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OAKLAND — After a passionate debate that reduced one supervisor to tears and left the rest of the panel choked with emotion, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a symbolic resolution supporting a death penalty moratorium. The Tuesday action is the latest of many such resolutions that have been passed by Santa Clara and Marin counties and the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Although Gov. Gray Davis opposes the moratorium, proponents of the effort say the state should halt executions, at least temporarily, while studying possible flaws in the system. They hope local resolutions will eventually build support for a ballot measure. In Alameda County, the legal community has been jousting both publicly and behind the scenes on the moratorium issue. Oakland criminal defense attorney Gary Sirbu has played a large role in organizing and lobbying for the county resolution. Public Defender Diane Bellas and Assistant Public Defender Ralph Crofton spoke out in favor of the moratorium at the meeting. On the other side, the California District Attorneys Association and other pro-death penalty groups have drafted a white paper to give local DAs ammunition against moratorium advocates. The pro-death penalty side has been bolstered by a high-profile convert, former Alameda County Public Defender Jay Gaskill, who stunned the local defense bar when he publicly endorsed the death penalty in November. The stage was set for a somewhat rowdy meeting Tuesday, where moratorium supporters took up half the seats in the room. Both sides say they knew the way the vote was going to play out ahead of time — Nate Miley, Keith Carson and Alice Lai-Bitker voted yes, Gail Steele abstained and Scott Haggerty opposed the moratorium. Pro-moratorium speakers took the floor first. Ex-Alameda County prosecutor John Taylor said he sent a man to death row for murder in 1973, but later worked to free him. Sirbu, the Oakland attorney, presented the names of 14,000 residents who supported the moratorium. And Bellas made a point that likely resounded with the board, which is grappling with financial woes: She noted that death penalty cases require more time and expense for her staff to defend, which directly affects the county’s budget. But after District Attorney Tom Orloff showed slides of several murder victims whose killers were sent to death row, the room fell silent. He said the county’s prosecutors seek death in a small number of murder cases, and they are the most heinous. “These are the kind of cases where juries come back with death penalty verdicts,” said Orloff, who saved victims’ stories for the last part of his talk. For the next few minutes he flashed smiling photos of murder victims, including 6-year-old Chantel Warden, who was shot in 1996, and 22-year-old Vanessa Samson, who was kidnapped, raped and tortured in 1997. The moratorium is “a ruse” that death penalty opponents are using to repeal capital punishment, Orloff said, adding that 72 percent of Californians are in favor of the death penalty. Supervisor Miley, who earlier had made an impassioned speech about flaws in the state’s death penalty system, praised the county’s DA and PD as “the best in the state.” “I am not a bleeding-heart liberal,” said Miley. “I know that there is evil in this world.” He added that he simply wants to make sure the death penalty is applied fairly. Lai-Bitker’s voice trembled as she voted for the moratorium. Steele, the board president, wept as she voted to abstain. She said the moratorium wrongly dabbles in state affairs. “I can’t forgive” people who kill children, she said. Lance Lindsey, a statewide organizer for the moratorium effort, said after the meeting that he wondered whether the California District Attorneys Association fed Orloff information for his presentation. In other counties, Lindsey said, the DAs haven’t had such polished presentations, and Orloff’s effort might indicate that local prosecutors will be more aggressive in fighting moratorium groups. Orloff said later that the California District Attorneys Association and other pro-death penalty groups did provide some help with his presentation, but the victims’ photos were his idea. The DA said he decided against asking victims’ relatives to speak at the meeting and showing crime-scene photos. In putting together his presentation, “I made some very conservative decisions,” he said. “I think it was of great educational value to the board.”

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