Let It Bleed

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

Etched into the sidewalks bordering Banneker Homes are terse farewells to dead young men. "RIP Mack." "Smokey RIP." "RIP Joe." Scrawled in grayish concrete, the words evoke engravings on headstones.

His voice low, 23-year-old Tyrone recalls others buried too soon. Peter, DeMarco, Tiny. Leon and Jermaine. "Everybody gone," he says.

Most grew up at the Banneker, as Tyrone refers to the public housing complex where he once lived. The apartment buildings, painted a tired white, stand in the heart of the Western Addition, bounded by Buchanan, Fulton, Grove, and Webster streets.

DA Kamala Harris insists her office is "aggressive" in 
filing 
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 
belied 
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.
A suspect arrested in the murder of Maxuman Chenier 
(pictured) was released after prosecutors declined to 
press charges.
A suspect arrested in the murder of Maxuman Chenier (pictured) was released after prosecutors declined to press charges.
James Sanders
Last summer, Kenneth Ford was slain outside 
Banneker Homes, a public housing complex in the Western 
Addition.
James Sanders
Last summer, Kenneth Ford was slain outside Banneker Homes, a public housing complex in the Western Addition.

Tyrone and his friends started selling pot and crack on these sidewalks in junior high, City Hall's gilded dome visible a half-mile away. Aping the tricks of older kids, they hid their stashes under bushes or parked cars until customers pulled over, the better to avoid trouble if police patted them down.

Only cops and drive-by shootings disrupted the curbside commerce, gunfire punctuating turf skirmishes and lesser quarrels. Jail or the morgue -- over the years, that's where everyone seemed to end up. Tyrone stayed in the area anyway.

"Where else you gonna go? That's where you're from. That's where all your friends live."

Last summer, it's where another friend died.

Early on July 29, Kenneth Ford called Tyrone to say he planned to sell weed to two men at the Banneker. Tyrone drove to the complex from his apartment a few blocks away to meet Ford, figuring he might make a sale of his own.

Shortly before 4 a.m., as Tyrone and the two men stood near the Banneker's parking lot, Ford eased up in a blue Chevy Caprice. A moment later, Tyrone claims, two other men emerged from one of the buildings. They walked toward Ford, still sitting behind the wheel, and after a brief exchange, one man jerked a gun from his coat. In the next instant, Tyrone says, the man fired into the car, the pop-pop-pop cracking the morning's quiet. Tyrone ran from the noise.


Tyrone wears a bright orange sweat shirt and matching sweat pants, the standard-issue uniform of county jail inmates. A rosary made of black plastic beads hangs from his slender neck. He talked with SF Weekly on the condition that his real name not be used, fearing reprisal by allies of Ford's killer.

Less than three weeks after Ford's slaying, police arrested Tyrone, alleging that he had held up five pedestrians in four separate robberies, extracting $200 and a video camera. Already convicted of robbery in 2002, he could go away for up to 50 years this time, a prospect that drove him to pursue a plea deal last summer.

In late August, Tyrone and his attorney, Erin Crane, met with homicide inspector Michael Johnson and county prosecutor Valerie McGuire to discuss Tyrone's account of Ford's murder. Crane pitched a proposal: Tyrone would share the names of the four men he insists were present during the killing and, if needed, testify to what he witnessed. In return, he asked for a sentence of less than 10 years.

Tyrone's story, described as "credible" by Inspector Johnson, persuaded McGuire to broach the case with Russ Giuntini, the chief assistant district attorney. Crane anticipated a deal would be reached for her client. "[Tyrone] isn't a saint," she says. "But he's giving them a chance to prosecute a suspected murderer. You would think the DA would see value in that."

In fact, Giuntini saw otherwise. "It's a nice start," he says of Tyrone's account, "but you need more [evidence]." Giuntini maintains that the charges pending against Tyrone, coupled with his request for a plea deal, diminish his worth as a potential witness for the prosecution. Subjected to cross-examination, Giuntini says, Tyrone "would be a defense lawyer's dream."

According to Crane, Johnson reacted to the decision with profane frustration. But in an interview, the investigator conveys only stoicism. "My job is to solve the case," he says. Police have yet to make an arrest in Ford's slaying.

