possession of a dangerous weapon.
The violation is known as a wobbler, meaning it can be used to charge individuals with a misdemeanor or a felony; because of Larsen’s criminal history, the police charged him with a felony, meaning the fate of his upcoming case was a life-or-death-in-prison situation. For his legal representation in 1999, Larsen hired Michael Consiglio, a lawyer he said was often used by biker and prison gangs.
“He was cheap and to the point,” Larsen said.
To put it plainly, Consiglio was not a premier private attorney, and his record ultimately reflected this: after earning four disciplinary actions from the state starting in 2001, Consiglio was eventually disbarred from practicing law in California in 2008. (Multiple attempts to reach Consiglio for comment were unsuccessful.)
When arguing Larsen’s court case, according to the Innocence Project’s filings, Consiglio did not investigate the night’s events whatsoever. He failed to call a single witness to the stand, even though there were multiple witnesses who could have said they saw Hewitt, not Larsen, toss the knife. He did not ask the court to complete DNA testing on the knife, which was never sent in for fingerprint analysis by police. And he did not challenge deeply flawed and contradictory testimony from police about where Larsen was and whether or not he had a knife. (The Los Angeles Police Department did not respond to Splinter’s request for comment.)
Larsen was easily convicted by a jury on June 23, 1999. Because of the two prior convictions on his record—two separate residential burglary charges—the judge handed him a sentence of 27 years to life.
He wouldn’t be out until he was 58, at the absolute earliest.
There are two pieces of legislation, both passed at the height of 1990s tough-on-crime hysteria, that are especially important in this story. The first was from California—which, despite its reputation as a bastion of American liberalism, has a long history of arch-conservatism when it comes to criminal justice. The second came from Washington.
In 1994, the California legislature passed the Three Strikes bill, which the then-governor, Republican Pete Wilson, enthusiastically signed into law. The bill was among a spate of three-strikes laws that soared through state legislatures that year. It was fairly simple in both intent and consequence. For anyone convicted of a felony who also had what was classified as a “serious felony” on their record, their prison term would be twice as long. If they were convicted a third time, the law required judges to sentence them to a minimum sentence of 25 years to life.
Like a great many bills—the Patriot Act comes to mind—the side effects of AEDPA were far more sinister than anyone that championed the bill ever let on. Namely, the bill required anyone appealing a wrongful conviction to file their appeal within one year of being convicted. At the time AEDPA was passed, the success rate of federal habeas petitions already hovered at less than one percent, per a 2014 Stanford Law paper reviewing the negative ramifications of the legislation. Since then, the law has been wielded by attorneys general to keep wrongfully convicted citizens in prison, largely with impunity.
Kamala Harris was one of those attorneys general.
Three Strikes was what helped get Larsen sent to prison for so long. AEDPA helped keep him there—with Harris’ help.
While Larsen was rotting away, Harris was climbing the ladder.
The broad strokes of Harris’ career have been profiled and analyzed at length numerous times over. There’s plenty of good, progressive stuff to be found, if you’re looking for it. For instance, as San Francisco district attorney, Harris instituted the Back on Track program. It placed first-time offenders in apprentice programs at local city colleges, which dropped San Francisco’s recidivism rate from 54 to 10 percent, per the New York Times.
But a major case in the early months of Harris’ tenure as district attorney presented a hurdle for her future political dreams.
In April 2004, just three months after she took office, 21-year-old David Hill killed police officer Isaac Espinoza and wounded his partner. Going against the wishes of the law enforcement community and many powerful politicians—including her future Senate colleague, Dianne Feinstein, who personally attacked her—Harris decided not to pursue the death penalty for Hill, instead opting to pursue life in prison.
As Harris had long set her eyes on elected seats a few rungs up, she needed to make peace with these people if she ever hoped to climb into the attorney general’s chair. Luckily for her, even as she stuck by her brave decision on the death penalty, she was plenty gifted at putting people in prison.
Harris quickly raised the felony conviction rate in San Francisco from 52 percent to 67 percent in just three years. By 2006, her office boasted a 90 percent conviction rate on homicide cases, while lengthening average sentences and clamping down on diversion programs that she and San Francisco police captain Bruce Hettrich claimed were being abused by drug dealers.
