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Alameda County’s ex-public defender, Jay Gaskill, has publicly endorsed the death penalty, which has ignited a war of words with current Public Defender Diane Bellas. The debate comes at a time when several Bay Area counties have passed resolutions in support of a statewide moratorium on the death penalty. Alameda County supervisors are expected to weigh such a resolution next year. The controversy began Nov. 30 when the The Oakland Tribune published an opinion article penned by Gaskill that called for broader use of the death penalty. “We’ve heard that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Nonsense,” Gaskill wrote, arguing “thousands of confidential interviews” with defendants over the years taught him that criminals fear death row. Gaskill argued that efforts to revitalize Oakland are threatened by a wave of violent crime — more than 100 murders have been committed in the city this year, and two-thirds are unsolved. Oakland needs to support “zero tolerance” such as a law that extends the death penalty to murder defendants with prison records, wrote Gaskill, who has worked as a public policy and law firm management consultant since stepping down from the PD job nearly three years ago. On Saturday, Bellas fired back. In a similar opinion article also published in The Tribune, she attacked Gaskill’s views and stressed that he doesn’t speak for her office. “Those of us who have spent years on the line, in the jails and the courts [know] that most crime is the product of a lack of both reflection and impulse control,” Bellas wrote. The death penalty won’t deter many defendants who don’t think that they’ll get caught, Bellas said. And, there have been mistakes: 102 people convicted of capital murder nationwide have been exonerated after the fact, she argued. In an interview, Bellas declined to discuss Gaskill. However, she said that Gaskill’s proposal to seek the death penalty for anyone with a prior prison record would swamp the court system. “The courts would not be able to handle cases of any other nature,” she said. Gaskill — who once swayed a jury to sentence convicted serial killer Anthony Wimberly to life in prison without parole instead of death — said that he changed his mind about capital punishment after he left the public defender’s office and saw the “big picture”. The death penalty flap is an unusual footnote in the career of the ex-public defender who joined the office in 1969. He led the office for 10 years and abruptly left in 1999 to pursue a writing career. Although Gaskill steered the office through the Three Strikes Law and tight budgets, critics said he discriminated against minorities. In March 2001, three African-American public defender investigators sued Gaskill and Alameda County, alleging that they were passed over for promotions. Gaskill’s name was eventually dismissed from the suit, but this year the county agreed to a $120,000 settlement and promised to change some hiring procedures. Gaskill’s ideological switch on executions shocked many in the public defender’s office — which routinely represents death penalty defendants — and even District Attorney Thomas Orloff. The DA said he knew Gaskill’s personal views were more “public safety” oriented, but “I was surprised he went public,” Orloff said. Orloff said he doesn’t support seeking death for every murder defendant that has served prison time, as Gaskill suggested. Orloff said he might support such a law if certain priors were exceptions. Defendants with priors already face stiffer penalties if they are convicted, Orloff said. One longtime public defender, James McWilliams, speculated whether Gaskill’s political aspirations spurred his pro-death penalty conversion. “He probably has something going on,” McWilliams said. That view was fanned by reports — which were confirmed by Orloff — that Gaskill’s opinion article circulated in the DA’s office before it appeared in The Tribune. Gaskill says he gave a copy of the story to a deputy DA because he needed some statistics from the office. Gaskill was unaware his article had been passed around until a reporter mentioned it, he said. “I am distinctly not interested in politics,” Gaskill said. Meanwhile, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Marin counties have passed resolutions in support of a death penalty moratorium, said Gary Sirbu, an Oakland criminal defense attorney who is part of the effort. Sirbu wrote a letter to The Tribune that criticized Gaskill’s article. A coalition of Oakland-area Democratic groups plan to lobby Alameda County leaders to take a similar stance, Sirbu said.

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