Let It Bleed

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

Casillas, whose loquacious eloquence and habit of wearing suspenders lend him a professorial mien, contends that "rarely do the cases get better, and at some point you have to ask: What's the likelihood ... of this guy continuing to do bad things?"

Five months after Harris took office, frustrated by what they perceived as the DA's sluggish pace of charging murders, inspectors began making arrests on so-called Ramey warrants. The tactic permits police to detain suspects for 48 hours on probable cause and nudges the district attorney to consider obtaining a murder warrant.

The prodding has done little to move prosecutors, who have spurned most of the roughly dozen Ramey cases brought to them. Critics deem the Ramey strategy a ploy by investigators to inflate solve rates; under federal guidelines, making an arrest with such a warrant allows police to count a case as cleared, irrespective of whether prosecutors charge a suspect.

DA Kamala Harris insists her office is "aggressive" in 
homicide cases.
Courtesy of AP Worldwide Photos
DA Kamala Harris insists her office is "aggressive" in filing homicide cases.
Former DA Terence Hallinan's "ultraliberal" reputation 
a hard-line attitude on murders.
Courtesy of AP Worldwide Photos
Former DA Terence Hallinan's "ultraliberal" reputation belied a hard-line attitude on murders.

Casillas counters that the warrants provide a chance to protect residents and unclog the charging process. "Why should we wait until the DA reviews the case if we think someone is a threat to the community?" he asks. "You get the guy in custody and you have a shot at getting him to talk. Why not do it?"

Two months ago, a man shot Maxuman Chenier as he sat in a car outside his grandfather's Ocean View home. The 23-year-old father and budding rap artist was to be wed on New Year's Day. A suspect in the murder fled to Ohio, where he turned himself in after San Francisco investigators obtained a Ramey warrant. Prosecutors refused to charge him, however, telling Chenier's family that authorities needed time to find a second witness.

Though the investigation is ongoing, Lamar Chenier, Maxuman's father, questions the inaction of prosecutors in a case that is not considered gang-related. "The police have been on the ball," he says. "But I'm not particularly happy with the DA's Office. I don't understand why they're taking so long to [charge] this thing."

The homicide bureau, responding to the apparent charging lag, has taken to shopping gang-related murder cases to federal prosecutors during Harris' tenure. Last year, the feds indicted a dozen gang members on homicide charges, tripling the number charged by the county since Harris took office.

Counties throughout the state long have leaned on federal prosecutors to handle complex murder cases involving gangs. Federal law prescribes less rigorous criteria for charging homicides and admitting witness testimony, supplying greater leverage to pry open investigations. Yet over the last two years, the period Harris has been in office, prosecutors in Alameda, Sacramento, and Los Angeles counties report that, with few exceptions, they have worked gang-related murder cases on their own.

Last year, the hardcore gang division of the L.A. District Attorney's Office had charged 111 murders through November, winning 84 convictions. The sheer density of gang violence there often forces prosecutors to build a case around witnesses with criminal records as long as the murder suspect's. In defending that pragmatism, Gary Hearnsberger, head of the gang unit, invokes a maxim familiar to cops and prosecutors: "When crimes are committed in hell, you don't have angels for witnesses."

In that regard, the duty falls on prosecutors to enlighten juries about the nature of gangs, and to establish the credibility of a witness who happens to belong to one. Hearnsberger admits relying on a gang member's eyewitness account has its risks, quipping that "if he doesn't change his story, hell, something's wrong." But waiting for a "better" witness to surface, he says, amounts to ceding the streets to thugs.

"You just have to use who you got. You're not going to solve some crimes otherwise. There's no other way."

A week after Kenneth Ford's murder, Tyrone attended Hot August Nights in Reno, an annual custom car show that draws thousands of Bay Area visitors. Passing through a casino, he crossed paths with the two men who he asserts confronted Ford outside the Banneker. They delivered a cold, clear warning.

"You better watch out."

Tyrone contends they threatened him because, like Ford, he sometimes hung out with the man rumored to have killed Jermaine Williams. After Tyrone's arrest on robbery charges later in August, his attorney, Erin Crane, requested a plea deal of 10 years or less. Prosecutors refused to go below 20 unless Crane uncovered proof of the purported casino incident to buttress Tyrone's account of who he alleges took part in Ford's slaying.

According to Crane, who calls the county's offer "bullshit," casino officials told Inspector Michael Johnson that the area where Tyrone says the two men accosted him falls outside the range of security cameras. With Tyrone's preliminary hearing scheduled for next week, prosecutors remain adamant in their demands, an obduracy that baffles Crane, given that police judge his story credible.

Security video aside, she says, "they have an eyewitness account that matches up with the details of the shooting. Which is more important, trying to prosecute a couple robberies or getting a killer off the street?"

Clutter is unwelcome in Kamala Harris' office on the third floor of the Hall of Justice. Only a manila folder and two short, neat stacks of paper rest on her crimson-brown desk. Nothing hangs on the white walls, infusing the space with a disinfected ambience.

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