Homicide backlog could grow with drastic cuts to courtroom budgets 

Dozens of accused murderers languish in San Francisco jails as judges struggle to find open courtrooms, prosecutors labor under heavy caseloads and defense attorneys search for witnesses who might prove their client’s innocence.

Meanwhile, memories fade, cases grow years old and victims’ families lose hope for justice.

At a time of budget cuts to the superior court system, the District Attorney’s Office has 11 pending murder cases that are 4 years old and another three cases in which at least seven years have passed since charges were filed.

District Attorney George Gascón says he has made speeding up the prosecution of homicide cases a priority of his administration.

“You cannot do a homicide [prosecution] overnight obviously, but ... assuming that there are no unusual circumstances in that case, two or three years should be a more than reasonable time for a homicide to be tried,” Gascón said.

That’s the average timetable, officials in several Bay Area district attorney’s offices agree, given the amount of investigation often required in homicide cases and procedural issues in the court system.

“Two years is sort of our target here, and [then] we start pressing for a trial,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. “If it goes beyond that, the cases begin to become stale.”

Prosecutor Braden Woods, who heads the criminal division of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, described delays as “the ultimate open wound or sore” for family members of murder victims. While a conviction can never bring the victim back, “To have a case drag on for years, it’s like a constant source of irritation for a family,” he said.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who oversees the county jails, agrees.

“There’s the whole issue of justice itself,” Hennessey said. “What does it say to the families of a murdered person, or witnesses, neighbors ... what does it say to them about the fact that it’s taken five, six or seven years and this case still hasn’t been resolved? It casts a bad light on the justice system.”

San Francisco jails are expected to fill up in the coming year with inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who are being transferred from state prisons beginning Oct. 1.

“It frustrates me,” Hennessey said. “When you have a high-security person who’s in custody for seven years, they’re tying up this very valuable jail real estate.”

High-security prisoners pose a risk to others and themselves, Hennessey said. “Because you have to put them in with other high-security prisoners, and that tends to lead to bad things happening every once and a while,” he said.

Hundreds of felony cases await trial at any given time in San Francisco, while there are only seven felony-trial courtrooms in which to squeeze them.

The court is “conscientiously trying to move these older cases, in particular homicides,” Superior Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said. But she acknowledged “it can take some time to accomplish that.”

The judge who assigns cases to court must also take into account defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial and attorneys’ schedules and lack of readiness, Donlan said.

Even when murder suspects are known to police and prosecutors, there can be delays, such as in the shooting death in August of German tourist Mechthild Schröer, who was caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout near Union Square while visiting The City with her husband. Arrests were finally made in May.

“Witness cooperation, witnesses coming forward, is a huge struggle when it comes to the prosecution of murder cases,” Woods said.

For instance, the trial of the suspect in 2008’s triple murder of Tony, Michael and Matthew Bologna has been delayed while prosecutors await testimony from several possible witnesses who also are testifying in the ongoing trial of seven alleged members of the violent gang MS-13.

Understaffing in the homicide unit also contributes to the backlog, Woods said. Right now, seven prosecutors each handle between 10 and 11 murder cases, involving 14 to 15 defendants, he said.

“It’s a bad practice,” Woods said.

Gascón had secured funding in this year’s budget to add another homicide prosecutor this fall, Woods said.

By contrast, Wagstaffe said San Mateo County’s two full-time homicide prosecutors are handling 15 of the county’s 17 pending murder cases, eight or fewer cases each. San Mateo County’s murder caseload only goes back to 2008, he said, although one 1999 case is awaiting retrial.

Wagstaffe said courtroom availability is not an issue in his county, although he noted that it doesn’t face the same amount of crime as San Francisco.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys often claim that the other side is delaying a case by either withholding evidence or filing endless motions. However, one defense attorney said caution is warranted in murder cases.

“When people are looking at spending the rest of their life in jail, there’s a premium on making sure the case is thoroughly investigated and litigated,” said Bob Dunlap, manager of the felony unit for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

Dunlap said his office is defending nearly half of the pending homicide cases, and almost all of them are getting to trial within two to three years.

“Everyone involved, they really are doing the best they can,” Dunlap said. “If there were more courtrooms available, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Dunlap said the sometimes-frosty relationship between his office and the District Attorney’s Office has improved since Gascón was appointed in January.

“And I do think part of it is attributable to Gascón,” Dunlap said. “There have been more and more fruitful discussions over resolving homicide cases since he’s begun.”

Such discussions “used to be nonexistent, or rare” under former District Attorney Kamala Harris, Dunlap said.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

 

Some cold cases move ahead, while others remain stalled

Five recent convictions in the past four months — four for murder and one for voluntary manslaughter — have helped ease the homicide backlog in the District Attorney’s Office, but several old cases remain.

One of the oldest is the 1981 murder of  24-year-old Annie Barcelon. On Nov. 26 of that year, she and her roommate were returning from a Thanksgiving party to their Park Merced home. Barcelon let her roommate out of the car and went to park the vehicle, but never returned. Her body was found the next day under a stairway in the basement of their building. She was found to have been raped and strangled.

The cold case was charged in 2004 after a DNA hit linked an Oregon prison inmate incarcerated on a separate sexual assault case, Lance Ford, to Barcelon’s slaying. Ford, now 55, is finally set to go to trial in October.

In another cold case that went to trial this year, a jury in May found Dwight Culton, 62, guilty of first-degree murder in the 1984 killing of 43-year-old Joan Baldwin at an auto body shop just blocks away from the Hall of Justice. A DNA hit in that case was made in 2006.

“The fact that we were able to solve a 1984 case is fantastic, but we filed it in ’06 and we just got a verdict in 2011,” prosecutor Braden Woods said. “That’s a case that’s been kicking around for way too long.”

Woods said he also was frustrated with the progress of the case of Napoleon Brown, 39, accused of murder in the 2000 death of a 25-year-old woman, Lenties White, who had been carjacked by suspects fleeing a Marina robbery. The suspects pushed her out of her car on the Golden Gate Bridge, and she was fatally struck by another driver.

Although Brown was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery and carjacking in 2005, a judge later found the defense attorney had been ineffective and granted a new trial on the murder charge.

Woods said prosecutors wanted to retry Brown immediately, but the defense was able to postpone the trial while Brown appealed his robbery conviction. That conviction was upheld in 2009.

“So now we’ve been trying to move the case forward,” Woods said.

Brown returns to court for a hearing this month.

 

Gathering dust

San Francisco’s oldest murder cases still awaiting trial:

Napoleon Brown: Charged in 2001 with the 2000 murder of Lenties White, 25, who was pushed from a carjacked vehicle and fatally struck by another car; hearing Aug. 30, case still awaiting retrial or possible settlement.

Lance Ford: Charged in 2004 with the 1981 rape and strangulation murder of Annie Barcelon, 24; trial scheduled to begin in October.

Thomas Hanley and Ivan Gonzalez: Charged in 2004 with the 2004 stabbing murder of Hanley’s adoptive mother, Anne Outin, 66; hearing Friday, trial date not yet set.

 

Awaiting trial

Pending murder cases charged in Bay Area:

San Francisco: 75 cases involving 100 defendants since 2001

Alameda County: 117 cases involving 153 defendants since 2006

San Mateo County: 17 cases involving 24 defendants since 2008

Santa Clara County: 83 cases involving 126 defendants

Marin County: Seven cases since 2009

Source: District attorney’s offices

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Ari Burack

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