Presumed Guilty: Gang Murder, Police Corruption, and Shattered Lives in Bayview-Hunters Point.

Trina Garrett was stuffed into the backseat of her cousin’s Ford Tempo with three other high school girls on a spring night in 1989. The group was cruising through San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood after a long hot day.

It had been unseasonably warm in San Francisco’s poor, black southeastern neighborhoods. It was a day filled with children spraying each other with water on baking city sidewalks. From the “Hill” that overlooks the abandoned cranes of the long-closed Navy shipyard, to Bayview’s Third Street, to the Geneva Towers of Sunnydale, the heat pushed people onto the streets that Saturday. By sundown, the warm glow had receded with the setting sun over Bernal Heights and McLaren Park. The welcomed darkness of evening may have cooled off the neighborhoods, but the night of April 8 would end in a bloody massacre that marked the lives of the victims, the suspects, and others for decades.

The girls were headed to a party at Hilltop Park when they passed a group of boys they knew. They stopped, along with a second carful of girls, in front of the Bayview Opera House just off Third Street where the boys stood around the cars, chatting them up. That’s when the pop-pop-pop of what several people thought were firecrackers rang out across Newcomb Avenue.

“The guys started yelling to duck, they’re shooting,” a 24-year-old Garrett later testified, “…you could see, like explosion[s], like the light.” The explosions were coming from the barrels of guns wielded by a group of masked young men from a nearby neighborhood who had pulled up on Garrett and her friends and opened fire.

Earlier, those masked men — teens really — had gathered in an empty lot near a school in Visitacion Valley, just across the freeway from Bayview-Hunters Point. There, they took the safeties off their Mac 10 machine guns, pistols, and a shotgun, and headed across Highway 101 looking to avenge the death of a comrade who’d been killed in an ongoing gang war. Their search ended in front of the Opera House where they unloaded their weapons for nearly 30 seconds.

Bullets sprayed the group, and Garrett ducked. The impact of the firepower shook the car, shattering its windows. The vehicle drifted downhill — the driver diving for cover — and stopped when its wheels bumped the nearby curb. Most of the boys scattered. One of them, Dominic Dupree, was struck in the back as he ran up the street. He crawled under a nearby car to hide as several armed men fired in his direction.

“The bullets, you know, are screeching the ground, the rocks kicking up . . . the steel coming up off the car, the metal ripping off the car,” said Ronnie Lane, then 17. Lane, who was wounded in the shooting, had been specifically targeted that night, chased by a masked gunman who called his name as he fired.

When the shooting was over, the street was littered with shells. Garrett and a few others ran to a nearby lot fearing the shooters might return. “I didn’t realize that I was shot until after I was at the vacant lot and one of my cousins told me I was shot ‘cus I was bleeding from my back,” Garrett said. “I didn’t know it. I didn’t believe her.”

The drive-by at the corner of Newcomb Avenue and Third Street left 11 wounded and two dead — Roshawn Johnson and Charles Hughes. The neighborhood and city were in shock. Art Agnos, then mayor of San Francisco, remembers the night well. “It was a terrible event,” he says today. At the time, Agnos talked of calling in the National Guard.

Aside from the families of the dead, one man has paid perhaps the heaviest toll. Caramad Conley, 19 at the time, was one of three men prosecuted and jailed for the crime. The small neighborhood and its overlapping relationships made it easy for police to link a young man like Conley to gang activity, whether or not a link existed. Conley has always maintained he had nothing to do with the shooting.

Nearly two decades later, in 2011, a judge agreed with Conley and he walked out of prison. The saga of his redemption was due to the persistence of his family, the Innocence Project, and a team of hard-working lawyers. What those lawyers uncovered was shocking: wrongdoing by two of San Francisco’s most storied homicide inspectors. One later became the city’s first black police chief.

The margin between a life in prison and freedom was thin. Conley’s case might have gone unnoticed if not for the discovery of details in police files from an unrelated case, and the chance mention of Conley’s name over lunch.

This is the story of a vicious crime, one man’s wrongful conviction, and the lawyers who finally freed him and uncovered the truth. That truth showed the dark side of two leading lights in the SFPD — men who paid informants for testimony and coerced others, and just last year, in a settlement, cost the city millions.


