Obstruction of Justice

A kidnapping victim watched his case linger needlessly in court 
for years. In S.F., he has company.

It wasn't until May 2007 that Kruger was finally flown back for pretrial testimony. Preliminary hearings, at which a judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence for the state's accusations against a defendant, are an important test of a case's merits, providing prosecutors and defense attorneys with a sense of whether they should go to trial or strike a plea bargain. Under ordinary circumstances, such hearings are supposed to occur within weeks of criminal charges being filed.

The Webster prelim was emotionally charged. Kruger had seen neither Webster nor Maxie since August 2006. Bautista remembers that he was visibly frightened on the stand, in part because Webster, whom she describes as "a punk," was staring him down. A judge found Kruger's testimony sufficiently compelling to allow all the charges against Webster to move forward.

In a post-hearing memo to her managers, Bautista suggested that a count of attempted murder be added to the case. For reasons that are unclear, this suggestion was ignored.

Efforts to contact Webster and Maxie for this story — including phone calls, letters, and visits to the listed addresses for Webster and his mother — were unsuccessful. His lawyer did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.

Deputy Public Defender Greg Goldman, who represented Maxie in the case, said Maxie's account of the night mirrored Kruger's up until the time they reached the cul-de-sac, when she stayed in the car and did not witness an attempted shooting.

"The whole case kind of just struck me as a situation in which [Webster was] immature and probably watched a little bit too much TV," he said. Both Webster and Maxie, he added, "are just wonderful people, and have worked very hard to get their lives going since then."

Kruger returned to Chicago after the hearing, and the waiting resumed. He received news that his case had been transferred to the portfolio of another assistant district attorney, then another, and then another — four different prosecutors in all.

According to minutes of courtroom proceedings, both the DA's office and the various defense lawyers appointed for Webster by the court requested delays, based on reasons including potential trial witnesses being on vacation and a lack of time to work on the case. Sometimes the minutes list no justification at all, merely noting that a judge granted a requested postponement.

"It was a mess," Kruger's father, Chris Pritchard, recalls. "It's just that it took so damn long. It dragged on forever, and it went from one DA to another, so we got the impression that no one wanted it or was interested in it."

Says Kruger: "I'd e-mail them, call them, and wouldn't hear back. I felt like I was priority zero for them."

It's not supposed to be this way. Recognizing the benefits of an efficient criminal-justice system, the country's Founding Fathers enshrined the right to a speedy trial in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In California, as in most states, defendants can demand that their trials take place within 60 days of arraignment. Many defendants, however, find that a far more beneficial strategy is to waive their speedy-trial rights, paving the way for as much delay as possible.

The right to a speedy trial was conceived as a bulwark against unjust imprisonment, a legacy of the days when a lord, monarch, or military official could hold defendants in jail cells indefinitely without allowing them to argue their case to a judge or jury. Today, many accused of serious crimes — particularly those who can afford to make bail — find it advantageous to avoid arguing their case for as long as possible.

There are several reasons for this. Witnesses' memories fade over time, opening the door for defense attorneys to attack vagueness or inconsistency in their testimony. Some witnesses or victims find their resolve to testify at all diminishing as life goes on. Evidence or files important for the D.A. can be lost, or the case can be shifted to new prosecutors — as Kruger saw — who are unfamiliar with the details.

"Most times everywhere — not just in San Francisco — a defendant will waive their right to a speedy trial, because from the standpoint of the defense, you don't want to hurry. You'll hurry yourself right into state prison," says former Chief Deputy Public Defender Peter Keane, now a professor at Golden Gate University School of Law.

That's not to say it's always to a defendant's advantage to draw the process out as long as possible, or that canny defense lawyers are the primary culprits. Clients who can't afford to post bail typically want their charges resolved through a trial or plea bargain as rapidly as possible, with the exception of rare felony cases that require extensive investigation and preparation by defense lawyers.

Malcolm Feeley, a professor at the UC Berkeley Law School, says there's another, less obvious reason for delays: inadequate preparation by prosecutors. If assistant district attorneys fail to study thoroughly the facts of a case before court appearances, they can't determine whether a given defendant should be given a plea bargain or sent to a jury trial. "It's a very passive process, where everybody is waiting to see what everybody else wants to do," he says. "If prosecutors could spend more time investigating their cases, or if they'd just read the file ahead of time, they could move them along."

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