Gay man leads DA's
homicide unit in SF
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco District Attorney George Gasc—n has selected an out gay man to head his office's homicide unit.
Assistant District Attorney Scot Clark, 50, who started in the position last month, said he's "addicted to the feeling you get when you bring people some justice."
That's what Clark is aiming to do as he prosecutes Bernard White Jr., 23, who's charged with murder and numerous other counts in what's currently one of the city's most high profile cases. His arraignment was set for July 31.
White's accused of killing Lina Lim, 51, and Kinh Min, 35, July 12 in a shop at the GiftCenter and JewelryMart, 888 Brannan Street, where they worked. Both women had been shot and stabbed. White, of Antioch, also allegedly shot and stabbed the store's owner, who was critically injured, and opened fire on responding police during the incident, which shut down traffic for several blocks in the South of Market neighborhood.
According to the DA's office, evidence includes digital images from surveillance systems at the shop and a neighboring taqueria.
Asked about the biggest challenge in prosecuting the case, which Clark called "an exceptionally brutal crime," he said, "Certainly, like all cases, it will have its challenges," but "I don't want to try the case in the media."
"It's not a whodunit," though, and prosecutors have video of "exceptional quality," he said. Deputy Public Defender Steven Gayle, who's representing White, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Gasc—n indicated Clark, who's prosecuted 119 jury trials in his career, is up to the task.
"Scot is a gifted trial lawyer who has locked up some of the city's most dangerous killers," Gasc—n said in a statement. "His commitment to holding violent offenders accountable has made San Francisco a safer place."
Clark oversees a unit with five other prosecutors, with the possibility of another being assigned soon. The section is handling about 50 cases.
Among the homicides, there are at least four cases involving gay victims.
David Munoz Diaz, 24, has been charged with strangling Freddy Canul-Arguello, 23, to death during a sexual encounter in Buena Vista Park in June 2011. Canul-Arguello's burned, mostly naked body was found with a partially melted recycling bin. Deputy Public Defender Alex Lilien has called the death "a terrible accident."
Clark said the case is "so close to coming up for trial, I don't think it's wise" to discuss challenges or strategy. However, he said, "it's an important case to the community" and it will be pursued "with great vigor." Clark also declined to comment on the three other cases.
Friends and family members of murder victims often wonder why cases take so long to make it through the court process. Trials haven't gotten under way in any of the cases involving gay victims. The oldest incident is from February 2011.
Clark said the first thing he tells families is "There's a lot I can do to shape the outcome" of the case, but there's "very little I can do to control the timing."
People "sometimes feel victimized by a system that's supposed to bring them justice," and he warns families that "they're never going to be made whole again," he said. Sometimes, said Clark, the best outcome they may get is "the grim satisfaction" that the person "isn't going to be able to do that to someone else's loved one."
Clark, who grew up in Oregon, realized he was gay in 1984, after he'd just taken the law school admission test.
"I didn't think I'd be able to be any of the things that I wanted to be," he said.
But Clark was mistaken. He moved to San Francisco in 1993 and started at the DA's office in January 1996.
Clark left the office in 1997 and worked for the Riverside County District Attorney's office and then as a criminal defense attorney. He returned to the San Francisco DA's office in 2003, then left again in 2011. He went back to Riverside County, where he prosecuted six murders and a rape in just under 18 months.
Last year, Clark came back to San Francisco. He said he'd made "lifelong friends" in the DA's office and "I missed the city too much."
Clark joined the homicide unit in 2008. His new post was announced July 3. His salary is $187,538.
In January, Clark and his husband will mark the 28th anniversary of when they committed to each other.
"We were babies when we met," he said of his husband, whose name he declined to share.
The two married in 2004 during the Winter of Love, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to allow same-sex marriages, and on Halloween of 2008 at the Castro neighborhood bar Moby Dick. The 2008 marriage is legally recognized.
Clark's office at the Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant Street, is decorated with posters of the band Kiss and the Al Pacino gangster film Scarface , among other items.
The room also includes mementos of Cricket, his 10-year-old Irish setter. Clark said the first thing he does when he gets home is hug the dog, and during a recent interview, the veteran prosecutor jumped out of his chair to show off framed photos of the reddish-brown haired canine.
'Doing the right thing'
Cricket also came up when Clark discussed working out plea deals in cases, which is something he doesn't seem interested in.
"I haven't settled many of my homicide cases," he said, adding that if Cricket could speak English, "she could settle cases. ... I'm here to try them."
However, Clark also said, "I'm not going to file cases where the proof is not there," and he said that he once dismissed an attempted murder case mid-trial because the victim "lied while he was on the stand."
"Doing the right thing really isn't that hard to do," he said.
Clark, who considers himself "an amateur sociologist," said, "I love what I do for a living." He said he never feels more alive than when he's in trial.
He also said he's "tried to mentor younger attorneys." The biggest thing he works with them on is "how to communicate with witnesses."
"I have a conversation with people when they're on the stand," said Clark, while younger prosecutors may "script everything out," which can mean "you're not catching the nuance in the answer."
"I try to teach them to be better listeners" and coach them on how to make the 12 jurors "more receptive to your point of view," he said.
Clark indicated he wants people in the community to be more receptive to taking part in the process.
"I would like people who believe in public safety to stop avoiding jury service," he said.
"If the community would become more involved and help make it the political will of the community to better support law enforcement, I think the city would be safer," said Clark.
Among his colleagues, Clark is apparently known for his quick wit, a talent he displayed during the recent interview. At one point, Alex Bastian, an assistant district attorney who serves as Gasc—n's chatty spokesman, chimed in and talked about the work the agency's victims services unit does with families.
"This will be great for your profile on Alex some day," Clark quipped.