But Harris was not content stopping at felonies. Her office put the clamps on lower level offenders, tripling the number of misdemeanor trial cases the district attorney’s office had engaged in since 2003. In a letter to the editor for The Recorder, Harris boasted about the increased rates, writing, “I make no apologies for the aggressive handling of criminal cases by the district attorney’s office.” Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, defense lawyer Jim Collins explained to the publication, in a laudatory manner, that his job was more difficult than it had been under previous DA Terrence Hallinan.
“As a defense lawyer, it’s harder,” Collins said. “The office has become more professional and better at prosecuting crime. The deputies are working harder; there’s more oversight. I think the (plea bargain) offers are getting tougher.”
Larsen quickly appealed his conviction, but got nowhere fast. According to CIP’s later filings, in June 2000, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the initial ruling; two months later, the California Supreme Court denied his case review. It seemed he was stuck.
He quickly deteriorated. What started as a numb depression quickly wound itself into repetitive fits of alarming, violent gang-related rage—the kinds commonly found in American prisons but rarely addressed. Larsen carried on this way for the first several years of his sentence, with the end goal being severe self-harm. The actual result was his confinement to the solitary housing unit, or the SHU.
As Larsen encircled himself with violence, he had largely abandoned the faint hope that a random lawyer or judge would be willing to lend a helping hand. But, in 2002, hope arrived all the same.
Jan Stiglitz, a founding attorney of the California Innocence Project, told Splinter that the group received a questionnaire Larsen had filled out months prior. Noticing the irregularities with his trial, Sitglitz and his team set out to investigate whether Larsen’s case was worthy of the group’s limited resources. Stiglitz told Splinter that the first sign that Larsen’s case may be worth it came after one of the Project’s top workers interviewed Larsen’s old lawyer.
“When she got him on the phone, she said, ‘Hi, I’m Wendy Cohen, I’m with the California Innocence Project, I’m looking into Danny Larsen’s case and you were the trial lawyer,’” Stiglitz relayed to Splinter. “And according to Wendy, his response was, quote, ‘Oh, did I fuck up again?’ So that perked our ears up.”
As CIP went to the federal courts to appeal the state courts’ rulings, Larsen’s fight was started in full against then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office represented the state’s interest in keeping Larsen locked up. In 2005, Larsen filed his first of three First Amendment Petitions for writ of habeas corpus. Those filings hinged on the CIP legal team’s determination that Larsen had not been afforded adequate legal representation and was thus due a new trial.
The team also pointed to the testimonial discrepancies in the first trial, and presented eyewitnesses—most notably, Jim and Elinor McNutt, who could say for certain that Larsen did not possess or conceal the knife. Both of the McNutts testified that it was Hewitt who threw the knife under the car as “20–25" LAPD cops swarmed the scene and that Larsen merely stood “dumbfounded” with his arms at his side as he was apprehended.
Brown turned to the AEDPA defense, saying that the petitions had been filed too late. The first two applications were denied by the courts, with the judge siding with the attorney general’s argument. But in 2008, using what is known as “the Schlup gateway”—a legal route by which habeas petitioners that can prove “actual innocence” are sometimes allowed to bypass AEDPA’s statute of limitation—CIP and Larsen finally broke through.
On June 14, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted Larsen’s petition. The court ruled that Larsen was to be released from custody within 90 days if the state did not appeal. It was the closest in 11 years that Larsen had come to being a free man again. All he needed was the attorney general to concede the loss and let him walk.
Four weeks later, on July 13, Brown’s office filed an appeal.
In November 2010, Brown, a two-term governor in the 1970s, reclaimed the position, easily crushing GOP challenger Meg Whitman.
While Brown was campaigning to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harris was out shaking hands, campaigning to replace Brown. Harris ran well to the left of her Republican opponent, rather than hewing completely to the middle. She promised to be “smart,” not “tough,” on crime. She strongly opposed Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage amendment, and Prop 23, which would have repealed California’s existing greenhouse gas emissions law. She spoke out against a recent anti-immigration bill passed in Arizona. She also supported the creation of and committed to fight for Obamacare, passed in March of 2010. Harris narrowly won the general election against Republican Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley. She was, finally, California’s top cop.
