Case Study: Clifford St. Joseph

Testimony by an escaped inmate helped convict St. Joseph of murder.

John Doe No. 60, a drunk, homeless man who has never been identified, was murdered in 1985 in San Francisco. His lower lip was cut, allegedly so that the killer could drink his blood. His chest and neck were vigorously slashed with a knife, his genitals slit, a pentagram carved on his chest, and wax dripped into his right eye. Several days after he died, his body was found under a truck near the Cleveland Wrecking Co. in SOMA by a man looking to buy salvaged equipment. When the medical examiner inspected the mutilated corpse, which had been wrapped in a coarse blanket, he discovered oval burn marks on Doe's neck and evidence that his hands had been tied behind his back with guitar strings.

There was only one witness to the crime: Maurice Bork, a knife-wielding, guitar-playing escaped convict from Canada with a long-standing interest in Satanism. Two years after the murder, while he was serving time for a kidnap-robbery in which he had scratched a pentagram on his victim, Bork contacted police to tell them that he knew what had happened to John Doe No. 60. He then claimed that his former lover, Clifford St. Joseph, had killed the man in his SOMA apartment, and that the two of them had disposed of the body.

Because of Maurice Bork, Clifford St. Joseph became the only suspect -- and the only person ever charged -- in the satanic murder of John Doe No. 60.

Testimony by an escaped inmate from Canada helped 
convict Clifford St. Joseph (left).
Courtesy of Clifford St. Joseph
Testimony by an escaped inmate from Canada helped convict Clifford St. Joseph (left).

St. Joseph was arrested at his home in June 1987 and tried soon afterward. The murder trial was combined in court with a trial for sodomy and false imprisonment, making the proceedings seem like something out of a twisted horror movie. After more than 17 hours of deliberations, a jury found St. Joseph guilty of both the sodomy and false imprisonment charges and of murder -- though it acquitted him of using a knife to do it -- and handed down a sentence of 34-years-to-life. Now 62, St. Joseph is incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, 25 miles east of Sacramento.

St. Joseph has always maintained his innocence. He says he has no knowledge of any killing, and he has filed numerous documents -- most of them handwritten and more than 100 pages long -- with federal and state courts insisting that he was wrongfully convicted.

St. Joseph's case raised several red flags for local Innocence Projects, which are now helping him seek post-conviction DNA testing of evidence still stored by the police. Such testing might reveal another perpetrator or help undermine the prosecutor's arguments, but it's unlikely it will resolve all the questions. As St. Joseph's case shows, and as we've seen with other prisoners who have strong claims of innocence, DNA technology is not a magic wand that can resolve the criminal justice system's flaws; it's not a substitute for real reform. For St. Joseph, better regulation of the use of jailhouse informants might have made the difference.


Clifford St. Joseph is an eccentric man. Tall, with thinning strawberry-blond hair, he walks with a hesitant shuffle, a product of recent heart surgery. When I visited him more than a month ago in jail, he struck me as strange and desperate for attention, but not particularly threatening. As we talked over vending-machine sandwiches, he was alternately serious and cheery, frequently flashing a disarming, bug-eyed grin. He boasted that he's well known in the prison because he dresses up every year in a Halloween costume made of found materials. This year he'll be the Hunchback of Folsom Prison.

St. Joseph has always led an unorthodox life. He was emancipated from his single mother when he was 14, and sold newspapers in Tenderloin bars to support himself. A gay, middle-aged waiter at the time of the crime, he liked to surround himself with younger -- often troubled -- men. Having in the past been convicted of misdemeanor check fraud and statutory rape (he had sex with a 15-year-old boy when he was 17), St. Joseph opened up his home to runaways, homeless people, and various unsavory characters.

He was introduced to Maurice Bork through his friend Chris Granger. St. Joseph says that as a favor to Granger, he let Bork stay with him and got him a job using a fake ID. Soon, Bork and St. Joseph became lovers. A few weeks later, John Doe No. 60 was killed.

Though St. Joseph is clearly guilty of bad judgment, it is not at all clear that he is guilty of murder.

The legal case against St. Joseph is rife with problems. Bork, who had been given partial immunity against being prosecuted for helping to dispose of the body and clean up Doe's blood, was a key witness in St. Joseph's monthlong trial. A cast of iconoclasts, ex-cons, and drug addicts was also called to the stand to offer confusing, conflicting, and sometimes outlandish testimony. The only evidence linking the murder to the St. Joseph apartment was a blood drop found near the bedroom and a bloodstain on a blanket, but this fact became obscured because the prosecution used an imprecise procedure called luminol testing to suggest that large quantities of blood had been splashed on the carpets and floor.

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