Few would dispute that Tyrone's criminal past and motives for testifying could make jurors skeptical. Nonetheless, with 96 murders in San Francisco last year, the city's highest total in a decade, the Ford case bespeaks a larger trend to some law enforcement and legal observers. Under District Attorney Kamala Harris, they contend, county prosecutors have proven cautious to the point of paralysis in charging homicides, an inertia that has contributed to the low number of arrests in murder cases.

The state district attorneys association advises prosecutors to establish proof of a suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before filing a criminal complaint. Harris professes to treat that suggested charging standard as gospel. But on homicides, assert police officials and investigators, former prosecutors, and even defense attorneys, she imposes a threshold of beyond any doubt.

As a result, critics argue, prosecutors recoil from filing charges in drug- and gang-related slayings -- dicey cases that tend to hinge on "flawed" witnesses who own rap sheets or seek plea deals. That purported reluctance, in turn, compels investigators to defer arrests despite identifying suspects and potential witnesses, delays that leave alleged killers on the street, flush with bravado.

"The police can go out and make an arrest," says one-time Board of Supervisors candidate Bill Barnes, who helped lead last year's push for a citywide handgun ban. "But if the DA isn't going to bring charges, what's there to fear for criminals?"


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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

For alleged criminals, meanwhile, the self-styled progressive utopia serves as a sanctuary of do-overs. "We fancy ourselves as a wonderful, forgiving, caring place," says Delagnes, the police union chief, who testified in hundreds of trials as a narcotics detective. "So juries -- in murders, rapes, assaults, robberies -- they'll say, 'Oh, give him another chance.'" Only twice in the last 40 years has a San Francisco jury recommended a death sentence.

Jurors suspicious of law enforcement and merciful toward the accused pose a barbed dilemma for a district attorney staring at the city's highest murder rate since 1995. While Harris insists that her conviction rate has no influence on whether prosecutors file homicide cases, a high percentage of dismissals or acquittals would spoon-feed campaign chum to prospective political foes.

"If a DA loses five homicides in a row," Delagnes says, "guess what the next candidate for DA will be saying?"

At the same time, should Harris seek re-election or higher office -- the Los Angeles Timescrowned her "a rising political star" two years ago -- allegations that her office dodged difficult cases while the city bled could inflict deep wounds on her career. If an election were held today, an opponent, fairly or not, could lob this incendiary statistic at her: During Hallinan's eight years on the job, the city averaged 65 murders a year; in Harris' first two years, the rate shot up to 92.

Tom Orloff, Alameda County's district attorney, jokes that he shuns praise when the homicide rate drops "because it will inevitably go up again, and I don't want to take the blame." Last year, his office had charged 58 homicides through mid-December, or 20 more than prosecutors filed in Harris' first two years combined.

Orloff appreciates the delicacy of his counterpart's jury pool quandary, and he describes Harris, who worked in the Alameda DA's Office for eight years, as both tenacious and diligent. Yet he disputes the prevailing rationale that San Francisco juries shrink from convicting accused killers. "Liberals don't like murder, either," he says.

As drug- and gang-related revenge killings ravage the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point, investigators argue that, though an acquittal might boost a suspected killer's cachet on the street, failing to charge him all but assures it. By bringing a case, Inspector Casillas says, "you're saying, 'We're looking at you, man.'"

Speculating whether filing more cases would deter other dope dealers and gangbangers from blowing one another away serves as a grim parlor game among legal observers. Hallinan, for one, believes that even losing a murder trial "lets people in the neighborhood know you're going after the problem." John O'Mara, after more than two decades of charging homicides in Sacramento, offers a darker perspective.

"[Gang members] aren't particularly impressed that someone got 25 years to life. They're still enamored of thug life. But at least there's one fewer of them in the community."


Tyrone tells a story of what happens when someone commits a murder and eludes arrest. He knew a man who gunned down another over a game of dice gone angry. The next time Tyrone met the alleged murderer, he sensed a change.

"You could see it in his eyes. He was excited, like, 'I got away with it. It was easy.' That shit made him feel good."

The man is dead now, killed by someone else from the neighborhood, or so Tyrone has heard. More blood on the sidewalks. "All of 'em have died," he says.

"I'm kinda like dead, too."

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