Cothran

I mean, has Terence Hallinan come undone?
I won't recap the idiocy of his decision to publicly declare Judge Ellen Chaitin biased in favor of rapists -- without a single shred of credible evidence to that effect. And I trust the mean-spirited, PC foolishness of demoting widely respected Assistant District Attorney Thomas "Tippy" Mazzucco is still fresh in your minds.

But I can't stop wondering about these ex parte communications with judges. Take this latest one. A gang lord is shot dead on Union Street a few minutes after Hallinan's pal, defense attorney Dennis Natali, is murdered a few blocks away. Natali used to represent the murdered gang lord, so there is a reasonable belief that the two killings are connected. Reasonable belief, but no substantive evidence.

After a jury is impaneled to hear the murder case -- which does not include any charges related to the Natali murder -- Hallinan pops off in the press that he believes the defendants are guilty of murdering his friend, too. This causes an almost instantaneous mistrial. A prosecutor simply can't poison the jury with an unverified charge and expect the trial to go on.

This type of public speculation on a case-in-progress is not an oops. It's almost as big a screw-up as there can be in the criminal justice system.

And then, after causing a mistrial, Hallinan decides to walk into the chambers of the judge overseeing the case, William Cahill, without notifying the defense. There, Cahill says, Hallinan tried to show the judge a letter about the case the district attorney was writing to a newspaper. This move was so obviously improper -- simple fairness and basic legal canons dictate that the defense and the state must be present at each stage of a criminal prosecution -- that Cahill, recently selected in a San Francisco Examiner survey of attorneys as one of the best judges on the local bench, was forced to pull the DA's Office off the case and call in the state attorney general to try the matter.

This, also, is no small matter. A gangland murder trial has been taken out of the hands of the DA's best trial lawyer and homicide prosecutor, Al Giannini, and handed over to state lawyers who rarely see the inside of a courtroom. All because something is apparently deeply wrong with our district attorney.

This is hardly Hallinan's first unethical attempt at ex parte communication. His first came in 1996 when he walked into Superior Court Judge James McBride's courtroom to complain about a ruling in a case against a Catholic priest accused of embezzlement. As reported then, McBride, who was hearing another case at the time, literally kicked Hallinan out of his courtroom. The second ex parte communication occurred when Judge Chaitin dismissed a rape case due to lack of evidence. Hallinan stormed into her courtroom and, despite Chaitin's repeated pleas to cease his unethical conduct, persisted in talking about the case.

Hallinan, who is a Democrat, took to the press again last week, implying that Cahill, who is a Republican, was motivated in his actions by partisan ideology.

But this is incorrect. Cahill is acting with the deliberate reason one would expect from any seasoned jurist and top-notch lawyer. And Hallinan is exhibiting the behavior one might expect from a reckless idiot, or a troubled egomaniac.

George Cothran (gcothran@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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