Officer’s suspected killer goes to trial

More than two years after Officer Isaac Espinoza was gunned down by a suspected gangster in the Bayview district, the wound of his death remains raw with San Francisco police officers.

Pins, posters and T-shirts with Espinoza’s star number or the phrase “Isaac would go” permeate the department. A memorial garden at Bayview Station reminds officers of their fallen colleague.

As jury selection wraps up this week in a San Francisco courtroom, opening arguments are due to begin in the trial of Espinoza’s accused killer, 23-year-old David Hill.

Espinoza’s life ended April 10, 2004, after 29 years, when he attempted to stop a suspicious-looking man in the Bayview, where he was patrolling in plain clothes. The man sprayed more than 10 bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle, killing Espinosa and hitting his partner, Barry Parker, in the foot. It was the first slaying of a San Francisco police officer in a decade.

On Easter Sunday, the day after Espinoza’s death, Hill allegedly walked into a Richmond psychiatric facility and said, “I think I may have killed a cop, but I’m not sure.” Police took him into custody that day.

Espinoza, a South SanFrancisco native, spent most of his eight-year department career in the Bayview district, where gang violence is prevalent and The City’s highest concentration of homicides was logged in 2004. The night he died, Espinoza and Parker were patrolling as part of a plainclothes gang suppression unit.

The death of the young cop — a husband and new father — also brought a newly elected district attorney head-to-head with the politically powerful San Francisco Police Officers Association, which demanded the death penalty for Hill.

District Attorney Kamala Harris, just three months in office, had pledged during her campaign not to seek the death penalty. Two days after Hill’s arrest, she announced that she would adhere to that promise.

The union unsuccessfully lobbied California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to take over the case from Harris. Lockyer, however, declined to take the case, saying that Harris’ decision not to seek the death penalty was based not only on her philosophical opposition, but also “a careful consideration of the totality of facts in this case,” Lockyer wrote in a letter to union president Gary Delagnes in June 2004.

The case against Hill has been punctuated by extensive legal wrangling, from an early dispute about DNA evidence taken from an AK-47 thought to be the murder weapon to a lengthy jury selection process and pretrial hearings.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Carol Yaggy, who will hear the trial, limited the number of uniformed officers in the courtroom to five, saying that too many police uniforms, badges or pins referring to Espinoza could create a “potentially intimidating effect” on jurors.

On Monday, Delagnes said the union would not oppose that order.

“This is far too important to play politics,” Delagnes said. He indicated that officers did not want to risk giving Hill grounds for an appeal or dismissal of charges.

amartin@examiner.com

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