Cooley, Gascon Make Their Case For, Against the Death Penalty

Lethal injection table at San Quentin's execution chamber. (Scott Shafer: KQED)

Lethal injection table at San Quentin's execution chamber. (Scott Shafer: KQED)

If voters approve Proposition 34 this November, it would mark the end of capital punishment in California. It would also mean that some notorious killers such as the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, and Richard Allen Davis, the killer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas,  would see their sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The California Report’s Scott Shafer recently sat down with two prominent district attorneys on opposite sides of the issue: San Francisco’s George Gascon and Steve Cooley from Los Angeles.

Here is an edited transcript of Shafer’s conversation with the two law enforcement officials, starting with Steve Cooley discussing his view that execution is an appropriate sentence for the people on death row:

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley: There are some offenses that demand the ultimate sentence. We’ve got individuals down in Los Angeles — for example, the Grim Sleeper case which is pending — this gentleman killed 23 young women, in the most cruel, inhumane way. Life without possibility of parole is not the appropriate sentence for somebody who slaughters so many of his fellow citizens. Cop killers, baby killers, serial killers — they deserve the death penalty. In my county, we only seek the death penalty in 11 percent of the special-circumstance cases, and they are well-selected and well-deserving of the death penalty.

Scott Shafer: But, in fact, the leading cause of death on death row is old age.

Steve Cooley: Yes, because we have a failed system that doesn’t process the appeals in an efficient, timely manner. It’s a system that’s been aggravated by a Rose Bird court, and their results-oriented thinking in terms of reversing the death penalty

Scott Shafer: But that was 30 years ago.  (Editor’s note: Rose Bird served as Chief Justice of California from 1977-1987)

Steve Cooley: … and other courts that just don’t like the death penalty. And quite frankly, they’re outlaws. The law is clear. It works. It’s fair. It’s constitutional, and it’s appropriate for certain individuals, and jurors should be given the opportunity to make that decision.

Scott Shafer: George Gascon, when you ran for D.A., I believe, you pledged you would not seek the death penalty, is that correct. Why?

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon: That’s correct. Well, I’m against the death penalty. First of all, I believe that you have to do comparisons. It’s hard to do things in a vacuum. If you compare places here in the U.S., where the death penalty is not a choice, it’s not available, versus places where there is, there is no distinguishable difference in crime.

On the other hand, the reality is that occasionally we make a mistake, and when you’re talking about taking someone’s life, making a mistake is irreversible. If you look at how many people throughout this nation have been wrongly convicted, if those people are executed, there’s no fixing of that. So I have a problem there. I also have a problem in that the way the death penalty has been implemented. It often has a very negative impact in communities that generally cannot afford the level of defense and the level of protection that other communities may have.

Finally, when you look at the financial piece and you look at how much money we’re spending on the death penalty and what could be different if that money was reinvested into policing and other services to make us safer, I believe that when you look at all those things, I just can’t imagine that the death penalty is the right tool for us any more.

Scott Shafer: What about Mr. Cooley’s point, if you kill a cop, or some other peace officer, or you kill a kid or you’re a serial killer — that you deserve that punishment, even if it isn’t implemented, that is the sentence you deserve?

George Gascon: We can always take the extreme cases and try to make policy based on extreme cases. I believe that it is more important to look at policy — remove the emotion from the policy — and look at what is practical, what can work well.

Another problem with the death penalty is because it takes so long. And the reality is that it should take long, because we don’t want to make a mistake. The victim’s family have very little opportunity for closure, they’re going over and over again the same case. When you look at putting someone in prison for the rest of their life, I believe that is actually a greater penalty and greater punishment than seeking the death penalty.

Here’s video of Scott Shafer’s interviews with Gascon and Cooley:

Learn More:

Scott Shafer’s examination of the death penalty in California and Proposition 34

  • Peter Hanson

    San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is truly a breath of fresh air.