A CITY REACTS

News reports at the time of the Hunters Point drive-by called it the worst case of gang-related violence since the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre that left 11 wounded and five dead in a Chinatown restaurant. Already in the midst of an upsurge of gang violence, due in no small part to the burgeoning crack epidemic, San Francisco’s media and political leaders flooded the neighborhood in the spring of ’89 as the community screamed for help.

Mayor Agnos even reached out to gang members in a clandestine nighttime meeting to try and stanch the bleeding. The superintendent of schools toured Visitacion Valley Middle School in an attempt to allay fears among the students. A county supervisor called for a ban on the sale of ammunition for assault weapons. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in town to meet with AIDS patients, got involved when he prayed with one of the victims in San Francisco General Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. “Drugs and thugs…” Jackson said in a wire report from the hospital, “must not rule our streets.”

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The community’s outrage and fear spilled into the streets in vigils, marches, and angry meetings with city officials who were apparently unable to stop the violence. “It’s really like a war zone here,” the Rev. Jim Goode of St. Paul of the Shipwreck told The Associated Press in a story four days after the shooting. “That’s the climate over here right now.”


THE DETECTIVES

Into this hue and cry stepped a pair of fedora-sporting homicide inspectors with a hard-hitting reputation. Napoleon Hendrix and Prentice Earl Sanders were a team of larger-than-life black detectives who had helped to integrate the force. Between them, Sanders and Hendrix investigated 300 murder cases during a three-decade peak in violence never seen in the city before or since, and they cleared more than 80 percent of them.

Over the years the two have been portrayed in the media as outsized caricatures. Sanders, a big man who sported a clipped mustache, was born in Texas and came to live with family members in San Francisco when he was 14. He joined the Police Department in 1964 as one of a handful of black cops at the time. Five years later he joined the homicide squad. Hendrix, born in Houston, came west when he was in the Air Force and joined the SFPD in 1965. He went by “Nap” or “Slim” because of his height: he was 6 feet 5 inches tall, sported a Duke Ellington-like mustache, and was known for wearing ostrich-skin cowboy boots. From 1979 on, Sanders and Hendrix, fellow Texans, worked as a team.

In Bayview-Hunters Point, the pair had a dual reputation, says Daniel Purcell, one of the lawyers who eventually helped free Conley. “Some people thought that they were tough cops who cracked a lot of important cases,” Purcell says. “And other people felt that they were sort of lawless and wanted to railroad people and got ideas in their head about who was guilty and who wasn’t.”

“There was a feeling of frustration in the Bayview,” says Donald Bergerson, who represented Conley in his 1994 trial. “And they really wanted the police to come and avenge them.” That vengeance came in the form of a duo who looked like they’d stepped out of their own TV detective drama.


THE INVESTIGATION

Sanders and Hendrix’s first break in the case came when John Johnson, who had stolen one of the getaway cars in the shooting, was arrested on an unrelated narcotics charge. While Johnson was in custody, the two inspectors persuaded him to talk. Johnson, a swarthy man with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, told the inspectors he’d dumped the car in Visitacion Valley after the shooting and set it ablaze. Inside the charred car the inspectors discovered bullet casings that matched those at the scene of the shooting. Johnson also gave the inspectors seven names of people he said were involved in the crime, including Conley.

The second lead was Clifford Polk, a drug dealer who knew Conley and later said Conley admitted to participating in the drive-by.

In the meantime, the alleged ringleader of the shooting, Paul Green, had been arrested and charged with a series of minor crimes related to it. He was convicted of charges from the 1989 crime in 1992.

After Johnson fingered Conley, the 19-year-old’s criminal record — one vandalism charge allegedly linking him to gang activity — was enough for police to see Conley as a suspect.


CARAMAD CONLEY

Photos from the early ’90s show Conley looking much the same as he does today; a well-built man with a shaven head, only back then he was still full of the swagger of youth. He was voted “most popular” his freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Conley was one of nine children in a large family originally from Indiana. His parents gave the children alphabetically corresponding names: The boys’ names all started with “C,” the girls’ with “T.”

