Obstruction of Justice

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

Sharon Woo, head of the criminal division in the office of District Attorney Kamala Harris, acknowledges that there are rarely advantages to delay for prosecutors. "Our cases are the strongest at the earliest stages," she says. "Our goal, as much as possible, is to get cases to trial as soon as possible. Is it difficult in San Francisco to do that? Sometimes."

One factor that delays felony case processing in San Francisco, Woo says, is the unusually high number of misdemeanor cases that go to trial, a result of the Public Defender's policy of not submitting to plea bargains for many minor offenses. These cases take up courtroom space, and statutory requirements that they be tried quickly give them priority over more serious felonies in which defendants have waived the right to a speedy trial.

And when judges decide that a defendant's due-process rights require more time for his attorney to investigative a given case, Woo says, it's difficult for a prosecutor to mount an effective counterargument. Outside of "stomping our feet, putting our hands on the table a lot," she says, a prosecutor's tools for jump-starting a case in such circumstances are "limited."

Court administrators have made some efforts to speed up the handling of felonies. A couple of years ago, San Francisco rearranged its courtroom structure, requiring all pretrial plea agreements to be approved by one of two judges. The idea was to centralize decision-making on plea agreements with a few tough-minded judges. One major factor in chronic delays, court officials believed, was the tendency of defense lawyers to "shop" for judges willing to issue lighter plea-bargain sentences, delaying their clients' cases until they landed in a lenient courtroom.

Judge Charles Haines, chief of the San Francisco Superior Court criminal division, did not respond to requests for comment. Ann Donlan, spokeswoman for the Superior Court, notes that there has been a "sharp reduction" in felony cases that drag on for more than a year. In August 2010, according to data she shared with SF Weekly, only 105 such cases remained pending in the criminal courts. It's unclear, however, how much of this decrease is explained by better court administration and how much by the mass dismissal of hundreds of drug cases following revelations of improprieties and tainted evidence at the narcotics division of San Francisco's crime lab.

Kruger had started to ignore the assurances of the various prosecutors who handled his case, and tried to just get on with his life. Then, in summer 2010, he was contacted by Assistant District Attorney Tony Hernandez — the latest person assigned to the case — with what seemed at first to be good news. The defense, after all this time, was ready to agree to a plea bargain.

The only problem was that the proposed resolution entailed an extraordinarily light sentence. In exchange for pleading guilty to false imprisonment — the least serious of the charges — Webster would get three years of probation and a month in the county jail. Maxie would get probation over the same period, but no jail time.

Kruger said no. He offered to fly back to San Francisco to testify, if need be. He had no great desire to put himself and his family through the psychological wringer of a felony trial, but the thought of his kidnapper spending only a month in jail struck him as fundamentally unjust.

Hernandez said he would speak to Cheryl Wallace — a private defense attorney appointed by the court to represent Webster — and get back to Kruger the following week. When Hernandez didn't call or e-mail as promised, Kruger took the initiative and called the prosecutor himself.

Kruger learned that Hernandez had struck the deal, over his objections. All that was left was for a judge to approve it, and Webster would find himself passing 30 days in county lockup for alleged crimes that could have brought him eight years in state prison. Seized by anger and disgust, Kruger booked a flight to San Francisco to try to stop the plea bargain from going through.

On Aug. 2, 2010 — the fourth anniversary of his kidnapping — Kruger and his family were granted a sit-down with some of the DA's office brass at 850 Bryant. Sharon Woo and Jeff Ross, managing attorney for the general litigation division, met with the Kruger family, Hernandez, and a representative of the victim services unit. The meeting was scheduled to take place immediately before Webster's sentencing hearing, where a judge would have to approve the plea.

"It's a weak case," Ross reportedly said. "It's he-said, she-said." (This account of the conversation is based on interviews with Evan and Julie Kruger. Officials at the DA's office declined to comment on the meeting, citing confidentiality.)

Ross then started questioning Evan — four years after his office had filed charges against Webster — about details of his story, asking him why he hadn't used his phone to call for help. (The phone had been confiscated by Webster's friends, a fact that had apparently faded from prosecutors' knowledge of the case since 2006.)

Kruger's family was stunned. It was the first time in four years that anyone from the DA's office had described the case as flawed.

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