D.A. vows to probe wrongful conviction
San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan said Friday that he will not retry John “J.J.” Tennison for a 1989 gang killing and disclosed that his office will investigate how a man he called innocent was convicted and sent to prison 13 years ago.
Hallinan also announced that he had agreed to the release of Tennison’s co- defendant, Antoine “Soda Pop” Goff, and said his office would seek the arrest of a third man who years ago confessed to police that he was the real killer.
The decisions follow a ruling Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken that San Francisco police and prosecutors had violated Tennison’s constitutional right to a fair trial by withholding evidence from his lawyers. Wilken said that evidence might have proved the innocence of Tennison, who was convicted with Goff of the first-degree murder of Roderick “Cooley” Shannon in 1990.
Speaking at a news conference as Tennison was being released from state prison, Hallinan put much of the responsibility on Police Chief Earl Sanders and retired Inspector Napoleon Hendrix, who were the investigators on the case, saying they had wrongly withheld evidence.
“It certainly was improper, and it resulted in the reversal of this conviction and, worse, the conviction of an innocent person,” Hallinan said of Tennison. “He’s been locked up for 13 years for a crime he did not commit.”
Hallinan noted that the federal court decision also criticized the conduct of Assistant District Attorney George Butterworth in withholding potentially exculpatory evidence.
“We’re conducting an internal investigation to determine how two innocent individuals were convicted by this office,” said Hallinan, who was not the district attorney at the time. “I want to find out how this happened.”
POLICE WERE UNDER PRESSURE
Shannon was shot to death Aug. 19, 1989, after a group of men cornered the 18-year-old in a convenience store parking lot. The killing, and subsequent arrests of Tennison and Goff, came as police and prosecutors were under pressure to crack down on warring street gangs in the Hunters Point and Sunnydale neighborhoods. More than 40 people had died in the violence.
At trial, there was no physical evidence against Tennison and Goff. The only witnesses were two young girls.
Tennison was sentenced to 25 years to life. Goff was sentenced to 27 years to life.
Ruling on Tennison’s motion to reverse the conviction, Wilken concluded that the case against him not only was weak but that the prosecution had also withheld five categories of evidence that might have proved his innocence.
Wilken said the prosecution failed to properly turn over to Tennison’s lawyer evidence concerning a secret payment fund for witnesses, a polygraph examination given to one of the girls after she recanted, two eyewitnesses who contradicted the girls, and a man who gave a taped confession after police advised him of his Miranda right to remain silent.
EVIDENCE MUST BE SHARED
Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the prosecution team is required to give defense lawyers evidence that could potentially exonerate the defendant so they can investigate it before trial.
Butterworth on Friday declined to comment on the case. Sanders also declined to comment on the substance of Wilken’s order, and Hendrix, who recently retired from the department, has declined to comment on the case. All three men previously maintained that Tennison and Goff were properly arrested and convicted.
Wilken ordered Tennison released within 60 days unless the state chose to retry him. Both Hallinan and state Attorney General Bill Lockyer reviewed the matter and decided against a retrial.
Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Lockyer, said, “We did an independent evaluation. We do agree with the district attorney’s assessment.”
Wilken had not yet ruled on a separate challenge to Goff’s conviction, which was filed after Tennison’s motion and is pending. But Hallinan said Goff’s lawyer, Diana Samuelson, planned to file a motion soon in San Francisco county court to vacate Goff’s conviction, and that he had agreed to not oppose it because he believes Goff is innocent.
PRAISE FOR JEFF ADACHI
If the county judge vacates the conviction, Goff’s federal motion would become moot and he would go free, Hallinan said.
At the press conference, Hallinan praised Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who as a fledgling lawyer had represented Tennison 13 years ago, remained convinced of his innocence and continued to press his cause after he was off the case.
A few years ago, San Francisco attorneys Elliot Peters and Ethan Balogh took on Tennison’s case without fee. They won a court order uncovering evidence that the prosecution never had turned over.
“I don’t know how Sanders or Hendrix or Butterworth can explain what they did,” Peters said. “It’s not their job to put innocent people in jail.”
Hallinan said he had opened an inquiry into what Butterworth knew and when he knew it, but said it was clear that the police inspectors had failed to turn over “much” information to the prosecutor.
Police spokesman Neville Gittens said Acting Chief Alex Fagan was not available Friday to comment on whether the department would conduct its own inquiry.
Hallinan said his office and the Police Department are preparing to seek a warrant for the arrest of Lovinsky Ricard, who confessed to the murder in 1990 and is believed to be in the Midwest.
Hallinan said Tennison was released Friday from Mule Creek State Prison in Ione (Amador County), southeast of Sacramento, pending the official closing of his case.
“I apologize that this office did not properly handle that case and he was convicted of a crime he didn’t do,” Hallinan said. “I doubt that will satisfy 13 years in prison, but I apologize for it.”