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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

DA Candidates Ramp Up Attacks on George Gascón over Efforts to Conceal DNA Lab Memo

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Bill Fazio, David Onek, and Sharmin Bock speak to reporters at City Hall - PHOTO COURTESY SHARMIN BOCK FOR DISTRICT ATTORNEY
  • Photo courtesy Sharmin Bock for District Attorney
  • Bill Fazio, David Onek, and Sharmin Bock speak to reporters at City Hall

Candidates attempting to unseat District Attorney George Gascón in the November election held a joint press conference today to draw attention to Gascón's continued efforts to conceal an internal memorandum criticizing DNA testing at the San Francisco Police Department crime lab.

On the steps of City Hall, surrounded by reporters and TV news cameras, Sharmin Bock, Bill Fazio, and David Onek said that the memo -- whose existence was first revealed in a series of stories by SF Weekly -- must be released to restore public confidence in prosecutions that rely on DNA evidence.

"We've had Watergate. We've had Fajitagate," Fazio said, referring in the latter instance to a scandal that brought down high-ranking members of the SFPD between 2002 and 2004. "Now what do we have? We have DNA-gate."

Fazio added, "Children play games, but the district attorney is not supposed to play hide-the-ball."

The memo was written in the spring of 2010 by Rockne Harmon, a former prosecutor and expert on DNA evidence who worked as a consultant at the San Francisco DA's office. While its full contents are unknown, Harmon says one section of it criticizes the supervisor of the crime lab's DNA unit for shoddy forensic work, and that other parts of the memo address issues with testing DNA in "cold-hit" cases involving violent crimes.

In a series of interviews with SF Weekly over the past nine months, Harmon has said the document constitutes exculpatory evidence that prosecutors are constitutionally mandated to share with defense lawyers, and that he is concerned it has not been disclosed. He has also raised concerns that the report's concealment could jeopardize the crime lab's accreditation, since it was not shared with auditors from the state Department of Justice or American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board.

Last week, a judge who reviewed the document under seal in a murder case agreed with Harmon. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles Haines ordered prosecutors to share it with defense attorneys by Oct. 4. However, the DA's office says it plans to fight that ruling through a writ to the state appeals court.

"This is an extremely troubling situation, that a judge has ordered the release of a document that has been consistently covered up and suppressed," Onek said.

When first asked about Harmon's memo, the DA's office claimed it did not exist. It later released a small portion of the report, claiming it was not an official memo but a private e-mail Harmon had sent to an acquaintance. Those assertions were eventually showed to be false through additional public records obtained by SF Weekly and information provided by Harmon.

Maggie Muir, Gascón's campaign manager, said that the press conference was a media stunt orchestrated by the DA's challengers.

"What we see here today is yet another desperate attempt by the three candidates to get some media attention for their campaigns," she said. "Voters, frankly, aren't paying attention to them." She also said that internal polling indicated that "it's looking very good" for Gascón's campaign.

However, Muir declined to address specific questions and criticisms about Gascón's handling of the memo, directing such queries to officials in the DA's office. At one point, she mistakenly stated that "two judges" have ruled the memo does not need to be disclosed.

Only one judge has made such a ruling, Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, and that was in a case that did not involve Cherisse Boland, the analyst Harmon criticized in his report. Additionally, Massullo did not conduct a private interview with Harmon in order to better comprehend the document, a process Haines said last week was crucial to his understanding of the memo and order that it be unsealed.

Officials at the DA's office did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

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