The approach Harris had taken as DA in San Francisco—of trying to, on the surface, appear as a progressive, tough-but-fair cop—extended to her turn as attorney general. As attorney general, Harris stood up to predatory lenders. She had the police adopt body cameras. She even gently supported reforming the Three Strikes Law so that people who committed nonviolent crimes as their third strike would not be sentenced to life in prison. (Be sure to keep that last one in mind.)
Among the decisions she had to make was whether to continue to invest state resources into fighting against Larsen’s release. By this point, the District Court had affirmed that Larsen’s first trial was a sham and that, at the very least, he was afforded a new hearing in front of a magistrate judge. Stiglitz and his colleague Alex Simpson, the two lawyers helming Larsen’s case, were hopeful that Harris would see the details of their FAP filing and realize that Larsen was a worthwhile wrongful conviction case not worth battling in the Ninth Circuit.
On Feb. 25, 2011, Larsen and the CIP team got their answer in the attorney general’s filing:
At the outset, it is important to consider that this issue only arises when a petitioner has allowed the AEDPA limitation period to expire, and is not entitled to statutory or equitable tolling for any other independent reason. Therefore, the question is whether the courts should create an exception to the AEDPA limitation period that was not created or intended by Congress when a petitioner claims to be actually innocent, but did nothing about his federal habeas claims for more than a year after his state court conviction became final. The answer to that question should be no.
In other words, because Larsen didn’t have his paperwork in order, he was not worthy of having his innocence considered.
Harris filed a motion with the District Court asking it to stay its decision to grant Larsen’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus until the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling on Lee v. Lampert, a case out of Oregon that was similar to Larsen’s in its legal journey. That is, on the grounds of the AEDPA technicality, they were going to continue Brown’s work and draw out the fight for as long as they possibly could.
Simpson and Stiglitz tried tried for months to schedule a sit-down with Harris and her team to plead their case. But instead of a meeting with the attorney general, Stiglitz said they were only able to secure a meeting with two “lower-level” members of the attorney general’s office, in which the CIP team laid out the whole case, which included a petition signed by over 100,000 people, only to have the attorneys on the other side of table smile and shake their hands on their way out. Where they had hoped for progress, they received more of the same.
“We didn’t see any change [between Brown and Harris] and we were really discouraged by that, because Kamala was someone that obviously ran on a much more progressive policy,” Simpson said.
As a result, despite the fact that the District Court ruled that Larsen’s First Amendment rights had been violated and that he should not be imprisoned, he remained behind bars as Harris’ office and CIP fought. The timeliness argument was continually deployed by the attorney general’s legal team, with one of their filings arguing that “no petitioner who is actually innocent would choose to remain silent about his federal habeas claims for more than a year.” (This conveniently ignored the fact that Larsen reached out to nine attorneys before CIP fully took him on in 2003, per correspondence CIP presented in court.)
This back-and-forth between CIP and Harris’ team carried on for two years, neither side opting to budge, much to the dismay of Larsen’s pro bono attorneys.
“Toward the end of her tenure, we realized she had her sights set on a much higher office and she was not at all interested [in what] would be good for Danny or people in his position but wouldn’t be politically expedient for her,” Simpson said. “She wasn’t even interested in talking about it. It’s the Willie Horton decision—nobody wants to make a humane decision about someone who’s innocent and then have them go out and commit a crime and then she’s seen as the person who made that happen. There was no political benefit for her or office to stick her neck out on Danny’s case or any of our Innocence cases, and that’s exactly what she didn’t do.”
Then, the ice suddenly gave way.
On Feb. 25, 2013, the Ninth Circuit ruled that, as the District Court found in 2011, Larsen should be released, pending the decision of the Supreme Court case McQuiggan v. Perkins. His case in District Court would continue once Perkins was settled, meaning his freedom might have been only temporary. From the panel’s ruling:
[T]he panel held that petitioner satisfied the demanding standard of producing proof of innocence sufficient to undermine a court’s confidence in his conviction.
On March 19 of that year, Larsen walked down the courthouse steps, having agreed to a District Court-set bond of $52,500 and to cease any and all contact with the Low Riders. (He had to return to court a week later for his bond to be upped by another $20,000, after he violated the terms of his bail when he was popped for illegal drug use.)
