As the D.A.'s race heats up, the death penalty emerges as a big issue
But Onek accused Gascón of giving a politician's answer. "Gascón is trying to have it both ways," Onek told the Guardian. "The voters have the right to hear a clear answer to a fundamental question. And my answer is clear — I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco and I will continue to work to change the law statewide. To me, it's a yes or no question, and I won't seek it. Period."
Onek says his stance is informed by his belief that the death penalty solves nothing. "It doesn't make us safer; it's not fair and equitable; and it wastes enormous resources," he said. "We are much better off spending our precious resources on things that actually make us safer, like more cops on the streets, more programs in our communities, and better services for victims."
Gov. Jerry Brown made a similar comparison last month when he canceled a $356 million project for a new death row at San Quentin. "At a time when children, the disabled, and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state," Brown said.
A recent David Binder research poll found 63 percent support statewide for commuting all of the 700 sentences of California's death row inmates to life in prison without parole and requiring them to pay restitution to the victims' families, while 70 percent of Bay Area voters support the plan, which would save the state $1 billion over five years.
At a May 18 panel discussion on the death penalty, Public Defender Jeff Adachi's criminal justice summit offered panel moderator Matt Gonzalez, a chief attorney in Adachi's office, a timely opportunity to grill Gascón about his death penalty stance.
"Folks felt it might be a step backward," Gonzalez said, noting that former D.A. Terence Hallinan pledged not to seek the death penalty when he ran for reelection in 2000, and Harris followed suit when she first ran for district attorney in 2003. "So — are you pro death?" Gonzalez asked.
"No, but I am a public official," Gascón replied, even as he repeated his misgivings about the death penalty, including the fact that 62 percent of those on death row are minority populations, especially from African American and Latino communities.
The panel also provided a chance to see Gascón debate exonerated death row inmate JT Thompson, watch American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California attorney Natasha Minsker explain why the death penalty system is dysfunctional, and witness former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford describe how the impacts of the four executions that she reluctantly oversaw motivated her to sign on as director of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit dedicated to abolishing capital punishment.
"Who is responsible for the prosecutors that go bad?" asked Thompson, an African American man who spent 14 years on death row in Louisiana, and another four facing life without parole, because a prosecutor suppressed exculpatory evidence.
"When I was sentenced to death in 1985, for a crime I didn't commit, I thought this would be rectified right away. But it took 18 years, and I watched 12 inmates being executed while I was there," Thompson said, noting that he was holed up 23 hours a day.
Gascón said he would terminate prosecutors who withheld exculpatory evidence, but said he didn't know if he could charge them with murder.
Thompson, founder of the New Orleans-based nonprofit Resurrection after Exoneration, argued that the debate needs to be recast from its current public safety frame.
"People need to be asked, 'Under what conditions do you support giving the state the right to kill you?' " Thompson said.