Fatal stance

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

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

sarah@sfbg.com

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.