Making a DA: Marketing & Sacramento’s DA Race After Stephon Clark & the Case of the Golden State Killer
On 8:23 am on April 25th, I sent my sister a message on Facebook.
It was a screenshot of Karen Kilgariff’s Twitter, that in all caps read: THEY THINK THEY CAUGHT THE EAST AREA RAPIST WHICH MEANS THEY CAUGHT THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER.
It was met with an astonished “What?!?!” that set the tone for the entire day. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, I was deeply entrenched in Reddit live feeds and tuned in to Sacramento’s local news stream, online.
It was fascinating and I was instantly and shamelessly immersed in the media frenzy.
The Case of the Golden State Killer
The intrigue of the case is a strong pull, not least of all due to Michelle McNamara's book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. McNamara, who passed away in her sleep while writing the book, secured her role in the hearts of true crime lovers everywhere as an empathetic but dogged journalist.
McNamara was relatable as she described late nights holed up in her daughter’s bedroom, scribbling notes on a notepad with fragmented crayons. In the end, it was likely the stress of the case and exhaustion that resulted in her sudden and untimely death. But with the help of her husband and cohorts, the book was released in February.
Eager to get my hands on it, I had pre-ordered my copy. And before I had a chance to finish the captivating whodunnit narrative woven by a thoughtful McNamara, The Golden State Killer was caught two months after the book’s release.
He had evaded police capture for 40 years.
The Sacramento PD continues to downplay the influence McNamara had on the outcome of the case, but everyone agrees her research and resolve to find the killer renewed public interest with each article published.
The fact that Joseph James DeAngelo, the 72-year-old man allegedly responsible for around 50 rapes, 12 murders and dozens of home invasions, is referred to as the Golden State Killer at all is a testament to McNamara's hard work -- and keen marketing skills.
Toward the end of her life, while investigating the crimes, McNamara befriended a Sacramento criminalist named Paul Holes. Holes was the lead criminalist on the GSK case and took McNamara on a tour of the most significant crime scenes in his district which she recalls in the book.
According to McNamara, Holes was known to drive to the crime scenes often to try and piece together important clues they may have missed. Holes was instrumental in locating the DNA that ultimately pointed to DeAngelo.
The familial DNA that Holes and his team of criminalists discovered came from an open-source DNA database online. And while this is a public database, the whole case has raised questions about private DNA collection and the reach of the law when it comes to privacy rights.
It’s easy to see why people are interested in the Golden State Killer.
In the midst of a GSK media storm that is still ongoing, DeAngelo's name sticks to the lips of true crime buffs everywhere, but to the detriment of another family. A name that should have hung in the air like a flag of shame signaling the failures of Sacramento PD is that of Stephon Clark, who just weeks before was gunned down by police for holding a cell phone in his grandmother's backyard.
The Death of Stephon Clark
Before the press conference where DA Anne Marie Schubert stood in front of the world declaring triumph in allegedly closing the cold case that had haunted Sacramento county for four decades, a young man in a hoodie was pursued by police on foot as he approached his grandmother’s house. This man was Stephon Clark.
Stephon Clark was a 22-year-old father of two. He was black. His death is one of 400 at the hands of police in 2018, alone. And the nature of it, an unarmed black man shot 2 times in the front and 6 times the back in the yard of his own family home, makes it difficult for even the most willfully ignorant to refuse the depth to which systemic racism is affecting black lives in the United States.
Stephon Clark was pursued by police because he supposedly matched the description of a person who had been seen breaking windows in the Sacramento neighborhood -- a black man wearing a hoodie, on foot.
In the time since the shooting, the Sacramento PD has released the videos of over 23 officers body cams, dash cams and even helicopter footage. If you think this seems like an excessive use of police resources to pursue a potential “window-breaker” on foot. You’re not alone.
The most devastating footage shows two officers chasing Stephon Clark and yelling for him to stop. They follow the man into a yard. He frantically taps on the window of his grandmother’s home. When he turns around, arms out with a white iPhone in his hand, the officers unload 20 bullets in his direction and he drops to the ground.
Even though an excessive number of officers arrive at the scene, it was 6 long minutes before any attempts were made to resuscitate Clark. All attempts at that point failed.
Stephon Clark was dead.