Their parents split when Conley was young. His mother remarried and moved to San Diego, and his father, Cartier Conley, a furniture salesman, stayed in San Francisco. The elder Conley was a fill-in dad for many of the kids in the neighborhood whose fathers weren’t around, said Careem Conley, the youngest of the nine kids. He was the kind of dad who always let Conley and his brothers have friends stay the night at their Third Street house; he’d bring home takeout for the boys. But the household didn’t totally dodge the drug war sweeping the neighborhood. When Conley was arrested his father was in prison serving time on a drug charge.


THE ARREST

It was a hot day in November 1992 when Sanders and Hendrix came by the house to pick up Conley. A loud pounding on the front door jolted him and his two brothers. Conley and his youngest brother, Careem, thought someone was breaking in, so they bolted. But plainclothes police were waiting in an alley behind the house where the brothers planned to escape. The two were forced to the floor inside the house and cuffed, Careem cussing out the inspectors surrounding them.

Conley was driven away and booked into county jail that day. He would spend the 22 months behind bars as he awaited trial, and the next 16 years in a series of state prisons.

“The county jail experience is a lot worse than actually going to prison, only because you are in limbo,” Conley remembers. He thought at the time the inspectors were using jail to rattle him.


THE TRIAL

The Hall of Justice is an imposing, gray building constructed in the early 1960s. It rises above Bayshore Viaduct in SoMa like a giant ark long abandoned on high ground. The dark and crowded seventh floor jail within the Hall would be Conley’s home for almost two years. It also would be the location of the courtroom where he would be convicted.

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For Conley, who thought he’d be released on bail soon after his arrest, the whole experience seemed surreal. “I wasn’t afraid, because in my mind I knew I was gonna walk on out of there,” he says. Reality hit him when his bail was set at $1 million.

The trial started Sept. 26, 1994. It lasted a week. Like most courtrooms in the building, Judge Alex Saldamdo’s had wooden walls, squeaking chairs in the gallery, and two large tables for each team of lawyers. Conley sat feet away from Sanders, who was seated at the prosecutor’s table during the proceedings.

Alfred Giannini, a seasoned lawyer who’d never lost a murder trial, was heading up the Conley case for the District Attorney’s Office. Bergerson, Conley’s lawyer, described Giannini as “a brilliant prosecutor.” By comparison, Bergerson was a new kid on the block, but he was tenacious.

There was no physical evidence linking Conley to the crime, so Giannini’s case rested on two men: Clifford Polk and John Johnson. The latter would testify that Conley was in the second car the night of the shooting, but his testimony wasn’t enough to put Conley away. California law bars an accomplice’s testimony alone. So Giannini needed Polk’s testimony to corroborate Johnson’s. Polk would testify that Conley told him he’d been one of the shooters.

Giannini’s opening statement was a long story of gang feuds — gangs with names like Oakdale Mob, Three the Hard Way, and the Swampy Desert — and loose friendships that linked Conley to a group of gang members from Sunnydale who were allegedly responsible for the 1989 shooting.

He told the jury about an alleged feud between guys from Sunnydale and Hunters Point that led to the shooting. It was, Giannini said, a retaliation attack after a Sunnydale man named Edrick Carr, aka Peter Lee, was killed on the Highway 101 overpass. Ronnie Lane, one of the victims shot in the 1989 drive-by, was believed to be Lee’s killer.

“Conley was running completely with the Sunnydale,” Giannini said to the jury. “At some point a plan was put into effect…And the plan was for revenge.”

“Conley,” Giannini went on, “was indeed in the back of the car and is as guilty of the death of these two people and as guilty of the shooting of each of the people who were shot or shot at on the street as if he had done it all himself.”

The plot for revenging Lee’s death culminated on April 8, the prosecutor said, when the two cars full of Sunnydale thugs drove up to Third and Newcomb and spotted Lane.

“They shot everybody,” Giannini told the jury. “They shot a couple of the girls in the car. One of them got hit in the head and was killed, instantly. They shot people on the street. They shot people ducking for cover. Paul Green got out of the car that Mr. Conley was in and chased Ronnie Lane down the street shooting at him with an assault weapon. And although they did not kill Ronnie Lane, they did kill two people.”

Bergerson did not match Giannini’s dramatic re-creation of the incident with a counter narrative. Instead, the defense attorney’s short opening statement attacked the prosecutor’s narrative altogether, pointing out that the main witnesses in the case were gang members and drug dealers who could not be trusted.

