Heart of the City Archives

District Attorney Kamala Harris

The only problem with immortality
by Hank Donat

At this year's Herb Caen Day luncheon at Moose's, former mayor Willie Brown said, "the long knives would be running" from Caen's words, were Caen alive to defend District Attorney Kamala Harris. The D.A. has been widely criticized for her decision not to seek the death penalty for David Hill, the 21 year-old accused killer of SFPD Officer Isaac Espinoza.

It was the first time since Caen died in 1997 that I didn't cringe the instant someone declared what "Herb would've" thought or done. Caen and Harvey Milk have handed down more judgment from the afterlife than Oliver Wendell Holmes did in the fore life, if there is such a thing. In fact, Caen once said, "The only thing wrong with immortality is that it goes on forever."

Brown's reflection on Caen and Harris could not have been more appropriate. Just a day shy of 44 years before Moose's party, on May 1, 1960, Caen commented on the death penalty in his Chronicle column on the occasion of the execution of Caryl Whittier Chessman, a 39 year-old kidnapper and rapist known as the Red Light Bandit.

Caen called the death penalty a "savage rite." He had witnessed executions including hangings at Folsom prison. During one hanging, as witnesses were fainting around him, Caen recalled something the warden had told him, "Doesn't hurt a bit."

"And from that day on," wrote Caen, "having been made properly aware of the State's awful vengeance, no holdup man ever again killed a shopkeeper? You bet." Chessman was gassed on May 2, 1960.

Though certain details of Chessman's case remain fascinating - Eleanor Roosevelt and Christopher Isherwood were among the learned who plead for mercy on his behalf - thoughts of present day politics weigh heavily. While hangings seem completely of the past, the extremeness of the national administration and an oppressive media climate also seemed like history in America until recently.

A well-known media personality and death penalty opponent said to me over red wine and shrimp cocktail, "If Kamala's decision is already final, don't even mention it in print." That's not only part of the problem, it's a big part. With a few exceptions, support for Harris by those in politics or in public life through the media has been timid at best.

"They shouldn't be afraid to speak out," Harris told me, "It's not just about me being stubborn."

True. It's about the new wave of leadership from Mayor Gavin Newsom and this district attorney. This new wave, you will recall, was ushered in with much fanfare a few months ago. What have we learned about it since then? The new wave rejects discrimination, as Newsom did when he issued a marriage license to lesbians Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin.

The new wave keeps its campaign promises. Imagine that. Voters chose Harris over incumbent Terrence Hallinan, who also opposes the death penalty, in a campaign in which the issue was prominent.

Senator Dianne Feinstein personifies the old wave. The former mayor ignited the death penalty fracas when she cruelly and inexplicably called for Hill's life at Espinoza's funeral.

Many years ago, Feinstein hosted a commitment ceremony for Nancy Achilles and the late Jo Daly in Feinstein's own garden. Lyon and Martin stood up for the couple. Earlier this year, Feinstein opposed the gay weddings taking place at San Francisco's City Hall.

San Francisco is filled with millions of small ironies. The bronze bust of Feinstein on the mayor's balcony at City Hall is dark brown with ordinary oxidation. On the sculpture, only Feinstein's wedding ring is polished, sparkling and bright. Scores of visitors, all making a good luck gesture, have worn it smooth - the City's own version of the statue of St. Peter at the Vatican.

Caen knew that here in the City it borders on ethereal to pretend the small stuff is important. It's a nice life for every Mr. and Ms. San Francisco who has the time to think about who makes the best margarita and whether the view from Tank Hill is better than the view from Twin Peaks!

But what really matters in extraordinary and trying times are courage and character. Kamala Harris, it seems, has enough of both to spare. What else can keep the rage and revenge of the Bush era out of San Francisco?

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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