Before he was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascón promised to resolve all the homicide cases that had languished in the courts for years, prolonging the horror for victims’ loved ones.
When he made the pledge, 14 murder cases remained unresolved even though the defendants had been arraigned at least four years earlier. Three more cases subsequently reached that unsavory milestone.
But as of last week, Gascón said, all but three of these cases had been resolved, accounting for a whopping 82 percent reduction in the backlog.
- Five of the 17 cases that had lingered in courts for years but have finally been resolved under District Attorney George Gascón’s tenure:
- Dwight Culton
Arraigned in November 2006, his trial didn’t begin until March 2011. He was sentenced to 25 years to life for the 1984 stabbing murder of 43-year-old Joan Baldwin in South of Market.
- Lance Ford
Arrested in 2004, he wasn’t convicted until this past September. He was found guilty of the 1981 rape and murder of Annie Barcelon, a 24-year-old Parkmerced resident.
- Jeff Nguyen
Arraigned in 2007, his trial began in July 2011. He was sentenced to 26 years to life for murdering his estranged wife, 37-year-old Mai Banh, with a hammer inside her Marina district hair salon in 2007.
- Vernon Anderson
Arrested in April 2007, his trial began in July 2012. He was sentenced to 189 years to life for the 2006 shooting of a teen outside a late-night house party by gang members who had crashed the party.
- Umar Hudson
Arrested in April 2007 and sentenced in January of this year to 205 years to life. He was found guilty in the startlingly public and savage fatal stabbing of his high school sweetheart in Bernal Heights and the sexual attacks of her underage daughters.
While the amount of evidence in homicide cases can be massive, and time-consuming to gather and investigate, most cases should ideally be closed in two to three years, said Gascón, who has made speeding up such prosecutions a priority of his administration. He proudly noted that he managed to keep his promise even while budget cuts have weighed heavily on San Francisco’s court system.
Eight of the 17 cases in question ended in jury trials. Seven led to murder convictions and the eighth to a manslaughter conviction. Six more have been settled with voluntary manslaughter plea bargains that led to decadeslong prison sentences, Gascón said. Two of the remaining three cases reportedly involve defendants who entered pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity, and doctors’ reports are pending in those cases.
Lance Ford was one of the successfully convicted suspects. About eight years ago, he was charged for the 1981 rape and murder of 24-year-old Parkmerced resident Annie Barcelon. Although DNA evidence linked Ford to the crime, the trial was not held until this past September. It took just two days for a jury to find him guilty of murder.
Closing such cases means ending a horrible chapter for the loved ones of victims, Gascón said. Many feel “frozen in time” and “forgotten” while the process idles and they don’t hear from prosecutors, he said. Swift justice also slashes costs for San Francisco’s jails, which must house the defendants for however long they await trial.
Resolving such cases has not required a magic wand. Gascón said he simply made it clear to his department’s prosecutors that they had to move them forward. Prosecutors were asked to settle cases they had intended to settle, and focus on making the remaining cases ready for trial.
Having prosecutors buy into that expectation is key, Gascón said. While he wouldn’t criticize his predecessor, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, for allowing the backlog he inherited, Gascón said change was necessary.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations,” he said. “If you don’t take a moment to step back, parcel things out and start to break them down, it’s very easy not to see some of those problems.”
Public Defender Jeff Adachi credits Gascón with improving the handling of homicide cases. When cases take too long, Adachi noted, it’s not only detrimental to loved ones but to justice itself.
“Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost or replaced,” he said.
The City’s various pretrial and early release programs deserve some of the credit for freeing up space in San Francisco Superior Court. Gascón said the neighborhood courts system also has helped, as it allows residents to resolve nonviolent matters within their locales instead of at the Hall of Justice.
And the district attorney also credited Superior Court officials for working with attorneys despite the budget cuts. “Judges and staff worked together to prioritize these cases and get them to trial” despite limited resources, Superior Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said. She called the efforts a success.
Gascón said he’s not only trying to expedite old cases, but ensure that new major cases don’t fall by the wayside.
Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said one example of that is the case against Frederick Dozier, who is accused of three brutal rapes and robberies in the Mission district late last year. That case is currently at trial.
Public defender, DA fight crime, not each other
While they aren’t about to hug it out, the relationship between the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office in San Francisco appears to be improving.
The natural rivalry between these two offices is comparable to that of the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Competition between the offices can be fierce as their respective attorneys go to bat for their clients.
Lawyers are in the “heat of battle” while in a courtroom, both District Attorney George Gascón and Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in recent interviews. Adachi calls the 92 attorneys in his office “my troops.”
As in most rivalries, each side occasionally accuses the other of dirty play. But that doesn’t appear to be happening as often since Gascón was appointed by former Mayor Gavin Newsom to replace Kamala Harris, who left the post after being elected California’s attorney general. He was elected to a full term last year.
Gascón and Adachi communicate on a regular basis to hash out differences. Rather than letting disputes simmer, Adachi said, they are addressing issues more proactively.
“He’ll call me, we’ll investigate and then get back together on it,” Adachi said.
Gascón agreed that relations are better “at a personal level” and added he “would not want to be in a place where we don’t have a strong advocate for defendants.”
Still, the two said their offices have a long way to go.
“There are still problems that arise in individual cases,” Adachi said.
For example, he said, while Gascón has improved the sharing of evidence in homicide cases, such information is still withheld.
“The trial should not be a cat-and-mouse game where evidence is being withheld intentionally to gain an advantage,” Adachi said. So he and Gascón are trying to come up with new rules to ensure that both offices are playing fair in this regard.
While Gascón said he wants his prosecutors to win cases, he doesn’t want them to forget that not all defendants are guilty. He said he requires all of his attorneys to watch the documentary “After Innocence,” which is about wrongful convictions. Some prosecutors are “a little shaken up” after watching the film, he said.
“You’re in the heat of battle, you have limited information sometimes,” he said. “It’s easy to develop blinders and only see the evidence that supports your case.”
And when two lawyers are “at each other’s throats,” Gascón said, “they’ll drag everything out — not necessarily to the benefit of the client or the community.”