“Deals are made. Snitches are cultivated, informants come out of the woodwork, and honesty is traded for personal advantage,” Bergerson said to the jury. “And that’s what this case is largely going to be about.” Bergerson went on: “I don’t doubt the prosecution will prove that there was abundant instance of gang warfare in San Francisco at the time. And I certainly don’t doubt the prosecution will prove the existence of a horrible crime. But it will not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Caramad Conley was a participant in that horrible crime.”

Bergerson’s dogged belief in the prosecution’s weak witnesses was present before the trial. He was convinced the case rested on witness testimony alone and he needed to get his hands on every document he could to discredit the witnesses. That included any information that might show people received benefits or special treatment for their testimony. Bergerson was such a pest in his requests before the trial that Giannini filed a declaration at one point saying that “every document, tape recording and videotape compiled by the San Francisco Police Department in connection with the investigation of these homicides” had been provided. Bergerson even rented a motel room near the Hall of Justice to store the thousands of files he obtained in his repeated discovery requests.

In July, before the trial, the matter came up again when police inspector Sanders appeared on KTVU. In an interview with the Oakland-based television station, Sanders said a witness at the time had requested relocation assistance and witness protection, but because of budget cutbacks could not receive any aid. That indicated to Bergerson that at least one witness was getting something for his efforts. Bergerson filed a discovery motion July 18 “seeking the identity of the witness referred to in the KTVU interview, and requesting among other things, that the prosecution disclose all offers and inducements in the form of promises or of efforts to secure witness protection offered to any witness in the case.”

Giannini said that Sanders had been talking on TV about Clifford Polk, but told the court Polk “is not being relocated at this point.” Sanders also later confirmed that. When Giannini asked Polk on the stand about witness protection, he said he had been in witness protection in the past but “I’m not in the witness protection program now.”

As the trail moved along, Giannini’s witnesses came and went: police officers, including present-day police Chief Greg Suhr; victims of the shootings; and most importantly, Johnson and Polk. Most of Conley’s large family lived away from the city and could not afford to attend the trial, but Careem Conley and their father made it.

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Careem recalled a tense ordeal. One day, when he came to the Hall of Justice, after walking through the metal detectors at the front of 850 Bryant, Careem headed to the courtroom upstairs. When he walked through the doors, the bailiffs asked him to follow them back out into the hallway, where he was searched. One of the bailiffs whispered that the judge had requested the search. At the time, at least one witness for the prosecution had been relocated for fear that he would be target and silenced. The judge may have had fears that Conley’s younger brother would try some desperate act to go after his brother’s accuser. The prosecution at one point characterized a jailhouse call from Conley to Polk as a threat. Conley had told Polk to “stop lying” about the case, according to court documents.

As the trial progressed into the week, Bergerson continued to remind jurors that the main witnesses could not be trusted. He even called another prosecutor to the stand to ask him if, in a recent narcotics case against Polk, Sanders had asked the prosecutor to go lightly on the man. “I wanted to know if they were paying this witness to testify against my client,” said Bergerson, who suspected that was the situation with Polk since his credibility was central to the case against Conley. If Polk was shown to be a liar, the truth of his testimony would be questionable.

But both Giannini and Sanders rebuked that contention, painting Polk as a good young man in unfortunate circumstances. On the stand Polk said he saw a Mac-10 and a Mac-11 at Conley’s house and also saw Conley borrow a pistol from a friend before the shooting. When the friend asked for it back, Polk testified, he heard Conley say, “‘You don’t want that gun. It got Cheap Charlie written all on it.'” Cheap Charlie was a nickname for Charles Hughes, one of the two fatalities in the shooting.

At trial, Conley insisted he was at home alone during the crime with his dad. But Cartier Conley didn’t testify because Bergerson felt his father’s prison sentence would not aid their cause. When Conley took the stand he denied Johnson and Polk’s testimony. But in cross examination Giannini linked Conley to Sunnydale gangs and showed he had lied in some of his dealings with police.

The trail was over by Oct. 10. The only evidence linking Conley to the shooting came in the form of testimony from Polk and Johnson. Eight days later, the jury had a verdict. Conley was in court beside Bergerson when it was handed down. A few of the female jurors were crying, said Conley. He recalls saying to the attorney, “I’m gonna get found not guilty.”

That was not the case.

