When she was San Francisco's District Attorney, California Attorney General Kamala Harris forever earned the ire of local police officers when she declined to pursue the death penalty against the killer of Isaac Espinoza, a popular Bayview Station cop who was shot and killed while on duty in 2004. He was 29.
Harris, who ran for re-election not long after, considered her stance against capital punishment “non-negotiable,” the New York Times reported at the time. She cruised to a second term as DA and then Sacramento despite attack ads that pilloried her as an anti-cop criminal coddler for refusing to pursue execution for Espinoza's killer (who will be in prison for the rest of his life, serving consecutive life sentences).
Apparently, a lot can change in a decade. On Monday, Harris filed paperwork defending California's ability to put people to death from a constitutional challenge, according to the Associated Press.
[jump] Despite a new death chamber at San Quentin, California has not killed anybody since Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006. As usual, it's tied up in the courts.
An inmate sentenced to die in 1995 successfully convinced a federal court to toss his sentence after state courts upheld it; the case is now at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the final step below the U.S. Supreme Court (where it will almost certainly end up).
To find that capital punishment in California is cruel and unusual, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney found that California arbitrarily sentences people to die (there appears to be no rhyme or reason as to why someone gets a life sentence versus lethal injection) and that the process takes far too long.
The latter is certainly true — the 13 men killed in California since 1978 all spent at least a decade on death row as the appeal process wound up; others spent over 20 years appealing their convictions until they were executed.
Harris is now in the position of having to choose whether to do her job as defender of California's laws or to follow her personal beliefs. She's faced this quandary before, when deciding whether or not to defend Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban.
At that time, she elected not to protect institutionalized inequality. Now, she's going the other way, putting the office above her moral convictions, as the LA Times put it.
“California's system for carefully reviewing capital convictions and sentences” is lengthy, hence the huge delay, Harris wrote in court papers filed Monday, according to the AP. “It might be hastened if the state had no resource constraints, or less interest in ensuring the accuracy and legality of its judgments in capital cases.”
So while it might appear that Harris is doing an about-face on the death penalty, that's not exactly it. Rather, she's just choosing to put her personal convictions aside on this issue. Why'd she do that on capital punishment and not gay marriage?
Political expediency, perhaps. The death penalty is still popular, believe it or not, so defending a practice many see as barbaric — including Harris herself — is the smarter move.