Fatal stance

As the D.A.'s race heats up, the death penalty emerges as a big issue

Capital punishment is becoming a bigger issue in San Francisco and statewide.


Ever since Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Police Chief George Gascón district attorney in January — when Gascón said he was "not categorically opposed to the death penalty and would consider it in appropriate cases" — capital punishment has become a big issue in a town where the last death penalty case was in 1989.

Gascón is running against former San Francisco Police Commissioner David Onek, who is the founding director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and has consistently promised since entering the race last summer that he will not seek the death penalty.

Both men also face a serious challenge from Alameda County Deputy D.A. Sharmin Bock, who opposes capital punishment but won't categorically state that she would never seek it, as former DAs Kamala Harris and Terence Hallinan both did while running for office.

Bock said that Harris eventually formed a committee to review each capital case but never filed for the death penalty, including in the 2004 murder of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza, the same approach Bock would take. But she doesn't think it's legally wise to make a categorical statement opposing the death penalty, saying it could be challenged in court, as some attorneys tried to do with Harris.

"But capital punishment is unjust, and can say that categorically," she said.

In the week since Bock's May 17 campaign launch, Gascón challenged her credibility on the issue by noting that Bock used the threat of the death penalty to secure a guilty plea from a sexual predator who tortured and killed women in Alameda County last year.

But Bock used that case to draw a distinction in their positions on the issue, telling us, "George Gascón says he'd use it for the most heinous cases, and I've seen the most heinous cases and I haven't use it," Bock said, emphasizing that she's the only prosecutor in the race.

In a May 1 Chronicle op-ed, Gascón tried to neutralize Onek and those opposed to the death penalty by noting that he also has "serious misgivings" about capital punishment, including the potential for wrongful convictions, the disproportionate application on racial minorities, the roller-coaster the victims' families endure as they wait decades for closure, and the financial impact on an already overburdened justice system.

But Gascón also tried to hide behind the "death penalty is state law" defense, even though prosecutors have extensive discretion in such matters. "Rather than refuse to enforce our laws, I believe the more appropriate approach is to accept the law and work to change it," Gascón wrote. "I don't believe district attorneys should be allowed to supplant the views of the state with those of their own."

Bock criticized Gascón's deferential stance, which was in sharp contrast to Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who recently announced that he will stop cooperating with federal immigration officials and start releasing undocumented immigrants jailed for minor offenses before they can be picked up for deportation, to comply with San Francisco's sanctuary ordinance.

Gascón appeared to be trying to cast his position as a courageous stand. "Some have given me the political advice to simply say I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco," he wrote. "While I am not prepared to say that at this time, I can say that I do intend to be a district attorney committed to San Francisco values."

And he promised that if he believes a case merits the death penalty, he would seek the advice and counsel of a panel of local prosecutors. "Ultimately, the decision will always rest on my shoulders, and it is a decision that I will not take lightly," Gascón wrote.


Gascon is a joke played on the citizens of San Francisco by former mayor Gavin Newsom. He is an out-of-towner from Arizona of all places, and a former Republican who only became a Democrat after moving to SF. He has no right to hold any office in this town!

Posted by GrannyGear on May. 30, 2011 @ 4:20 am

Sharmin Bock is the only seasoned prosecutor in the race. Niether Gascon or
Onek have the skill and know how to run the DA's office. If either of these two elected you would have to hire "under-DA" to run office, Gascon and Onek would just be figureheads, drawing huge salary to push a few papers around and attend political events. The DA's job not a job for politicians, this is a job that best goes to an individual who has paid dues. Bock has extensive back-round as working prosecutor, you won't have to hire anybody to run the office, she knows what to do. That's why I am backing Bock. It's a no-brainer, you want a proecutor for DA's job!

Posted by Guestrewgolfer on May. 31, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

Sharmin Bock has muddied the waters so much that I have no idea where she stands. Sounds like she wants to have it both ways -she wants the votes of death penalty opponents with her weak lip service to "serious misgivings." But she's also playing dog whistle politics to the right wingers. Sorry, you just can't have it both ways.

I could care less about her inner moral struggle. I want a clear answer -will she commit to not using the death penalty, or not?

If she doesn't have the backbone to give us a clear answer, then she doesn't deserve the job. And same goes for Gascon.

Posted by Greg on May. 31, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

Anyone but Gascon!
Let's vote this clown back to L.A.

Posted by Guest on May. 31, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

Could you tell me the difference between Gascon's ideology and Bock's? it's a serious question, because unless a decent candidate enters the race, I'll be stuck voting for one of these clowns for second place. So far, I can't discern any difference in their worldviews. But since you're in the "anyone but Gascon" camp, apparently you can. I'd be curious to know what that difference is.

Posted by Greg on May. 31, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

Gascon pushed for legislation to take away your freedom to sit on a public sidewalk, anywhere in San Francisco.

Gascon tried to scare the people of SFwith the bogeyman of terrorism in an effort to re-start the SFPD Spy Unit so he could spy on San Francisco residents. The same Spy Unit that was disbanded in disgrace after being caught spying on innocent San Franciscans for the ADL.

He also spread fears of terrorist attacks to push a bond issue for more money for police facilities.

Gascon wasted millions of taxpayer's dollars on a boondoggle of a new crime tracking computer system (Compstat) that is to blame for egregious abuse of power in the form of arrest quotas?

Gascon couldn't wait to spend your money on Compstat. He even gave his LAPD buddy Jeff Godown a job running it for a mere $270,000.00 per year. Do you like new quarter million dollar PER YEAR bureaucratic positions being created for politician's friends?

If you like being spied on, having your civil rights stripped away, and your taxes wasted on politician's buddies, then yeah, I guess Gascon is your man.

Also, Sharmin Bock has experience as a prosecutor.
Gascon has experience as a spotlight sucking politician.

Posted by Arnold on May. 31, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

Arnold, you're preaching to the choir about how terrible Gascon is. But I don't necessarily see Bock as any better.

I see two traditional law-and-order conservatives, both wanting to have it both ways on the death penalty (I suspect both closet supporters who are lying to the public to get votes), and neither having much to say about police misconduct.

Saying over and over again that Bock is a prosecutor won't convince me one bit. Experience implies competence, but before I look at competence, I want to make sure of what it is they're going to be competent at doing. In other words, where do they stand on the issues?

If you have two candidates who are both terrible on the issues, both have a program that will take things in the wrong direction... who would you choose -the one that is incompetent at taking things in the wrong direction, or the one who would be brutally efficient at implementing the program?

That said, there are, of course, more than two candidates, as much as the Bock supporters want to gloss over that fact.

Posted by Greg on May. 31, 2011 @ 10:16 pm