“They said ‘guilty,'” Conley remembers. “It was surreal.” After the foreman read the verdict, Conley embraced his father and was led away by the bailiffs. It was the last time he would see his father alive. Conley had been convicted of conspiracy to commit first degree murder, two counts of first degree murder, and 11 counts of attempted murder.

The verdict was a shock to everyone who believed in Conley. “For 10 years there wasn’t a night I didn’t wake up brooding about this,” says Bergerson. On Jan. 25, 1995, Conley was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, plus 26 years. He was 24.


PRISON

The San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department van passed over the Richmond Bridge as it transported Conley to San Quentin State Prison. From its cross-barred windows, he might have seen the lights of the city across the bay, but after the van passed through the prison gate any view of San Francisco was blocked by the San Quentin walls.

“I heard all the stories of being raped and killed. I was deathly afraid,” Conley says of arriving at the prison. “It was everything I saw in movies. The prison itself was very scary, just how it looked.”

Conley was given a CDC number — J48006 — and photographed. He also was handed his new belongings: a bed roll, an orange jump suit, a stubby toothbrush, powdered tooth paste, and two sheets. Then he was led to the cell block. Five tiers rose above his head, 50 cells a tier. Noise — voices, hollering, banging — echoed through the place. Once Conley passed the guards’ desk, he was on his own. “I ended up going to the wrong cell,” he says.

He spent four and a half months in San Quentin before being transferred to the first of many other prisons.

“I often describe prison like living and dying at the same time,” says Conley, whose sentence guaranteed he would die in jail. “But I was also alive because of hope.” Two years later his conviction was affirmed in a failed appeal.


CORRUPTION

By 1996, Sanders and Hendrix had parted ways. Three years later Hendrix would retire as one of the department’s most honored officers. In semiretirement he continued to work security for Mayor Willie Brown, also a Texan.

Sanders, meanwhile, kept ascending the department’s ranks. In 2003 Mayor Brown appointed him police chief. A newspaper photograph from the time shows Sanders backslapping other officers upon learning of his appointment. A giant smile crossed his face.

The moment of triumph was short-lived. First came a scandal that swept up much of the department brass. Known as Fajitagate, it entailed the alleged cover-up of a brawl started in Cow Hollow by several off-duty cops in plain clothes demanded a fajita from a passerby. Sanders and present-day Chief Greg Suhr were exonerated, but the damage was done.

Before Sanders had been chief for even a year, he took an early retirement.

The second blow came soon thereafter in the form of a decade-old murder case that Sanders and Hendrix had solved. A court overturned the conviction after lawyers discovered misconduct involving the two inspectors. That case — which found that evidence had been withheld in the original trial — would be the key to Conley’s release eight years later.

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John “J.J.” Tennison and Antoine “Soda Pop” Goff, who both grew up with Conley in the Bayview (Goff had even been wounded in the 1989 Bayview Opera House shooting) had been arrested and charged with the 1990 murder of Roderick “Cooley” Shannon. Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to more than 20 years. Shannon’s murder was believed to be linked to the drive-by for which Conley was imprisoned.


THE BREAK

Elliot Peters and Daniel Purcell, lawyers with the firm Keker & Van Nest, got out of their car one day in 2001 in a downtown parking lot and were handed a newspaper. Bruce Tennison, an attendant at the lot, was sticking copies of the article about his brother under windshield wipers when he spotted the two attorneys. The newspaper story was about Goff and Tennison’s innocence.

“The article was astonishing,” says Purcell, whose team of attorneys took the case pro bono. They discovered inspectors Sanders and Hendrix had suppressed an audio-taped confession that exonerated Tennison and Goff. “John and Antoine hadn’t killed anybody.”

In the course of their work on the case, the attorneys also discovered boxes of case files in a warehouse in Bayview that detailed — in receipts — payments to Polk. That box eventually led them to Conley.

“I don’t know how Sanders or Hendrix or Butterworth (the prosecutor in the Tennison and Goff case) can explain what they did,” Peters said to the Chronicle after Tennison and Goff were released. “It’s not their job to put innocent people in jail.” In 2009 Goff and Tennison were awarded a $7.5 million settlement from the city.


