Let It Bleed

Prosecutors' reluctance to charge murder suspects in S.F. leaves alleged killers on the street, flush with bravado

Two days before Kenneth Ford's murder and a block from Banneker Homes, a man gunned down Jermaine Williams, another friend of Tyrone's from the housing project. Williams' death on July 27 marked the 43rd slaying in San Francisco last year.

Later that day, in a bit of curious timing, Mayor Gavin Newsom held a press conference at a police station blocks from the murder scene to tout the city's declining homicide rate. A year earlier, he recounted, the city had racked up 58 murders through late July.

"We've made tremendous progress, particularly as it pertains to gang-related homicides in San Francisco," Newsom said.

From there, summer's optimism would ebb. A five-month swell of killings, seemingly in defiance of new surveillance cameras and beefed-up patrols in problem areas, pushed the murder toll past the 88 homicides reported in 2004. More unsettling news arrived in mid-December, when police disclosed they had made no arrests in 75 of the 94 slayings up to that point, including the Williams and Ford murders.

The numbers stoke indignation in the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point, the districts hit hardest by the two-year murder surge. Residents and activists alike charge that cops employ the law of attrition to solve killings in largely black neighborhoods. "Their idea of investigating is, 'Let them blow each other away,'" says the Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition.

State statistics reveal that San Francisco police solve, on average, about half of the city's homicides each year, a clearance rate that counts arrests and deaths of suspects. But a higher rate of unsolved murders involving black victims has amplified a perception of cops as both callous and inept. "Right now," says Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Western Addition, "people feel like they can get away with murder pretty much anytime they want."

Giuntini, of the District Attorney's Office, resists piling on police. Still, his blunt description of the county's charging process carries the hint of reproach. "We're brought cases by the police," he says. "We can't go out and do the investigation."

In Harris' first two years as district attorney, prosecutors charged 25 of 36 murder suspects taken into custody. "We are aggressive as an office," Harris declares. "When we walk into a courtroom, the battle is on." Yet criticism persists that prosecutors too seldom make that walk. Through the end of last year, the midpoint of Harris' four-year term, the DA's Office had charged a total of 38 homicides, including cases related to murders committed before 2004.

By contrast, former District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who bore the brand "ultraliberal," filed a combined 54 cases in 2003 and 2001. (Statistics for 2002 are unavailable due to a one-year hiccup in state record-keeping.) The 16-case gap comes into sharper focus against the backdrop of total murders: 184 occurred in the last two years, compared to 132 in 2003 and 2001.

In particular, Harris' record on gang-related slayings has drawn scrutiny. The San Francisco Daily Journal reported in September that, after 20 months on the job, Harris had brought charges in only three of 70 murders involving black suspects and black victims with gang ties. A police source verified that the number of suspects charged remained "virtually the same" through mid-December.

No statistics track cases such as Kenneth Ford's, in which the unwillingness of prosecutors to file charges may dissuade police from detaining suspects. Nor would homicide inspectors reveal details of open investigations, a reticence that, legal concerns aside, obscures whether prosecutors have balked at bringing charges in similar cases.

Even so, police sources contend, Harris has short-leashed prosecutors on numerous cases that investigators consider solid, leaving cops to absorb the wrath of residents who question the lack of arrests. "[Prosecutors] have to run all these cases past her," an inspector says, "and they want cases that are trial-ready from day one: witnesses, forensics, everything else. They want the slam-dunks. You have to take that into account before you go out and [detain] somebody."

Legal observers and police officials recall Hallinan as no less scrupulous than Harris in requiring evidence that proved a suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Hallinan, a one-time student radical who had felt the sting of police truncheons during Vietnam War protests, entered office in 1996 after three decades as a defense lawyer. He promoted a "nontraditional approach" to his new job, setting up diversion programs for drug and prostitution offenders, an emphasis on rehab that riled police and saddled his office with the state's lowest felony conviction rates.

But the pity he conferred on low-level felons belied a hard-line attitude on homicides that the former boxer explains in his familiar staccato warble. "Charge 'em, indict 'em, get 'em in jail, get 'em in court. That's how you let the community know you're tough on violent crime."

Hallinan's stubborn aversion to plea bargains spawned a backlog of 73 murder cases that Harris inherited. She lauds her staff for more than halving the load, securing 42 convictions to date through trials and plea deals. If the numbers vouch for her staff's proficiency, however, the volume of cases reinforces Hallinan's philosophy that "you can't put killers away unless you charge 'em." Likewise, while prosecutors have won 19 convictions out of 21 murder-trial verdicts on Harris' watch, at least 17 of those cases were filed under Hallinan.

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