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Trial by Liar 

The snitches mumbled, stumbled, equivocated, and perjured themselves The jury found Bernard Temple -- the man prosecutors believed to be a bloodthirsty assassin for drug dealers -- not guilty of murder.

Wednesday, Jan 14 1998
Defense attorney V. Roy Lefcourt walks into a holding cell at the Hall of Justice where his client, Bernard Temple, is awaiting jury verdicts on two counts of murder in the first degree. The attorney's stomach is twisting and turning, tortured by the same doubt and apprehension he feels every time he defends a client who's facing life without possibility of parole. This time his client has been accused of being a hit man for crack cocaine traffickers in Hunters Point and the other crime-ridden southeastern neighborhoods of San Francisco.

"Well, Bernard, we have verdicts," Lefcourt says as he enters the holding cell. The defense attorney plans on launching into his standard presentation: Here's how we'll appeal if you are found guilty. This isn't the end of it. Don't get discouraged.

With a confident sweep of his hand, Temple interrupts. "Mr. Lefcourt, what we have here are two acquittals."

Minutes later, Temple is led to the defense table and the court is called to order. He clasps his hands as if in prayer. They shake, he grips them so tightly. His eyes are closed in anticipation until he hears the first verdict.

Not guilty.
His eyes flash open; he stares straight ahead. Then it comes. The next and final verdict.

Not guilty.
He's free. Free after a more than a year in jail. Free to return to his Merced home and his beautiful wife and children. Free, law enforcement officials still believe, of punishment for a legacy of contract murder.

The courtroom is packed. Temple's relatives, who've attended most days of the trial, are for some reason absent. The audience is made up almost entirely of members of the FBI Violent Gang Task Force, a combination of federal agents and SFPD narcotics cops deputized as FBI agents. The task force members worked on the Temple case for three years. It was the first murder case they put together. The results today are enormously important.

Usually when a stunning verdict is read there's a gasp or a muffled cry. Today, there's nothing. Utter silence.

The sound of three years of hard work down the tubes.

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Floyd Andrews, creaks out of his chair and walks from the room.

He's unable to find words, express basic emotions, even begin to grasp what has just taken place. He hasn't slept or eaten right for weeks. Several days before the verdicts, he collapsed on the way to court, suffering from chest pains. Rushed to the emergency room, he was told the attack was stress-related.

As he leaves the courtroom, Andrews doesn't talk to the jurors or the press. He walks back to his office, falls into his chair, and stares at the wall.

A few minutes later, a light rap falls on his doorsill.
District Attorney Terence Hallinan, Chief Assistant District Attorney Richard Iglehart, and Paul Cummins, chief of the DA's Criminal Division, walk into Andrews' office. The three top prosecutors pull up chairs and form a protective circle around Andrews.

"You did the best you could," Hallinan says. "We are extremely proud of you."

Hallinan made a class gesture. But the district attorney could have saved his breath. As the DA's Office's only prosecutor of African-American gangs, Floyd Andrews knows better than anyone how easy it is to do your best, with the best of intentions, and still lose when you're dealing with crack-related crime and the locus is Bayview-Hunters Point. It's as easy to lose gang cases that originate there as it is to explain how they are lost.

The explanation starts and, really, ends with this reality: In Bayview-Hunters Point, witnesses and their family members get threatened, and sometimes they get dead.

In Bayview-Hunters Point, you can't rely on a sense of civic duty and outrage to motivate witnesses to testify against criminals, because Bayview-Hunters Point is not Noe Valley. It's a different world out on Third Street, and one of the few ways to cultivate witnesses there is to exert extreme pressure, to make deals with devils, to pay money, to make pending criminal cases disappear in exchange for testimony.

But these strategies work only with witnesses who are also criminals, unsavory people over whom cops can hold a hammer -- a case, a prison term, whatever -- to make them, quite against their will, take the stand and rat out those they may have done business or even grown up with.

The witnesses' own seedy histories and dreadfully lousy motives tend to stink up a courtroom and turn jurors' sympathies away from the victims, who are also usually nasty characters, and toward defendants.

When you make deals with criminals, sometimes you get burned. Snitches lie. It's a fact of life. They lie for many different reasons. Sometimes they are afraid. And sometimes they are desperate for the deal you're offering. If cops and prosecutors aren't skeptical enough, if they lose sight of what they're doing, if they become too focused on a goal rather than the means of getting there, they can end up giving more than they receive from their snitches. They can let a criminal go -- sometimes for several crimes -- and end up with either useless or perjured testimony in exchange.

They can, in the parlance of the ghetto, get played.
For all these reasons, Bernard Temple was acquitted. The jury wasn't hung. The decision wasn't close. No, 12 people agreed that Temple was not guilty of the murders that the FBI, the cops, and the prosecutors crawled down into the gutter of Bayview-Hunters Point to try to prove. Once there, they lost sight of what they were doing, the deals and corners they were cutting, in order to take down what they thought was a big target. Those decisions came back and hurt them in court, blasting their case into nasty little shards of vague and mumbled and contradictory and perjured testimony. And because they made those decisions and those deals, a man the cops and the prosecutors still believe was one of the most bloodthirsty gangbangers to ever come out of Bayview-Hunters Point is now, officially and forevermore, judged to be innocent of the only two murders he has ever been charged with.

About The Author

George Cothran


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