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Capital Question

Democrat’s Anti-Death Penalty Decision in Cop Killer Case a Key Issue in Attorney General Race


Kamala Harris, San Francisco’s district attorney, knows what’s coming in her campaign as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general.

“My opponent will try to make the case that I am soft on crime,” she said in an interview with The Independent during a recent stop in Santa Barbara.

Now in her second term as DA, the telegenic 45-year-old Harris offers a stark contrast, in style and substance, to Steve Cooley, her 63-year-old Republican rival for AG, who is in his third term as district attorney of Los Angeles, after he spent more than 25 years in the office prosecuting cases.

Capitol Letters

The campaign to be California’s top law enforcement officer presents voters a clear choice: While Harris has built her reputation as a liberal innovator, working on issues like recidivism, environmental law, and technology, Cooley is an old-school prosecutor who boasts of winning more death-penalty verdicts last year — 13 — than the state of Texas.

“The death penalty is going to be a major point of contrast between Harris and Cooley,” said Kevin Spillane, spokesman for the Republican.

As a practical matter, executions in California have been blocked for four years by legal challenges to lethal-injection procedures, and the attorney general has little day-to-day authority over death-penalty policy. Still, Harris is bracing for Cooley to attack over her opposition to capital punishment, as a political signifier of the contrasting values they bring to law enforcement.

Like most of her recent predecessors in San Francisco, Harris campaigned in the city on her opposition to the death penalty and has not brought any capital cases while in office. This has triggered several fierce controversies over the issue, which Cooley will likely highlight in his campaign advertising; perhaps most notable was her decision not to seek the death penalty for a gang member who killed a police officer in 2004, a few months after Harris took office.

Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed with an AK-47 by 21-year-old David Hill after the undercover police officer and his partner stopped the man on the street for suspicious activity. Soon after Hill’s arrest, Harris announced that she would not seek the death penalty, a move that outraged the police department, Espinoza’s family, and a host of politicians, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, who called for the execution of cop killers while speaking at the officer’s funeral.

Harris eventually won a second-degree murder conviction, sending Hill to prison for life without possibility of parole. But the case opened wounds in the law enforcement community that still remain raw. “I am personally opposed to the death penalty,” she said in the interview. “But I have always said I will follow the law, and my position is the same as four of the last nine attorneys general of California.”

Despite high emotions raised by the case, Harris said, there were substantial legal questions about the evidence that did not support a death-penalty charge. Hill’s attorney argued that his client did not know Espinoza was a policeman, thinking he was a rival gang member and that his own life was in danger.

“When I got the call that he had been killed, it was Easter weekend,” Harris recalled. “I left my family and went straight to the police department and to the chief’s office to help direct the investigation to catch the killer, who had not yet been caught.”

“When the killer had been caught … there was a process of review. I talked to a lot of my top deputies, and ultimately, I made the decision, but it was a decision based on the facts and the law.”

Harris acknowledged, however, that she subsequently made several key changes in her office. She instituted a more formal review process for making charging decisions; she also said she may have acted too quickly in announcing her decision soon after Hill’s arrest and has since moved more slowly in making such determinations.

“Had I to do it over again, [the charging decision] would have been after the preliminary hearing. Would it have resulted in a different decision? No, as evidenced by the jury’s verdict — they came back with a second-degree, so it would not have qualified for the death penalty anyway.”

With the Espinoza case likely to become a major issue in the attorney general campaign, Harris knows the complexities of her decision can be buried with one tough 30-second TV attack ad. She is confident, however, that the charge that she is soft on crime will not stick: “I have spent my entire career as a prosecutor, and nobody who knows me professionally would say I’m soft.”

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