The parents of murder victims joined prosecutors and crime victims Monday in taking aim at criminal justice reform proponents during a rally for victims of crime in Orange County.
Connie Vargo, the mother of 6-year-old Jeffrey Vargo of Anaheim Hills, who died at the hands of Kenneth Rasmuson in July 1981, told the crowd at the annual victim’s rights rally sponsored by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, that she “wasn’t here to talk about politics, I’m here to talk about victims’ rights,” but she criticized Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón and Gov. Gavin Newsom for their opposition to the death penalty.
Vargo recalled how Gascon’s office was moving to remove special circumstances allegations in the case against Rasmuson that would have allowed the defendant to not only avoid the ultimate punishment, but life without the possibility of parole if convicted at trial. She praised Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer for stepping in and attempting to wrest the case away from Gascón’s office.
“We were so moved by that,” Vargo said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Vargo credited Spitzer’s intervention with Rasmuson pleading guilty to killing her son and another 6-year-old boy, Miguel Antero, saying the resolution of the case is “a huge burden lifted from me.”
Vargo said if Gascón’s office had prosecuted the case, then Rasmuson, 59, would have been eligible for release from prison in “less than 20 years.” He is scheduled to be sentenced April 27 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“There’s no doubt in my mind if he could get out, he would do it again,” she said.
Vargo also objected to the governor placing a moratorium on the death penalty, saying, “Don’t we get to vote on these things?”
Steve Herr, the father of Sam Herr, whose killer, Daniel Wozniak, was sentenced to death, said he felt relief after jurors reached verdicts 6 1/2 years after his son’s murder.
But Newsom’s halt on the death penalty ripped open old wounds, Herr said.
Newsom “was not pursuing the will of the people,” as the governor said at the time, Herr said. “He was defecating on the rights of victims. What Gov. Newsom told victims and their families was `screw you.”’
Without naming former state and federal prosecutor Peter Hardin, who is running to unseat Spitzer, Herr also took swipes at the Democratic candidate who said he opposes the death penalty because he believes it is impractical, puts victims through years of appeals and won’t be carried out anyway.
Herr objected to Hardin saying he opposed the death penalty in part to spare victims more pain.
“He has for all intents and purposes spat on victims and their families,” Herr said.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, who has clashed publicly with Gascón, also addressed the group. Noting that at one point during the morning gathering he had been mistakenly referred to as an Orange County deputy district attorney, Hatami said, “I love Orange County and your DA Spitzer is the best, but I am a proud L.A. County prosecutor. There may be one who wants me to go, but I’m not leaving voluntarily.”
Hatami recounted his prosecution of the mother of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and her live-in boyfriend in the youngster’s torture murder, as well as Hatami’s own troubled childhood of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his parents.
“We are facing a situation here today,” Hatami told the crowd, “where some district attorneys… want to divide us… We have certain politicians completely abandoning victims… We cannot have a DA who revictimizes victims.”
Hatami declared, “I am not going anywhere and I know you’re not either. This is our community. Let’s take it back.”
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley also took apparent swipes at Gascón.
“You’re blessed in this county … to have a district attorney’s office dedicated to enforcing the law, not ignoring the law,” Cooley told the group.
In comments last month, Gascón defended the policies he set in place during his first 100 days as Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor amid backlash over his directives against seeking the death penalty and keeping cases involving juveniles out of adult courts.
Gascón said his changes were “based on data and science that will enhance the safety for our community while reducing racial disparities and the misuse of incarceration,” and he vowed that the efforts are “just beginning.”
“The death penalty does not make us safer. It is morally wrong and fiscally irresponsible,” Gascón said, adding that the death penalty requires the families of murder victims to wait through decades of appeals and forces them to relive the trauma “for a sentence that will never be imposed” in a state in which Newsom has declared a moratorium on executions.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, who could not attend the rally, made a pre-recorded video criticizing efforts to reduce overcrowded prisons. Barnes said he favors programs that help ex-cons return to society upon their release, but he said the criminal justice reform laws “enable bad behavior.”
Patricia Wenskunas, the founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, said in the 19 years since she herself was a crime victim, “we’re still losing the battle” for victims’ rights.
“Victims have a right to justice,” she said. “They have a right to be heard… It’s worse than ever.”
But Wenskunas said she was “very excited” that the county has approved a crime victims monument to be placed in a courtyard between the offices of prosecutors and sheriff’s employees.
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