In many cities, a politician’s opposition to the death penalty would be considered a political liability. But in San Francisco, supporting the death penalty can be hazardous to your political career — even if you’re The City’s top prosecutor. District Attorney George Gascón’s nuanced approach to the death penalty could cost him votes in November’s election, but he insisted Wednesday that he would hold firm to his stance.
Gascón, in an interview prior to a panel hosted by Public Defender Jeff Adachi on the death penalty, reiterated his opinion that he would only consider it in a “very heinous” case.
Gascón declined to be more specific, but said his office had recently reviewed its first potential death penalty case — several alleged Bayview gang members accused of three separate murders dating back to 2006 — and decided against filing.
“But I think it would be inappropriate for me to say categorically that I would never consider it at all,” Gascón later told the panel, insisting that it was his duty to uphold state law. But he also stressed that he did not believe it was “the right tool,” saying it had a disproportionate affect on minorities, did not bring closure to victims’ families and had a great cost financially.
One of Gascón’s opponents in the race, David Onek, castigated him for “trying to have it both ways.”
Onek said the law allows a district attorney the discretion to seek the death penalty, but does not require it, adding that Gascón’s was a “politician’s answer.”
“The death penalty does not work — I will not seek the death penalty in any circumstances,” Onek said, citing many of the same criticisms of it that Gascón did.
In a recent interview, Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane suggested that Gascón’s public declaration on his death penalty stance was a “big mistake” politically.
“He automatically lost a chunk of San Francisco voters,” Keane said.
According to Keane, in San Francisco there is a “hardcore” group of between 30 and 35 percent of voters who would vote against someone supporting the death penalty in any form, “no matter who’s running against them.”
“I’m not going to compromise,” said Gascón, a former Republican who registered as a Democrat after being named district attorney earlier this year.
“Some people want a political answer, to an issue that is not a political issue.” He said the election “ought to be about who is the most capable person” for the job.
The issue has long been politicized in San Francisco, with the two prior district attorneys, Terence Hallinan and Kamala Harris, both taking public stances against the death penalty. Both were re-elected to office.
Death penalty positions of recent DAs
Terence Hallinan (1996-2004): Initially campaigned on seeking the death penalty only in the most extreme cases, but ruled it out in his re-election campaign.
Kamala Harris (2004-11): Campaigned to not seek the death penalty as district attorney, though her office later set up a committee to review each potential case.
George Gascón (2011): Campaigns on seeking the death penalty only in the most heinous cases.