Let It Bleed

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

The results also suggest that the work of homicide inspectors held up well enough to persuade juries to convict and suspects to plead guilty. In short, critics assert, the DA's Office appears eager to assume credit for clearing Hallinan's old cases, yet slow to charge recent murders that could stain Harris' résumé with acquittals.

"She's trying to protect herself from losing," says a defense attorney and former San Francisco prosecutor who worked under Hallinan. "But at some point, you have to stop looking at stats. You can't let people think they got away with homicide."

Tyrone grew up at the Banneker with his older brother, their mother, and "a lot of stepdads." The self-described honor student forged a close friendship with Kenneth Ford, whom he remembers as "hella smart. He was always reading books, using big words." They rode their bikes to the beach as youngsters and matured on the streets together. Both landed in jail by age 20 -- Tyrone for robbery, Ford for shooting at two men -- as members of a group called "The 800 Block."

"It wasn't a gang," Tyrone insists. "That's just where we lived on Grove."

Group or gang, posse or players, they indulged in the neighborhood's all-hours narcotics market and street-corner gambling, ventures that inevitably begat bloodshed. One man, irate over losing a game of dice, almost killed Tyrone's brother, plugging seven bullets into his back and legs.

Tyrone recounts how Jermaine Williams, a friend of his and Ford's, shot a man in the leg as payback for the man choking him during a previous argument. Tears running down his face from the adrenaline spike, Williams stood over the man, aiming a .38 at his head and yelling, "I could kill you right now!"

Williams, whose short stature and slow manner elicited ridicule from strangers, wanted to show "he was not a sucker no more," Tyrone says. Soon after the shooting, rumors swirled that the man who was shot, an acquaintance of Tyrone's and Ford's, sought retaliation. Last July, after the shooting death of Williams, 19, most in the neighborhood assumed the man had exacted it.

Two days later, Ford, 26, apparently paid a heavy price for associating with the man. Tyrone claims the two men who approached Ford's car outside the Banneker mentioned Williams before one opened fire. A few feet from where Ford slumped dead in his car, a taunt scribbled in thick black marker defaces a wall of the housing project. Whether written before or after his murder, it reads as a paean to vengeance: "800 BLOCK U KANT FUCK WIT US BITCH."

The homicide division's office squeezes 18 inspectors into a gray cube farm suitable for half as many people. Its two interrogation rooms resemble walk-in closets furnished with tables and chairs Goodwill might reject. Red caulk fills the gaps around pipe holes in the walls to prevent asbestos from seeping out.

The bureau sits one floor above the District Attorney's Office in the Hall of Justice. No matter their proximity, the two staffs share an icy rapport, a climate ascribed to a divide in arrest and charging standards that, in spirit if not on paper, has widened under Harris. Police detain a suspect when convinced probable cause exists that he committed a crime, a lower threshold of presumed guilt than beyond a reasonable doubt. The disparity can lead to the catch and swift release of alleged killers.

In November alone, the county declined to bring charges against suspects held in three murders, citing insufficient evidence. In the case of a man suspected of throwing his girlfriend to her death from a sixth-floor apartment in the Tenderloin, Inspector Kervin Silas agreed with prosecutors, owing to a lack of witnesses. A similar problem has stalled his probe into the murder of Jermaine Williams.

"Sometimes you do everything you can," Silas says, "and it's simply not there."

Inspectors insist that solving a case, in the sense of identifying a suspect, presents a short hurdle. The burden lies in coaxing witnesses to step forward, especially in low-income areas with chronic drug- and gang-related violence. Distrustful of police, and afraid that talking could provoke retribution from an alleged killer, residents keep doors shut when investigators knock.

"The ethical code of the street," says Inspector Antonio Casillas, a 10-year veteran of the homicide unit, "is that it's wrong to be a snitch." Tyrone confirms as much in justifying why he waited until his arrest in August to talk to authorities about Ford's murder. "Nobody tells cops nothin', 'cause if you get somebody arrested, you can end up dead."

In the parched soil of witness cultivation, then, unearthing a lone person to take the stand may merit filing a case, even if, like Tyrone, he's a convicted felon and facing fresh charges. So reasons Hallinan, who re-entered private practice after Harris ousted him. "One-witness cases are tough," he says. "But just because you don't have an ideal witness, that is not a basis not to charge a case."

Investigators assert that waiting months to file charges, rather than help them find more witnesses, may weaken a homicide probe. Obtaining a murder warrant -- apart from taking the accused off the streets and forcing him to mull pleading guilty -- enables authorities to subpoena witnesses to compel their cooperation, bolstering the case. But if too much time passes without an arrest, potential witnesses, knowing the murderer remains free, can contract sudden amnesia.

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