Senator Kamala Harris greets supporters along the rope line after a campaign rally. She hugs admirers, poses for selfies and warmly thanks person after person for attending.
Watching on her TV, Renata Espinoza stares and shakes her head.
“Is it the real you?” Espinoza asks of the candidate on screen. “Or is it not? We never saw that,” she said. “It upsets me because I see her doing that now, and I wish she would have done that back then.”
The “back then” is 2004, when Espinoza, her husband Isaac and Harris were all part of San Francisco’s extended law and order family - Isaac Espinoza as a police officer and Harris as the city’s newly elected district attorney.
It was when Renata Espinoza became a widow and when the prosecutors’ mantra of standing “for the people” suddenly became for her, and her murdered husband.
For Harris, she was on a crucial early rung of the professional and political ladder that would take her to today, becoming a top-tier candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Her time as a prosecutor helped to shape some of the policies on which she’s now running as well as to give fodder to both her supporters and critics.
One case is her attitude to the death penalty. While she’s been consistent in her personal opposition to capital punishment, professionally she has both refused to seek it AND, as California attorney general, acted to keep it available. Her actions have upset both people for and against the death penalty, though Harris has always stood by her decisions.
Renata Espinoza has always declined to speak on camera. But, after 15 years, she agreed to a CNN interview because of Harris’ presidential run.
“I want people to know who she is,” Espinoza said, “how she was back then and how her actions affected us. I want people to know everything about her, even in the past, before they vote for her. And I want them to hear Isaac’s story.”
Death of an officer
It was the day before Easter in 2004. Officer Isaac Espinoza, 29, was called in on overtime, to work the Saturday shift. He was looking forward to getting off that night so he could rest before Easter services with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Espinoza worked as a plainclothes officer in the Bayview District of San Francisco. Bayview struggled with poverty and gang wars – but it was a neighborhood Espinoza was drawn to, requesting it as an assignment because he felt he made the most impact as a cop there.
On that night, April 10, Espinoza and his partner saw a man who appeared to be hiding a weapon as he walked down the street. Espinoza got out of their unmarked car and approached him, identifying himself as a police officer, according to court testimony. The man, 21-year-old David Hill, turned to face him, about a dozen feet away. Then he took out an AK-47 assault rifle and fired about a dozen rounds.
“I had just talked to Isaac maybe about 30 to 40 minutes before,” recalled Renata Espinoza, her voice soft and shy, sometimes barely above a whisper. “He had told me to stay up because he was coming home.”
Instead, she was taken to him – sped in a police vehicle to San Francisco General Hospital by one of her husband’s fellow officers.
“Is he alive?” she asked.
“He’s fine, he’s alive,” he reassured her.
But her Isaac had been shot.
When they pulled into the hospital, a sea of police officers met Espinoza. None of them would look at her.
“Can I see him? Can I see him?” Espinoza pleaded.
The officers searched for their captain.
Espinoza doesn’t remember everything she said that night – she just knew that then, like every night since she was 16 years old, Isaac was the center of her life. He had to be OK.
The pair were high school sweethearts. They met when she was a sophomore and he was a senior – he was the loud jokester at school and she, the shy daughter of a pastor. Renata’s father, conservative and faithful, forbade her from going out on solo dates. So instead, the young couple would take all of Renata’s siblings along, to spend time with each other without breaking the rule.
Isaac Espinoza knew two things at an early age, his wife said – he would one day marry her and he would become a police officer.
He would accomplish both. A few years out of high school, Renata married Isaac. And as soon as he was age-eligible, he joined the police academy. Then after trying for several years, the couple had a daughter, Isabella.
Being a father, a husband, a cop and a Christian – that’s what mattered to Isaac Espinoza.
Espinoza’s captain approached Renata. He handed her Isaac’s star.
“I remember I walked into this room and he still had blood here,” said Renata Espinoza, pointing to her hip, her voice breaking as she remembered. She paused, the tears she’d held back now falling. “He was laying there with his eyes closed and I saw the blood here. And I walk over to him I just said, ‘wake up.’”
Renata’s pastor father was in the room too. She turned to him and pleaded. “Can you just pray over him?” she cried in desperation. “So he can wake up.”
The news conference
Gary Delagnes was also at the hospital that night, as president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Isaac Espinoza was the union representative for the Bayview station and Delagnes knew him and his young family. Afterwards, he couldn’t get the image of the young officer’s body – struck by bullets from the rifle – out of his mind. It had been 10 years since a San Francisco officer had been gunned down in the line of duty.
“A day or two after the death, I got a call from her,” he remembered. The caller was new District Attorney Harris. Delagnes was also relatively new as union president and the two had a somewhat cool professional relationship because the police union had endorsed another candidate. But Delagnes said both recognized the need to work together.
He knew there would be areas where they would have to agree to disagree – as on the death penalty. Harris had pledged in her campaign for DA not to seek the death penalty – a stance generally backed by Bay Area voters and juries, and also taken by the other two candidates. Delagnes, a practicing Catholic, himself had mixed feelings. He would publicly both support and reject the death penalty in his career.
On April 13, 2004, three days after Isaac Espinoza was shot to death, a suspect was in custody and Delagnes agreed to join Harris at a news conference.
“In San Francisco, it is the will, I believe, of a majority of people that the most severe crimes be met with the most severe consequences,” Harris told reporters and camera crews. “And that life without the possibility of parole is a severe consequence.”
“I’m standing there and I’m going, ‘Oh my God,’” recalled Delagnes, who stood stoically next to the DA, then 39, as she spoke. “The kid’s not even in the ground yet. You’re thinking to yourself, OK, is she sorry that this kid died or is this just a political opportunity? Is this just an opportunity for her to double down on the fact she’s not going to pursue the death penalty?”
Debbie Mesloh, a longtime Harris adviser who was then communications director for the DA’s office, recalled the hours and days after Espinoza’s murder as emotionally wrought for the new team.
Within 48 hours of Espinoza’s murder, Mesloh remembers reporters asking for comment, saying the police officers’ union was calling for the death penalty. But San Francisco juries rarely, if ever, handed down the death penalty and the suspect was just 21, she told CNN.
“We were working in a full attempt to be honest and provide clarity on what was a difficult and emotionally charged situation,” said Mesloh. “As communications director, I recommended we provide details about the case as soon as possible.”
In the shock of becoming a 27-year-old widow with a toddler to raise, Renata Espinoza’s memory is inexact about the immediate days following the murder. But she’s crystal clear that the news conference was when she first heard about Harris’ decision to not seek the death penalty.
“She did not call me,” recounted Espinoza. “I don’t understand why she went on camera to say that without talking to the family. It’s like, you can’t even wait till he’s buried?”
Newfound anger was layered upon her grief.
“I felt like she had just taken something from us,” said Espinoza. “She had just taken justice from us. From Isaac. She was only thinking of herself. I couldn’t understand why. I was in disbelief that she had gone on and already