LIMBO

Conley was in the yard at Corcoran State Prison when news broke that Goff and Tennison had been set free. “In that moment that I heard that, it was like a feeling of euphoria,” he says. The inspector who helped wrongly convict those two men had done the same to Conley. “It’s sorta like I had this out-of-body experience at that moment: What am I doing here?”

The Northern California Innocence Project took Conley’s case and law students started to visit him. Conley’s younger brother Careem helped get the ball rolling when he ran into Polk outside of San Francisco General. Over lunch one day after the meeting, Polk told Careem he wanted to talk to a lawyer. “He didn’t look good,” Careem says. “He was like, ‘If you got someone I can talk to.'”

In 2005, Polk recanted his 1994 testimony in a sworn declaration to Justine Schmollinger, who at the time worked for the Northern California Innocence Project. Polk wrote that his whole testimony had been false, he’d never heard Conley admit to any crime, and never saw any guns at Conley’s house. Polk wrote that he needed to clear his conscience because he could no longer live with himself for helping convict Conley.

The Innocence Project handed the case to a legal team that could get Conley out of prison: Keker & Van Nest. Eric MacMichael, the lawyer at the firm who was handed Conley’s case, had not worked on the Tennison case and thought a recantation was probably not enough to get Conley off. After all, a judge would ask the obvious: Was Polk lying now or then?

Things took a turn over lunch one day, according to one version of the story. MacMichael was sitting with Purcell when Conley’s case came up. MacMichael didn’t think he had a case with Polk’s recantation, but when Conley’s name was mentioned, Purcell perked up. “The name rang a bell with me because it’s an unusual name,” Purcell remembers. He had heard the name before. He’d seen it, in fact, in a stack of evidence obtained from the Police Department in Tennison-Goff case. The evidence came in the form of receipts for payments to Polk, who had been on the department’s payroll off and on for years, as part of a witness protection program. He’d been on the payroll during the Conley trial, but Conley’s defense never knew it, and by law should have been informed. That link made all the difference and the firm took Conley’s case.

“I’ve said this to Caramad before: If his name was Charles or Curtis he might not be free now,” Purcell says.

What the attorneys subsequently discovered, with information already obtained in the Tennison and Goff case, would completely reshape everyone’s understanding of what went on during Conley’s 1994 trial. The “aha” moment came in Purcell’s office. He, MacMichael, and legal aid Patrick Montgomery divided up a transcript of the trial and started looking for Polk’s testimony. When they got to his Oct. 3 testimony, they found what they were looking for. It was the day Polk denied on the stand being in the witness protection program.

The lawyers had documents showing that was a lie. They had payment receipts proving it. “If you pay a witness and don’t disclose it and that witness is material to the conviction, that’s basically” a wrongful conviction, says Purcell. They now had Polk’s recantation and evidence of suppression. “I remember Dan saying, ‘We fucking got him,'” says MacMichael.


PAYOFF

The lawyers discovered through their digging that much had gone on behind the scenes during Conley’s trial and no one told his lawyer, Bergerson. During trials of Paul Green, who was suspected of being the drive-by shooting’s ring leader, and Conley, inspectors Sanders and Hendrix allegedly let John Johnson and his girlfriend, Deanna Rushing, have sex in the Hall of Justice homicide unit — feet away from the inspectors’ desks.

In his 2013 deposition, Johnson described repeated conjugal visits, which also included marijuana and alcohol, being a condition of his testimony against Conley — testimony he was reluctant to give. Rushing told the Keker and Van Nest lawyers in her 2013 deposition that on each of her visits to Johnson, Sanders urged her to persuade her boyfriend to testify. “There was a time when John had refused,” Rushing said in the deposition. “He didn’t want to, and we were scheduled for a visit. We didn’t get that visit. I called and asked them . . . and they were, like, ‘You need to talk to John. He needs to testify . . . And I would tell John, ‘You know, you need to cooperate.'”

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Sanders denied the conjugal visits occurred, and Giannini later told Purcell in a deposition that such a secret could never have been kept. “Every homicide inspector would have known that. The lieutenant in charge of homicide would have known that. The chief of police would have known that. And probably the readers of the Chronicle and people on CNN would have known that,” Gianini said in his deposition. “It was not possible to have a liaison of that sort in the homicide detail and keep it private even if you were crazy enough to try and do it. To begin with, consider how explosive permitting something like that would be. The inspectors would be subject to prosecution. They’d certainly be fired.”

