Evan Kruger staggered through an overgrown field in Hunters Point. Ahead of him, invisible in the night, was the shore of San Francisco Bay. Beside him was a stranger with a handgun.
The gunman's hand was on the 22-year-old Ingleside resident's arm. Keeping pace about 10 steps behind them was Anwar Webster, a 19-year-old community college football player who would later be charged with orchestrating Kruger's kidnapping and robbing him of $80.
The gunman, a friend of Webster's called Abraham, came to a stop and told Kruger to get on his knees. Obeying, he knelt in the shin-high grass.
Kruger knew that his ordeal was about to end. He stared forward. It was very dark.
Somewhere behind him, Webster spoke. "What a pretty sight that is," he said.
His heart beating wildly, Kruger waited for the shot.
Looking back on that night in August 2006, Kruger considers it remarkable that he lived. But even more remarkable is what happened afterward. Beyond the field at Hunters Point, another ordeal was waiting — this one engineered not by criminals, but by the people and institutions that were supposed to bring him justice.
This summer, four years after Kruger knelt in the dirt with a gun to his head, his case was still languishing in San Francisco's criminal courts. This wasn't some intractable cold case. Detectives had moved quickly to gather evidence and arrest Webster; he was charged with kidnapping, robbery, conspiracy, and false imprisonment shortly afterward.
Through a combination of indulgent judges, defense lawyers' stalling, and prosecutorial incompetence, the case was allowed to linger year after year. Kruger finished college — still plagued by fear that Webster would retaliate — but the charges went nowhere. He found himself a living demonstration of the old but accurate cliché: Justice delayed is justice denied.
In San Francisco, it turns out that he has company.
"Hurry up and wait" is the mantra of America's criminal justice system, but the San Francisco Superior Court's inability to deal swiftly with serious crimes is severe. Statistics compiled by the California Judicial Council reveal that for three of the past five years, San Francisco has had the slowest felony processing time of any legal jurisdiction in the state. (This comparison does not include a handful of rural counties that did not track case-processing time in the same manner as other jurisdictions.)
The judicial council's guidelines indicate that felony cases should not take more than 12 months to resolve, a standard in line with the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Barker v. Wingo, which stated that a delay of more than a year in any criminal case is automatically prejudicial. In fiscal year 2009, however, only 69 percent of felony cases filed in San Francisco had been resolved in under a year. It was the lowest percentage recorded in the state, and a 10-year low for the city.
The most recent in-depth look at the timeliness of felony-case processing, assessed by a consulting group in a February 2009 report, found that 207 cases were between one and two years old. An additional 82 cases were between two and four years old, and eight of them were, astonishingly, older than five years.
No one in the system is blind to the problem, and everyone is partly to blame. Court administrators have commissioned studies on how best to alleviate the processing time, and taken steps they say have helped. Defense lawyers acknowledge that benefits often accrue to their clients as charges grow stale, but also insist that they have an ethical duty to ensure that due process is granted to the accused. Prosecutors, in turn, complain that their hands are tied by the judges who permit unwarranted delays.
Yet for those whom delays arguably harm the most — the victims and those close to them — the system's failings remain baffling and deeply frustrating.
In 2005, James McKinnon — who had been charged in 2002 with murdering Glen Park resident Lee Ober in his apartment, stowing his body in the bathtub, and living in close quarters with the corpse for upward of a month — received a plea deal, resulting in six years of prison, after years of delays. With credit for time served, McKinnon was paroled in 2007.
Stephanie Henry, Ober's neighbor and friend, still seethes over what she perceives as the lassitude with which the D.A.'s office pursued the case. "This was such a heinous crime to me that there's no way on God's earth it should have taken this long," she says. "And then you go in there with a psycho and plea-bargain your way into six years? I just don't know how it happens. Do you know how it happens?"
More recently, a double attempted murder from 2006, dubbed the "Stall of Justice" case by the San Francisco Chronicle, wrapped up with a plea bargain in September. Eric Chung, who had seriously wounded two people while firing a handgun into a crowd in the Sunset District, pleaded guilty and received a 15-year prison term. It was a stiff sentence for a plea bargain after so much time. Nevertheless, one of the victims, Eric Le Duc, wrote to the court complaining that the process had been needlessly postponed. "After 3 different DA's, and two and a half years, I'm thrilled to reach even this unjust settlement," he wrote.
It's a sentiment Evan Kruger would understand.
On the night of Aug. 1, 2006, Kruger got a call from a woman he didn't know well. Michelle Maxie was a young Filipina who worked at the San Francisco Giants Dugout store at AT&T Park, where his older brother, Michael, was her boss. They'd hung out over the summer and even talked a few times on the phone, but their relationship had never progressed beyond casual friendship.
Kruger didn't feel like spending time with her that night. The Giants had undergone a humiliating loss to the Washington Nationals, and he had been at the ballpark to witness the debacle. After the game, Kruger, a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology who was home on summer break, planned to head to a friend's house to drink beer and play videogames.