Let It Bleed

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

Leaning forward in her chair, Harris sweeps up criticism of her record on homicides with a rhetorical flourish. "I could say, 'I'm going to charge everything because I don't want to be seen as cherry-picking. Let the jury make the decision. So what if the jury acquits the guy? I've done my job.'" She freezes for a few beats, brown eyes unblinking. "But have I? Have I?"

She leans back. "We cannot make the decision based on a gut feeling."

Harris' vow to instill "professionalism" in the DA's Office earned the former Alameda County prosecutor a hearty reception from law enforcement embittered by Hallinan's eight-year reign. During her two years in office, the county's felony conviction rate has climbed an estimated 15 percent, with revitalized prosecutors cracking down on drug- and gun-related crimes. "Hallinan turned San Francisco into a zoo," says Gary Delagnes, president of the Police Officers Association. "Kamala has made it civilized again."

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.

The first career prosecutor to occupy the county DA's Office in four decades, Harris concedes that "more than a little tension" festers between her attorneys and homicide inspectors. She credits the bureau with employing "some really good investigators," and recognizes their struggle to draw out reluctant witnesses. But in what sounds like either a candid synopsis of the murder epidemic or veiled derision of police efforts to quell it, Harris also doesn't mince numbers.

"Ninety-four homicides and 19 arrests -- we know there's a problem," she says, referring to murder and arrest totals through mid-December. "Everybody knows there's a problem."

Harris denies restraining her staff from charging difficult murder cases, a statement arguably fortified by a case that a Superior Court judge dismissed in November. Prosecutors had charged Dennis Anderson in the August shooting death of Fred Ayatch in the Western Addition, a slaying police briefly considered linked to the deaths of Ford and Williams days earlier.

The case pivoted largely on Ayatch's cousin, who claimed he spotted Anderson fleeing the murder scene. But days before Anderson's preliminary hearing, the cousin recanted, telling prosecutors he witnessed nothing. Facing contempt charges if he refused to testify, he changed his story again on the stand, saying he saw Anderson shoot Ayatch. His credibility shredded, the case fell apart.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose office represented Anderson, extols Harris for a "balanced" approach to charging homicides. In rapping the recent police practice of obtaining Ramey warrants as "do the arrest first and the investigation later," Adachi maintains that prematurely filing a case creates two potential pitfalls: It may end in acquittal, and if stronger evidence later surfaces, double jeopardy precludes the county from prosecuting the suspect again for the crime.

"Cops want every case charged," he says, "but [Harris] doesn't just rubber-stamp cases."

During the past quarter-century, John O'Mara, head of the homicide unit for the Sacramento District Attorney's Office, has jousted with police over charging standards. Early in his career, he routinely rejected cases that he viewed as soft. In recent years, he has charged nearly every one to land on his desk to reduce the grousing of investigators. Yet if he thinks a case will sink -- the odds of which "go way up" if police depend on a sole witness, he says -- O'Mara still imparts a caveat to detectives.

"You can arrest a guy and get credit for a stat and a high solve rate. But it doesn't do a whole lot of good if we return some asshole to the streets. That makes him even a little more bold."

When short on witnesses, Hallinan displayed a readiness to convene grand juries, a process that, unlike preliminary hearings, allows prosecutors to compel witness testimony without suspects or defense counsel present. In 2000, after a spasm of gang-related violence in the Bayview, he called a grand jury to build a case against a man suspected of shooting two people. The panel returned an indictment within a mere 10 days, enabling police to collar him on attempted murder charges; two months later, a judge sentenced him to nearly 50 years after a jury convicted him.

"We're sending a message to the community ... that we won't tolerate this violence," Hallinan said at the time.

State statute bars prosecutors from so much as mentioning the grand jury testimony of a witness if the person fails to show for the subsequent trial. Harris alludes to that drawback in explaining why she rarely has turned to grand juries, convening three in two years. With the murder tide rising, she admits to reassessing her options, yet as she discusses the possibility, it's unclear whether she's acknowledging that her office could do more or knocking the police for doing too little.

"It probably is necessary for us to get more involved in the investigation aspect [of cases]," she says. "We're happy to do that."

A cop who attests to a witness' credibility in court stands a decent shot of dispelling a jury's qualms about trusting a dope dealer's or gang member's testimony. Or, at least, that's true elsewhere in the Bay Area, California, and the country. In San Francisco, the bluest city in blue America, "law enforcement is not the home team," says county prosecutor Elliot Beckelman.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.