A Scandal for DA Schubert
In addition to pressure from McNamara’s fanbase, another driving factor that could have caused police to aggressively close the Golden State Killer case at this time is PR and marketing. With DA elections coming up in 2018, Schubert’s office needed hail mary play to drive public attention away from yet another scandal. And that’s what they got with DeAngelo.
In the case of Stephon Clark, a lot of questions remain unanswered by the DA’s office. Among the answers the world is still waiting to receive:
If history tells us anything, the Sacramento PD has a cozy relationship with DA Schubert, one that’s unlikely to see charges brought against any officers.
Disgracefully, the DA called it an early day when protesters gathered on the lawn of her office after attending Stephon Clark’s funeral. No one was around to hear the call and response chant: “Say his name! Stephon Clark!”
After weeks of protests, she put up a 10-foot fence.
This cold shoulder is par for course with how she has treated victims of police violence throughout her term as DA, even though her campaign website hinges on victim advocacy. In the three years, she's been in office, she's failed to file any charges in 21 police shootings and 13 cases of people who died in police custody, according to Sacramento News and Review.
Her critics suggest she’s also given a free pass to Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones who allegedly committed a misdemeanor when he deliberately released sensitive case information.
It’s no secret the DA has the police department’s back. But whether that actually overlaps with the public safety remains to be seen.
The capture of the Golden State Killer is a feather in the team’s cap that will be exploited on the campaign trail. But the families of Stephon Clark, Mikel Laney McIntyre and others who have died at the hands of Sacramento police or in police custody have good reason to carry the torch for accountability from DA Schubert.
DA Schubert and The Campaign Trail
Folks in Sacramento were still mourning Stephon Clark when the world was tuning into the press conference on the capture of the Golden State Killer. But the content of the conference was entirely unremarkable.
The DA congratulated the Police department for stellar sleuthing, who in turn congratulated the DA for hard work and perseverance.
After a lot of glad-handing and a general consensus that they got him, a brief Q&A session ensued. During this time, Schubert appeared to closely control the narrative and shut down anything they weren’t willing to discuss which was pretty much everything. In the context of Stephon Clark’s untimely demise, the celebratory press conference seems like a bit of red herring marketing stunt.
In support of this theory, one only has to look at the DA’s own re-election marketing efforts. In the wake of the alleged capture of GSK, the DA’s campaign aired a 30-second-commercial where Schubert’s praised for her DNA expertise and leadership in the case. It tests the slogan “She protects us.”
A mantra that is off-putting, if not totally untrue, to friends and family members of people whose lives were cut short at the hands of police, and who have been demanding accountability from the Sacramento DA for up to 3 years.
That quest for accountability was received by at least one councilman who rescinded their support of DA Schubert earlier this week, stating "I think we have to have a person in that position that has the confidence of the community and that law enforcement respects and recognizes that they will be held accountable just as the community will be held accountable if they do things that warrant it."
On the DA’s website and Facebook, many of her endorsements come from former law enforcement officials, including the much revered GSK criminalist, Paul Holes. That’s notwithstanding a report that over her term as DA, Schubert has received $420,000 in campaign funds from law enforcement-related agencies, including the money she accepted in the wake of Stephon Clark's death.
While DA Schubert uses campaign funds to manage her marketing initiatives and raise awareness for her cause, another player is gaining support from big names in social justice. That's Noah Phillips, her opponent in the DA race that is scheduled for a vote next month.
Phillips is bringing with him the endorsement of Sen. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and more.
At a time when social justice is on the minds of Sacramentans, the United States and the world, the scandals affecting the incumbent DA offer unique challenges for a marketing campaign. However, making her appear as the best DA candidate will largely hinge on whether or not people believe she was instrumental in the capture of the Golden State Killer.
By keeping news about DeAngelo flowing to the media, the DA’s office may be embarking on a public relations strategy that can quickly make Schubert look like a crime-fighting hero instead of a DA who puts the interest of police power over that of the value of lives.
It will be interesting to see how the DA’s election pans out in Sacramento, and what the larger implications are for Sacramentans about social justice. Any shift in the current DA’s administration will indicate that police corruption and the loss of human lives can’t be overshadowed by a skillful marketing effort in the wake of the Golden State Killer.
In the June 5th election, the key to DA Schubert’s success will be to cleverly market her triumph in the Golden State Killer case. But will DA Schubert be held accountable for the death of Stephon Clark and others under her watch instead? One thing’s for sure, the answer will have a lasting effect on Sacramento public policy.