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Botched investigation prompts DA to drop charges against deputies in jail fight club case

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Former San Francisco Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Neu, right, listens in with his lawyer, Harry Stern, to Judge Ross Moody during Neu’s court appearance at the Hall of Justice, March 7, 2016, in San Francisco, Calif. (AP Pool/Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle)

The District Attorney’s office on Thursday dismissed charges against three sheriff’s deputies who stood accused of staging an inmate “fight club” in San Francisco jails in 2015 after defense attorneys brought forward evidence the Sheriff’s Department had mishandled the investigation.

Attorneys for former deputy Scott Neu filed a motion to dismiss the charges in December, claiming the Sheriff’s Department misused “compelled statements” their client gave as part of an internal affairs investigation looking into administrative policy violations. Compelled statements cannot be used to pursue criminal charges, but Neu’s attorneys argued his may have been inappropriately shared with a parallel criminal investigation taking place at the same time.

Defense attorneys also argued that the Sheriff’s Department damaged Neu’s ability to defend himself by destroying a hard drive in October 2016 that contained evidence by smashing it with a hammer. The Sheriff’s Department reportedly said it was because the drive contained a computer virus.

SEE RELATED: Defense attorney: Sheriff’s Department destroyed evidence in criminal case against deputy

The District Attorney’s Office filed felony and misdemeanor charges against deputies Eugene Jones and Scott Neu in March 2015 after Public Defender Jeff Adachi brought forward information from inmates saying deputies had forced them to fight for food like gladiators and gambled on the winners. A third deputy, Clifford Chiba, was also charged with two misdemeanors.

In court documents filed late Thursday afternoon, prosecutor Evan Ackiron said the District Attorney’s office has determined the case cannot proceed at this time because they would be unlikely to prevail in a hearing at which they would need to demonstrate evidence collected by the Sheriff’s Department had been properly used.

“Therefore, the People ask the Court to dismiss the cases against Defendants Neu, Jones and Chiba in the interest of justice,” he wrote.

“These are only the first dismissals, and justice will also be served by correcting the mistakes that were made by the original investigators in this case,” Ackiron wrote. “To that end, the People intend to turn the evidence that the People have determined was untainted by these errors to a new, ‘clean’ prosecution team that has not had, and will not have, access to or knowledge of the Defendants’ compelled statements, or to any evidence that was tainted by those statements. That team will determine how this matter will proceed.”

SEE RELATED: Alleged destruction of evidence threatens criminal case against SF deputies

“If there’s one thing this District Attorney’s office should know how to do, because they’re headed by a former police chief, is how to supervise police investigations,” said Harry Stern, defense attorney for Neu, outside the courtroom on Friday. “They clearly didn’t. They botched this case — and it’s over.”

“It’s extremely disappointing, and it sends the wrong message,” Adachi said. “You are forcing prisoners to fight against each other and betting money on it — and you get away with it. Yeah, charges were brought, but because the Sheriff’s Department bungled its own investigation you’re free to go. What kind of message does that send to people who always assume American jails are better?”

“The problem here as far as I can tell is they didn’t know what they were doing. Keystone cops were assigned to investigate their fellow deputies,” he added. “You can certainly wonder if the investigation was intentionally conducted in an incompetent manner.”

Stern said he believed prosecutors were citing misused compelled statements as the reason for dropping charges to avoid addressing the larger issue of destruction of evidence — including the hard drive, emails deleted by investigators, and cell phones which appeared to have extremely sparse call histories when examined.

“That’s what I call the cover-up of a cover-up,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that’s the tactic. They didn’t want to go there, so they took the easy way out by just saying, you know what, we’re ending this thing now…and that serious issue of destruction of evidence became moot.”

After the Sheriff’s Department previously said the hard drive had been destroyed, a footnote in Thursday’s court filing said the District Attorney’s office received a phone call from the Sheriff’s Department’s counsel last month stating the “laptop’s hard drive may not have been destroyed. It is unclear at the time of this writing what exactly happened to the hard drive.”

“I was shocked when I read that footnote,” Judge Ross Moody said on Friday. “When I was told the hard drive was destroyed…I found that very disturbing.”

Stern said he thought it was unlikely charges would be re-filed against Neu and Jones.

“If they attempted to refile this case, we would come at them with both barrels blazing,” he said.

Adachi agreed, and said he thought it was “doubtful” given the “huge mess” the case had become.

In comments from the bench, Moody also expressed skepticism, characterizing it as “unlikely.”

“There were problems in this case from the outset that I thought would be big challenges, but you have to let them try,” Moody said in court.

Chiba will almost certainly not face charges again, because he was charged only with misdemeanors, which cannot be recharged after a dismissal.

Alex Bastion, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office, said the investigation would be turned over to the DA’s Independent Investigation Bureau. Formed in December 2016, the bureau conducts independent investigations into use of force claims, police shootings, and in-custody deaths.

Nancy Crowley, a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, said the department will cooperate fully with the Independent Investigation Bureau.

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