Being raised in Passaic, NJ during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic taught Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John McKinney a lot about crime. He was in high school when crack hit the streets of his neighborhood.
“People who I used to know and respect all my life were out on the streets looking like zombies,” says McKinney, “and husbands were pimping their wives for that little piece of rock.”
Many of his friends became drug dealers, and McKinney says he was tempted by their extravagant lifestyles. But he said he had “a healthy fear and respect for the law.”
McKinney also had a healthy respect for his eldest sister, Ora Jones, who had raised him since the age of five.
He has little memory of his mother, who died when he was two. His father died while he was just in kindergarten. “He was my security, my provider and my best friend even as a child,” said McKinney. “I enjoyed climbing on his lap and trying to make him laugh.”
McKinney refers to his sister as “his superhero.” She stepped up to raise McKinney, one other sibling, and her own two children as a single parent. McKinney says his sister worked long hours on a pharmaceutical company line to provide for the family.
He describes himself as “a pretty good kid growing up,” and he was trusted with the responsibility of keeping himself out of trouble.
“My friends thought I was lucky because they thought I could kind of do whatever I wanted without any supervision,” said McKinney. “But I didn’t stray too far from what she expected of me because I didn’t want to hurt her. I knew she was working hard and making so many sacrifices for us.”
After graduating high school, McKinney says he went to college for one year then dropped out. He worked a series of odd jobs, including work with a carpenter and a painter.
A couple of years of honest labor and, as McKinney says, “getting older,” triggered in him what he calls “an intellectual curiosity.” So, he enrolled in the local community college and upon completion he transferred to Rutgers University, while continuing to work full time.
While working as a substitute schoolteacher, McKinney graduated from Rutgers and began applying to law schools on the east coast. He then received an unsolicited letter from UCLA offering him the opportunity to apply with an application fee waiver. At the urging of a friend, McKinney says he decided to “give it a go.”
McKinney says his experience at UCLA was “one of the best times of his life.” After UCLA, he worked for a private practitioner where he took client depositions. He applied to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in 1998 under Gil Garcetti.
Now after twenty-four years as a prosecutor, McKinney has served with four district attorneys, including the previously named Garcetti, Steve Cooley, and the first female and first African American district attorney, Jackie Lacey. He now currently works with George Gascon.
McKinney has prosecuted almost every kind of violent crime. His three major assignments were the Victim Impact Program (VIP), better known to the public at large as the Special Victims Unit, hardcore gang crimes, and now Major Crimes, where he has been for eleven years.
McKinney says one of his toughest cases was the prosecution of Jade Harris. “It was difficult because of the enormity of the crime,” said McKinney. “It was the coldest and most callous execution of human beings that I’ve ever prosecuted.”
“He fled back to Los Angeles [after committing the crimes] where he spent the night eating Chinese food, smoking weed and talking to his girlfriend.”
Another prominent trial for McKinney was the murder of American rapper, businessman and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle. “When I was assigned the Nipsey Hussle case I knew very little about who he was,” said McKinney. “He could have walked past me on the street, and I wouldn’t have recognized him.”
McKinney says he began immersing himself into Nipsey Hussle by watching the news and on YouTube. He remembers saying to himself, “how do I not know this man?”
The words of men he respected, who spoke favorably about Hussle, helped McKinney to understand the “authenticity” of a man who appeared to be “very bright… and almost philosophical in the way he thinks about business and investments,” even though McKinney didn’t know him personally.
McKinney says he wanted the jurors to “have a sense of who Hussle was as a person… within the perimeters of the law. The crime was caught on video so there was no question that Eric Holder Jr. [the defendant in the case] shot Nipsey Hussle and killed him in cold blood.”
Holder’s defense wanted the charges to be reduced from first-degree murder to manslaughter.
They claimed Hussle incited the events leading to his killing, stemming from the two men’s previous shared history with the Los Angeles street gang, “The Rollin 60s.”
“It was important for us to convey that he had long left gangbanging behind and any little way that I could to point that out, that’s what I would do,” said McKinney. “I wanted the jury to see the whole person [Nipsey Hussle] and not just a stereotype.” On the 6th of July 2022, Eric Holder Jr. was found guilty.
McKinney had “never seriously contemplated” running for Los Angeles County District Attorney until December of 2020 when George Gascon took office. “Gascon took office and immediately implemented nine sweeping directives that changed the way the district attorney’s office sought justice,” said McKinney.
“My reaction to that initially was to speak out publicly and let the people know that these policies are dangerous and were going to lead to bad outcomes,” he added.
McKinney says his life work and experience have prepared him to be district attorney and lead the office. He says he has received “encouragement from colleagues, judges, and defense attorneys.”
On February 27, 2022, a recall effort began against Gascon.
“I have said publicly if the recall effort of Gascon succeeds, I expect to run for District Attorney in the special election,” said McKinney. “I want to help ensure public safety, which should be the number one priority of all elected officials no matter what their position.”
McKinney says he also wants to restore confidence in the criminal justice system. “We have thirty-five city councils who have taken a vote of no confidence in the current DA,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of his Deputy District Attorneys have voted to support his recall.”
McKinney continues, “Generally, there is a growing sense that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. I believe I have the experience, the knowledge, the skill, and force of personality to change that.”