As the D.A.'s race heats up, the death penalty emerges as a big issue
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.
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.
Woodford recalled how she got sick after the last execution she presided over. "I focused on what my responsibility was. But in hindsight, I realize it had had much more of an impact," she said. "These executions happen in California at least 20 years after the crime. And they don't bring victims back."
Minsker noted that 16 states do not have the death penalty, and that every day brings people closer to ending the practice in California. "People once thought opposing the death penalty would end political careers, but Kamala Harris showed that it is no longer a liability," she said.
Reached by phone after the debate, Onek said ending capital punishment makes sense morally and financially. "We would have $1 billion to invest in things that actually make us safer," Onek said. "The D.A. is given discretion around requesting the death penalty, and I will use my discretion to reflect San Francisco values. That's why people in the trenches working on these issues, including Jeanne Woodford, support me in this race."