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

Wednesday, Mar 11 2015
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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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Jonah Owen Lamb

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