In May, the Supreme Court ruled in McQuiggan v. Perkins that inmates would be allowed to request a federal review if they were able to prove actual innocence. This presented yet another opportunity for the attorney general’s office to end the case. But instead of conceding to the previous judgement of the District Court, the attorney general’s office pushed the argument that Larsen could not prove actual innocence—and, because of that, he deserved to remain imprisoned. KPCC reported in July 2013 that Stephanie Brenan, a deputy attorney general, claimed to the three-panel Ninth Circuit that “one reasonable juror could still vote to convict.” This meant an extra six months of legal proceedings for Larsen and CIP.
In September, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling in Larsen’s favor, and did so again in an amended ruling in November, returning the case to the District Court, which issued the following ruling in December:
the State has ninety (90) days from the date of this Order to retry Petitioner or Petitioner shall be released from all custody or other restraints on his liberty due to his conviction and sentence for possession of a dagger.
Harris and the attorney general’s office, now having been defeated in their attempts to keep Larsen locked away in two separate courts of law, decided not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Larsen’s original case, the one focused on the 1998 charge for possessing a dagger, was presented to the Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey with the opportunity for a retrial. Lacey passed—and with that, Larsen was, finally, officially, free.
Larsen’s current situation has improved in more than one way.
In 2007, he left his prison gang. The process was not a simple one. It took him four years of writing an autobiographical report of all his gang-related activities and serving as an informant for two groups within the California prison system meant to assist departing gang members.
“I dropped out prior to the notion of me ever getting out again,” Larsen said. “I guess in hindsight, I was hoping and wishing I’d get out and that might do something, but I just walked away because I was sick of the way it was going. I was sick of being an instrument of pain that we were causing. Just sick of it all, man.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that he was relocated, finally severing the ties. By then, with his release just two years away, Larsen had spent nearly three decades associated with the Low Riders and seen several lifetimes’ worth of violence. This took a mental toll that he pays out frequently.
“The PTSD, I would joke about that for a long time, but it’s real,” Larsen said. “It’s there. It creeps into you in the times and places you’re not even ready for it, not even expecting it. And it comes massively, in different forms. As far as me being a solidified individual in an emotional state that can keep myself together, I find myself falling apart at the most bizarre times.”
To deal with the mental fallout, he’s been seeing a therapist since he got out. But his surrounding situation is a patchwork effort of survival. Larsen told me he is currently living in a converted garage and depending on welfare, unable to find a steady job since he was released. That’s led to more criminal activity—in January 2017, he was popped for stealing mail—which bleeds back into further unemployment. He also now has to take insulin for the diabetes he was diagnosed with while in prison.
It’s not all bad news. Larsen doesn’t have to adhere to the prison schedule, or sleep in solitary confinement anymore. He’s able to swing by McDonald’s and enjoy the California sun at his leisure. Aside from that, though, his life leaves a lot to be desired, namely in the form of 15 years of lost wages. And it’s thanks to Harris that Larsen is in his third year of an appeals process with the California Victim Compensation Board.
The current rate set by the California legislature for wrongful convictions is currently $140 per day served. For Larsen, that amounts to $496,300 (before federal taxes).
But the Board is not as removed from the whims of the state as it needs to be to properly compensate the victims it purports to serve. In order to be declared eligible for compensation, a person has to prove to the court that they deserve the money. And in order to secure that proof, one of the main requirements of the board is a recommendation from the attorney general’s office.
According to a filing by the CIP lawyers, the board has made a decision contrary to the attorney general’s office just three times out of 104 claims since 2001. In theory, California’s Senate Bill 618, signed into law in October 2013 and in effect as of Jan. 1, 2014, was meant to counteract this cozy relationship. The law directs the board to deny a person’s claim only if it can find they pleaded guilty to protect another person for being convicted of the crime.
But when Harris’ office filed their suggestion on Sept. 4, 2014 that the board should decline Larsen’s claim, despite him already proving his innocence in court, that essentially sealed his financial fate. The hearing officer at the time drafted a proposed decision in September 2016, denying Larsen’s claim. The officer sent it to the board for them to consider.