Polk, who also testified in the Green case, had an altogether different relationship with the inspectors. He saw Sanders as a “stepfather” and even did handyman work on his house from time to time. In a letter to Sanders in 1992, for example, Polk wrote: “I still love you,” and asked for money for new clothes. His handwritten letter illustrated the ongoing relationship. It thanked Sanders for “everything you done for me as far as guiding me from destruction to learning life.” It went on to say, “when I get home I really want to maintain the same relationship we have now and a little bit more.”

Polk, who died in 2007, was, in fact, on the department’s payroll as a snitch for Sanders and Hendrix for several years and was described in a probation report from 1994 as an “unrepentant criminal.” For example, between June 18, 1994, and Aug. 1, 1995, receipts show that Sanders gave Polk mostly cash. Sanders also arraigned for a six-month lease on an apartment at no cost to Polk. And Sanders lent Polk money out of his own pocket.

All these years later it wasn’t clear who was telling the truth. Did Giannini know of Polk’s financial relationship with the cops or not?

In 2010, when both Sanders and Giannini were deposed as part of Conley’s habeas corpus petition to overturn the case, Giannini said he neither knew Polk was in witness protection during the trial nor realized Polk was getting anything other than room and board for a brief time during its duration.

But Sanders testified in the deposition with Purcell that he told Giannini about the payments. The wedge driven between the two men in the depositions was noted in the habeas ruling by Judge Marla Miller when she wrote: “The complete dichotomy between the police inspector’s testimony and the trial prosecutor’s testimony cannot be explained.”

“The prosecution suppressed material” and knowingly relied on the “false testimony of Clifford Polk,” noted Miller’s Dec. 14, 2010 Superior Court opinion ruling that Conley had been denied a fair trial and was unconstitutionally convicted.

Neither Giannini nor Sanders nor Hendrix faced any reprimand for their role in the conviction. Hendrix and Polk both died before the 2010 ruling, but Giannini still works as a prosecutor in San Mateo County. Sanders retired in Folsom, where, as of 2010, he receives a nearly $200,000 annual pension. He did not return a request for comment.

Giannini maintains that he never withheld or suppressed evidence, even though he admits it was his duty to turn over all evidence in the case whether he knew about it or not. “I accept that responsibility. I regret the error,” he says, but maintains that he does not think Conley should be a free man. “I regret the decision to grant the writ of habeas corpus,” Giannini says. “I think the original verdict was the correct one.”

For Bergerson, who knew but could not prove the case was stacked against Conley, the ruling was a personal vindication and showed the outrageous behavior he was up against. “I mean, really — paying off witnesses and giving them free fucks in jail? I felt very good professionally and morally,” Bergerson says. “It took a big weight off me. I didn’t mess this up. They lied to me, and not (just) me but a judge.”

For Purcell, any other convictions Sanders and Hendrix “railroaded” through the system should be looked over. “These guys were running roughshod over people’s rights in Hunters Point and I don’t think there was a lot of interest in reining them in,” Purcell says, “because I think that people wanted heads on piles to account for these crimes that were happening and shocking the community.”


FREEDOM

Conley learned about the ruling from another prisoner in December 2010 while he was in Calapatria State Prison. “Man, look, they overturned your conviction,” the prisoner said, handing Conley a copy of a newspaper with the story in it. The city of San Francisco did not retry the case, and Conley walked out of the Hall of Justice on Jan. 12, 2011, surrounded by family and the media. He was 40 years old at the time. He’d spent nearly half his life in prison.

“Before I walked out, my niece, my aunt, my brother, and my attorney were there,” he says. “We just embraced.”

Conley peers through his glasses and a big grin spreads across his face. He’s sitting at a café in the old Emporium building downtown. He doesn’t look like a man who has done nearly two decades of hard time, was stabbed nine times by a white supremacist in 1997, and shot at by prison guards. He looks studious and even naïve, younger than his 44 years, as if he stopped aging when he was locked up at 22.

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Out of prison four years, Conley takes his freedom one day at a time as he continues to slowly adjust. Last year, he was awarded $3.5 million in a settlement with the city.

“It can be very overwhelming,” Conley says of the world outside of prison — a world in which he often still feels he will get lost.

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