During a lull in criminal court, prosecutor James Simmons looks across the few feet to the defendant’s table and sees a young man staring straight ahead. He’s dressed in jailhouse blues and has crude tattoos on his dark skin. He’s trying to look defiant, but only looks lonely.
Simmons thinks, I know that guy.
Growing up, “that guy” could have sat behind Simmons in class, when he bothered to show up, or lived in a flat one floor above. His mother probably cared as much for her son as Simmons’ did for hers, and repeated the same warnings about the street. The difference is, Simmons listened.
Simmons isn’t actually acquainted with the prisoner, but he knows the type so well they could have been kids together back in Los Angeles’ tight-wired South Central neighborhoods.
With court back in session, Simmons’ reverie ends. He and the defendant both rise and listen to the judge. Convinced by Simmons’ evidence, the judge sends the young gangbanger across the aisle to many years in prison.
Deputies lead the shackled defendant out of the courtroom and back to his cell. James goes home to his family — grateful to Mom and the inner resolve that turned him to a book instead of a gun.
Simmons is 35 years old and lives in San Diego with his two infant children and wife, Markecia, also an attorney. He’s of medium height with an open-faced smile. He’s one of 28 gang prosecutors for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, but that by itself isn’t much of a story. The thing that makes Simmons different is that he makes his prosecutions personal.
Not personal against the individuals he takes to trial, no more than does any prosecutor against a criminal he wants to send to jail. Simmons has a personal motivation to protect the hardworking, law-abiding people in the neighborhoods where gangs do shoot-’em-ups in city streets like unhorsed Dalton Gangs. And for a man who once dodged bullets in a gang area, that is up-close personal.
Simmons and three older sisters were raised by their single mother, Delores. His father was an alcoholic and wife abuser who had the good grace to be absent almost all the time.
“Seeing that side (of my father) pushed me away from him. I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to become the person that he was,” Simmons says.
(He eventually made his peace with his squared-away dad, but that was long after the damage to the family was done.)
“My mother was the sole provider for our house. She was a cafeteria worker who made minimum wage. We struggled a lot growing up. But my mother always kept my mind on education and the better life she wanted for me.”
The streets of his tough neighborhood pulsed with looming gang violence. Innocence was no protection. The route students chose to go home after school sometimes determined if they made it.
“I was walking home with friends, and in front of us there were a group of Crips and Bloods (rival gang members) yelling at each other from both sides of the street. They opened fire on the ones walking directly in front of us. I had to duck and dive for safety.”
Simmons was raised in a Crips neighborhood, which meant he couldn’t wear red without being challenged. However, if he walked a few blocks away, he’d be in a Bloods neighborhood and if he was wearing blue, he’d have to talk fast or be beaten up or worse.
Despite all this, plus second-rate schools, low expectations, and a hemmed-in world view (for years growing up, he thought black people were a majority of the country), Simmons endured and prevailed.
He graduated from UC Berkeley and went on to law school. His mother died of lupus on his first day of law school, but by then she knew. She knew. Deeply religious Delores had finished her course.
Ten years ago, Simmons joined the DA’s Office, and four years later he became a gang prosecutor. It was a job he sought, because he wanted to put away bad guys whose bullets threaten kids walking home from school. He wanted to see more underprivileged kids free of the fear to excel, and maybe even go to Berkeley.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says: “James said he wanted to help protect neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. We gave him the assignment and he became an effective prosecutor against gang violence.”
Early on, he was thrown into the battle against gangs when he prosecuted the 2009 case of an innocent pedestrian killed by idiotic gang violence. In the Gaslamp, late one night, two groups of Crips and Bloods were fistfighting over who knows what, undoubtedly something stupid, when it escalated to gunfire. A woman who was out celebrating her 21st birthday was struck in the temple by a stray bullet and killed.
Four of the gang members received up-to-life sentences, including the shooter, but no one took solace from the verdict because it brought mourners no closer to the question of “Why?”
That’s one of the questions Simmons asks of defendants when he has the opportunity. “What were you thinking?”
“A lot of times they tell me they weren’t thinking. They were just living in the moment instead of thinking about what would happen five minutes or a year or 20 years later.”
Beyond that, Simmons can only shrug when trying to understand why anyone wants to harm a stranger because he is wearing a blue shirt or a red jacket; not realizing that their video game world will turn real when the bleeding starts.
“When you’re younger you have this feeling of invincibility. When you get a little older, you realize how flawed that is — if you make it that far. But sometimes people really just don’t care,” he says.
Simmons’ duties are narrowed to gang violence, mainly homicides. He doesn’t get involved in drug trafficking, which gangs are often deep into. However, he doesn’t lack for work. Gang killings in the county usually number about two dozen a year. That’s about one every two weeks.
The gang population amounts to a diversity, but not of a kind that’s in demographic vogue today. In addition to the black gangs, Bloods and Crips, there are Latino gangs such as the Vista Home Boys, and the Logan gang in Logan Heights, plus a smattering of Asian gangs in Vietnamese and Filipino communities.
Whites, not to be excluded, have those old standbys, the Hells Angels, and a few other wannabe small ones, mainly in East County.
Simmons says that, fortunately, black and Latino gangs in the county do not war against each other as they do in Los Angeles County. Mostly, they battle within their own rival groups.
To underscore the screwed-upness of gang allegiances, Simmons says, “I just prosecuted a case where a guy killed his second cousin.
“(The killer) testified, ‘Yeah, I shot him. He threatened my house so I had to kill him. I knew that if I let him leave, he would come back and I knew I had to kill him right then and there.’ ”
Some gangbangers think a prison sentence is a badge to boast of, he says. “A lot of times, people who commit crimes, they’re celebrated on the streets. They’re respected because they’re feared. Everybody wants to have this reputation, because reputation is everything in gang culture. If you’re seen as weak, then you’re prey to rival gangs. If you’re seen as strong, nobody wants to mess with you. The worst of these guys, when they go to prison, they know that when they come out, they’re going to be feared and respected. It’s a really weird way of thinking.”
They’re never going to let you see inside of them, are they?
“Very rarely. I’ve seen some guys, you take them aside and you see the fear and the tears in their eyes. Other guys, you see no remorse, no fear whatsoever.”
What makes you really angry about what you’re doing?
“The biggest thing is, what makes me the angriest, is the fact that a small number can cause such fear and violence in a community.
“They make hardworking, honest people fear going to the grocery store. Or the kids can’t play at certain parks because they have to worry about gang members. Or the kids have to take a special route to school to avoid passing certain houses. Or they can’t be outside after dark because of what might happen. That upsets me. Nobody should have to live like that.”
His antipathy stops short of blanketing every gang member.
“Growing up in L.A., I had family members and friends who were part of gangs. I know that not every person who is a gang member is out there trying to shoot somebody.”
Sometimes circumstances can compel young people to join gangs, he says.
“Some may feel like they’ve gotten bullied at school or in their neighborhoods and they join a gang so they know somebody will back them up.”
Simmons makes it a point to become acquainted with the families of gang-violence victims. It’s part of his prosecuting job. But a more personal reason is to let them know that the man who will fight for their justice is also black.
He can see from their faces what that means to them. He knows what it means to him.
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