Harris wouldn’t hang around long enough to see Larsen’s compensation claim be either squashed or completed—in January 2017, she left the attorney general’s office behind for the U.S. Senate.
On Aug. 17, 2017, having heard both sides present their cases for going on three years, the Victim Claims Board officially denied Larsen’s claim, telling his lawyers he failed to show “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he was innocent of possessing a knife 19 years ago.
“It was under her watch that the attorney general’s office was fighting the compensation for Danny,” Bonaguidi said. “I couldn’t tell you to what extent Kamala Harris made a personal choice or directive to do it, but that was her office and under her watch. Again, I can’t speak to it personally, but I have reason to believe she was aware of this case.”
Bonaguidi did not elaborate as to what that reason was.
It is possible, and also convenient for later political campaigns, that Harris was unaware of the arguments her assistant attorneys general were offering in court—consider how, in November 2014, she claimed to BuzzFeed News that she had been completely unaware that deputies in her office had unsuccessfully argued against releasing prisoners with two nonviolent felonies that had served half their sentence because, as the deputies put it, “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
Splinter received a similar line when we reached out to Kirsten Allen, the Harris campaign’s deputy national press secretary, to ask, specifically, how Harris overlooked the massive petition campaign and why the attorney general’s office opposed compensation for Larsen.
“The hundreds of attorneys in the CA Department of Justice handling thousands of criminal cases are not required to get sign off from the AG to appeal their cases unless the next step is to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Once Senator Harris learned about this case, she intervened and the Department dropped the appeal,” Allen wrote.
The campaign did not provide an on-the-record response as to why Harris advised against Larsen’s compensation claim.
Specifically in the case of Larsen, the idea that Harris was not aware about his petition until 2013 is a difficult one to swallow. But more distressing is the idea that Harris, who has repeatedly issued sentiments of “the buck stops with me” when reporters have approached her to answer for the more disturbing efforts of her office, deserves to be cut some slack for having little clue how the people that worked below her were actively prosecuting and arguing in a court of law. You are either responsible for what happens in your name or you are not. You are either in charge or you are not.
The campaign’s retreat into the language of the system to exonerate Harris—rules are rules, what can you do—is also notable. Harris has lately portrayed herself as someone who wants to upend old ways of doing things, to overhaul the criminal justice infrastructure, to make it better and fairer and kinder. In Larsen’s case, she (or her office, if you want to be charitable to her) chose repeatedly to default to the inherent cruelties of the system we have now when there was a chance to do something different. That should tell you something about the kinds of politics she practiced, and about the kind of president she might become.
It is likely that some people will not feel sympathy for Larsen or animosity toward Harris. In the end, she and Larsen crossed paths for a relatively brief period of his wrongful imprisonment, and even if it was based on a wrongful conviction, she kept a (now former) Nazi behind bars. (She is also, it goes without saying, not directly responsible for Larsen’s misdeeds after his release.) But the way in which her office accomplished it, and her unwillingness to take ultimate responsibility for hiring the people who helped keep him behind bars, is worthy of review given the kind of hiring power the president has. If those hires are repeatedly running afoul of the political ideals offered during the campaign and are only corrected when highlighted, then the campaign is, effectively, little more than a show.
Daniel Larsen is not the most sympathetic person around. His case did not become a national cause. People like him—white men who embraced fascist politics—are not the people we mostly need to be worrying about.
But if we are to have real, meaningful criminal justice and prison reform in this country—if we are to have true justice—we have to grapple with the Daniel Larsens of the world. We have to look at the difficult cases. Larsen was not a good man for much of his life. But, in this specific instance, he was found innocent. He should not have been in prison. On Kamala Harris’ watch, he was kept there for an two years. To this day, he continues to be refused fair compensation for the wrongful conviction because her office decided he didn’t deserve it.
Larsen is now sitting in the valley, waiting for one of the lawyers at CIP to ring him with good news. He told me he wasn’t sure what he would do if he ever does get his money. Probably rent an RV, he said, and take off for Idaho or Oregon or somewhere where his dollar would go further. The main goal is getting far away from a city, or at least this one.
“I’m ready to get out of here.”