George Gascon (pictured), San Francisco’s District Attorney and a former chief of police, recently discussed his concerns aboutCalifornia‘s death penalty. He wrote, “Despite saying that I wouldn’t rule out the death penalty as district attorney, I want to make clear that I have serious misgivings concerning the potential for wrongful convictions and the disproportionate impact of the application of the death penalty on racial minorities. Moreover, victims’ families are subjected to an emotional roller coaster as they wait decades for justice and closure. I am also concerned about the increasing financial impact that death penalty prosecutions have on our already overburdened criminal justice system.” Gascon particularly pointed to the problem of mistake: “Given the irreversibility of the death penalty, the possibility of a wrongful conviction can never be overstated.”
When I was appointed district attorney by Mayor Gavin Newsom on Jan. 9, I stated that I was not categorically opposed to the death penalty and would consider it in appropriate cases. I have also stated that I do not personally believe the death penalty is a good tool. These remarks have been closely analyzed by many and have caused concern from some quarters, so I want to explain my position.
I made those remarks for two primary reasons. First, in my three-decade career as a police officer, I have seen some pretty bad crimes, not the least of which have been heinous murders. And that experience has caused me to be hesitant to say that I would never consider the death penalty. Second, the death penalty is the law of the state. Rather than refuse to enforce our laws, I believe the more appropriate approach is to accept the law and work to change it. As much as we might oppose it, the death penalty is the law in California, and every criminal case brought by a district attorney in this state is brought on behalf of the people of the state of California. I don’t believe district attorneys should be allowed to supplant the views of the state with those of their own.
Despite saying that I wouldn’t rule out the death penalty as district attorney, I want to make clear that I have serious misgivings concerning the potential for wrongful convictions and the disproportionate impact of the application of the death penalty on racial minorities. Moreover, victims’ families are subjected to an emotional roller coaster as they wait decades for justice and closure. I am also concerned about the increasing financial impact that death penalty prosecutions have on our already overburdened criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system is not perfect. Occasionally, we have seen cases of wrongful convictions caused by mistaken eyewitness identification, trial misconduct or incompetent defense counsel. Given the irreversibility of the death penalty, the possibility of a wrongful conviction can never be overstated.
Also, strong evidence suggests that the application of the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on the poor and racial minorities. Sixty-two percent of all inmates on California’s death row are minorities.
Additionally, it often takes decades for death penalty cases to be resolved. Justice delayed is justice denied. For the families of victims of homicides, the ongoing legal battles and delays and the publicity surrounding some of the more sensational cases exacerbates the pain, reopening the wounds each time new procedural steps are taken, never allowing for closure.
Finally, prosecuting death penalty cases comes at a very high cost. Typically, California taxpayers pay half a million dollars to prosecute a capital case. These funds could be used far more productively.
Some have given me the political advice to simply say I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco. 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.
Under my leadership, this office has not sought the death penalty, and we have no pending death penalty cases.
I am also proud to say that I have made every effort to be inclusive and to listen to all voices in our community, from families of homicide victims to the ACLU, and have discussed this and other issues in a transparent and open manner. I met with the entire staff of the Public Defender’s Office at Jeff Adachi’s invitation and fielded a wide range of questions related to the administration of justice in our city. I have been told that no previous district attorney of San Francisco has ever agreed to such a free-form discussion.
To be clear, I will not bring politics into my decision-making process. I firmly believe it is my legal duty to evaluate on a case-by-case basis the prosecution of defendants charged with special-circumstance offenses. To that end, if I ever believe a case merits the death penalty, I will seek the advice and counsel of a panel of local prosecutors to evaluate these cases and provide me with their recommendation. Ultimately, the decision will always rest on my shoulders, and it is a decision that I will not take lightly.
-George Gascón is San Francisco’s district attorney and a former chief of police.