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Let It Bleed 

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

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
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.

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.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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