The death penalty: How close, how far

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The Chronicle didn't even put the news on the front page (although The New York Times did), but the execution of Troy Davis went forward more or less as scheduled Sept. 21, with news media around the world watching. It was a shameful miscarriage of justice; as the Times noted in an editorial:

Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime. There are other reasons to doubt Mr. Davis’s guilt: There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime introduced at trial, and new ballistics evidence broke the link between him and a previous shooting that provided the motive for his conviction.

Yes the Georgia courts, and the federal courts, and the United States Supreme Court, let the state kill Davis -- and now it's too late to prove his innocence. That, of course, is the most horrible aspect of the death penalty. It's also cruel, expensive and pointless.

But there's a bit of good news, at least in California. I'm convinced that sentiment is changing. We've been interviewing candidates for San Francisco sheriff and district attorney over the past two weeks -- and I can tell you, while San Francisco isn't a good reflection of the state as a whole, attitudes among law-enforcement types in this town have changed pretty dramatically over the past ten years or so.

In 1999, Matt Gonzalez, Bill Fazion and Terence Hallinan all ran for district attorney, and Gonzales came in third. Fazio -- a veteran prosecutor and tough-on-crime type, went to Gonzalez and sought his endorsment in the runoff. Gonzalez said he'd support him -- if Fazio would agree never to seek the death penalty. It was a pretty easy call, since no San Francisco jury is ever going to vote for capital punishment anyway -- but Fazio refused. He insisted that he was a death-penalty supporter to the end, and he lost the race.

Now, Fazio says the death penalty is a complete failure, and he would not only never seek it but he's actively in favor of repealing it.

Just a few months ago, former police chief and current D.A. George Gascon was talking about how the death penatly ought to be one of a prosecutor's tools -- but now he utterly disavows is, says he would never seek it and is calling for repeal.

Chris Cunnie, a former president of the avowedly pro-death-penalty Police Officers Association, told us he opposes capital punishment.

And Kamala Harris, who never wavered in her refusal to seek the death penalty, even for the killing of a cop, managed to get elected attorney general of California.

So there's hope.