SF prosecutors accuse public defender of impropriety in murder case

San Francisco prosecutors on Monday alleged Public Defender Jeff Adachi may have committed a misdemeanor when he interviewed four grand jurors about the secret proceedings that led to the indictment of his client on murder.

Adachi published signed statements from the grand jurors earlier this month as part of a motion to throw out the case against Carlos Argueta, a former tenants’ rights attorney accused of stabbing a man to death on Sixth Street in 2015.

The motion argued that prosecutor Andrew Ganz intentionally withheld evidence from the grand jury to secure the indictment. The motion built on the fact that Ganz is facing State Bar disciplinary proceedings for alleged prosecutorial misconduct in another case out of Solano County.

In their written declarations, the jurors said that Adachi presented them with court transcripts of testimony given during Argueta’s preliminary hearing that suggested he acted in self-defense. The jurors said they may not have voted to indict Argueta on murder had Ganz presented them with that testimony.

In California, it is a misdemeanor for a grand juror to disclose evidence brought before the grand jury or “the manner in which I or any other grand juror may have voted on any matter before the grand jury.” A person could also be charged with a misdemeanor for aiding and abetting a juror in said crime.

“The public defender is supposed to keep people out of trouble, not invite grand jurors to violate their oath and commit a crime,” said Max Szabo, a spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon.

But Adachi, who has not been charged with a crime, said he did nothing illegal.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t interview grand jurors,” Adachi said. “We’re not asking them about what they decided and how they reached decision, we’re asking them to look at what information wasn’t presented to them and whether it would have made a difference.”

Adachi further argued that it is not illegal for a defense attorney to contact a grand juror once an indictment has been reached.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Maldonado first raised the alleged “improprieties” around Adachi contacting the jurors last Thursday in a motion seeking to seal the jurors’ declarations from the public and a court order barring Adachi from contacting the grand jurors.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy heard the motion Monday.

During court, Maldonado said that the names of the grand jurors were first made public not by Adachi, but in error by a court reporter who did not redact the names from transcripts of the proceedings.

The court reporter was an independent contractor hired by the District Attorney’s office, not the San Francisco Superior Court, according to officials.

After the error, the District Attorney’s Office also did not seek to seal the transcripts within 10 days.

As a result, Adachi was able to use the public transcripts to contact the jurors by name.

Conroy declined to rule on the motion until Thursday but suggested he was inclined to seal the grand jury transcripts rather than the declarations included in the motion Adachi filed. “The cat is out of the bag here,” he said.

As for the proposed order on Adachi not contacting jurors, Conroy said “I’m not going to order someone to obey the law.”

“If you think the law is broken, the people should take the appropriate steps,” Conroy told Maldonado.

Conroy did, however, read aloud part of a declaration and said, “that sounds like a discussion of what happened inside a grand jury.”

In one declaration, a juror referred to the grand jury testimony of Earl Harrell, a witness to Argueta allegedly stabbing James “Rick” Thomas to death. Argueta and Thomas were involved in a dispute over a bag.

“At the grand jury, Mr. Harrell testified that the bag belonged to Thomas,” the juror wrote. “If I was told that Mr. Thomas had previously testified that he did not know who owned the bag, I may not have voted to indict Mr. Argueta for robbery.”

The District Attorney’s Office is assessing how to move forward, Szabo said.

Argueta’s trial was set to begin Friday but is expected to be delayed.

In the meantime, Adachi is still waiting for a decision on whether a judge he accused of racial bias can rule on the motion to dismiss the case against Argueta, who is Latino.

Adachi claimed that Judge Ethan Schulman once asked a Latina attorney, “When is this telenovela going to end?”

Schulman has until Friday to decide whether to accept, contest or dismiss the motion to disqualify himself from deciding whether to the throw out the case.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the position of the worker who did not redact the grand jury transcripts.

Michael Barba
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