SACRAMENTO — California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer indicated Friday that he is likely to take over the controversial prosecution of the accused killer of a San Francisco police officer because the district attorney there is philosophically opposed to the death penalty and refuses to seek it.
In remarks delivered at a memorial for slain peace officers here, Lockyer jumped into the political fray on an issue that has polarized San Francisco.
"Those who murder a law enforcement officer need to know -- and also the district attorneys should know -- that if you make charging decisions based on personal philosophy, not on facts, I will take the case away from you and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law," Lockyer said to spirited applause from an audience of law enforcement officials and relatives of officers killed on duty over the last year.
While Lockyer did not mention San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris by name at the gathering, his office confirmed that he has opened an informal inquiry into whether Harris abused her discretion by declining to pursue a death sentence in the murder of Officer Isaac Espinoza.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Lockyer spokeswoman -- An article in the May 8 California section misspelled the first name of Hallye Jordan, the spokeswoman for California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, as Halley.
Under state law, the attorney general's office can take over the prosecution if Harris abused her prosecutorial discretion in deciding not to seek the death penalty.
Espinoza, an undercover gang officer, and his partner were on patrol in an unmarked car April 10 when they spotted David Hill, 21, a reputed gang member.
Police say Espinoza got out of the car, identified himself as a police officer and approached Hill. According to police, Hill produced an AK-47 rifle and fatally shot Espinoza, who police said never drew his weapon.
Lockyer's office Wednesday sent a letter to Harris "requesting information that led to her charging decision" in the Hill case, said Halley Jordan, Lockyer's spokeswoman.
Harris said through a spokeswoman that she "welcomes Lockyer's review of the facts and evidence in this case, and my office will fully cooperate."
In a statement released late Friday, she held firm to her decision, but suggested it was not made solely on the basis of her philosophical stance.
"We are all grieving the loss of Officer Espinoza ... and it is natural to want an eye for an eye," she said. "My job is to vigorously prosecute this case based on the facts and the evidence.
"We reached our decision about this case after a comprehensive review of the facts. We're confident that if another prosecutor reviewed this case, he or she would reach the same conclusions.
"My priority is to ensure a conviction for this heinous crime," the statement said.
Harris campaigned openly in San Francisco last fall as an opponent of the death penalty. In a city where more than 70% of voters oppose capital punishment, the stance was expected. Her two opponents in the race also opposed the death penalty.
But the murder of Espinoza triggered an uproar over Harris' blanket opposition to capital punishment. Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have called for the death penalty in the case.
San Francisco's police union has pressed Lockyer to take the case from Harris and seek the death penalty. Federal prosecutors are also reportedly considering filing their own capital case.
Meanwhile, the controversy has drawn an equally vocal chorus of critics who say those pushing for the death penalty are politicizing the murder.
Harris, without elaborating, has said she does not believe the facts of the case warrant the penalty. But other legal experts have said that it may be difficult to prove Hill knew Espinoza was a police officer, since he was undercover when he was killed, and that no San Francisco jury would be likely to sentence a 21-year-old defendant to death.
Espinoza was the first San Francisco officer to be slain while on duty in 10 years.
Police concede that San Francisco juries in the past have declined to recommend death sentences for even the most gruesome murders.
The powerful Police Officers Assn. knew Harris' position on the issue when it endorsed her last December over eight-year incumbent Terence Hallinan, whom they loathed as soft on crime.
Hallinan never sought a death penalty during his tenure. And Bill Fazio, Hallinan's and Harris' more conservative opponent in last fall's election, reversed his earlier position and came out against the death penalty during the campaign.
But police union President Gary Delagnes said the candidates were never asked how they would handle the prosecution of a murdered officer.
"Let's face it. We're cops in San Francisco. We're realistic," Delagnes said of the city's aversion to capital punishment.
"But when it's one of our own, that's a different ballgame. When it comes to protecting the safety of our cops on the street, we believe a clear message needs to be sent."