Breed’s letter asking for brother’s clemency may ‘backfire’

On Guard column header Joe

Cameras and microphones encircled Mayor London Breed at the newly rehabilitated and rechristened Rachel Townsend Apartments on McAllister Street, Wednesday. But the gathered reporters weren’t there to hear about affordable housing.

San Francisco’s mayor walked slowly, steadily up to them and stood, breathing in heavily before answering swirling ethics questions stemming from a letter first uncovered by NBC Bay Area.

Yes, Breed admitted, she wrote to Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 23, personally asking him to commute her brother’s prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Napoleon “Sonny Boy” Brown has spent nearly two decades in prison for killing a woman during a robbery.

Yes, Breed admitted, she knew there was a chance this would look like she was wielding her influence as mayor to sway the governor’s decision to grant her brother mercy, in what some may view as an abuse of power.

But Breed feared something far more dire.

Speaking in a voice far more measured than her usual soaring oratory, she told reporters her letter very well may have hurt her brother’s chances of commutation.

“This may have the reverse impact of what I’m trying to do,” Breed said. Though she has written letters in defense of her brother before, she knew that “as mayor, this could backfire.”

Legal experts speaking to this columnist agreed with Breed’s assessment.

“She may have hurt her brother’s chance of getting clemency. If the governor does grant it, it may be perceived that he is just doing a favor for someone that is a public official,” said LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, a 13-year superior court judge, who sat on a blue ribbon panel reviewing the San Francisco Police Department’s reform efforts.

Napoleon Brown has already faced challenges of his own making, Breed said. He and accomplice Lenties White robbed a Marina District Johnny Rockets (where a Super Duper Burger now stands). While fleeing police, he then pushed White out of their Ford Escort into moving traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

When police asked a dying White who pushed her, among her last words were “S.B.” Which police understood to mean Sonny Boy, Napoleon’s nickname.

Napoleon, now 46, requested a commuted sentence in September, according to the Mayor’s Office. It’s usual, and even expected, for prisoners seeking commutation to seek letters from their friends, family, and community to testify that the prisoner’s heart has changed — and convince the Board of Parole Hearings that they are ready to be reintroduced into society.

That parole board, which is part of the governor’s office, then conducts an investigation and makes a recommendation. The governor’s office declined to comment on the record about a possible commutation of Napoleon Brown’s sentence.

“Napoleon’s four children have grown up and his oldest daughter has graduated from Georgetown University,” Breed wrote, in her letter. “He has worked to be a positive presence in their lives, and he strives to one day be a productive member of society as well.”

Though Napoleon has reportedly used heroin while in prison, Breed told reporters jail was not the place to help him with his drug problem.

Yet while Breed’s mother, sister and cousin all wrote letters supporting Napoleon in September, Breed’s newest letter defending Napoleon read at the top, in all caps, “MAYOR LONDON N. BREED,” although her office maintains it was sent on personal letterhead, without the mayor’s stamp or seal.

Cordell said that’s where Breed erred.

“When I was a judge, and this is still the case for judges, we were not allowed to use our titles in ways that are inappropriate,” she said. If a police officer were to pull her over, for instance, Cordell said it would be improper to tell the officer she’s a judge to skirt a ticket.

Breed responded to that very same critique by reporters Wednesday, “Whether I said ‘I’m mayor’ or not, I’m mayor.” She again noted she wrote the letter on personal letterhead.

But Cordell said, “I don’t think that’s sufficient.” Instead, Breed should’ve written a sentence or paragraph clarifying that she was writing the letter as an individual, not as Mayor of San Francisco.

“It isn’t illegal, but it is unethical,” Cordell said. “Hopefully this is a learning experience.”

The perceived abuse of power may also have cost Breed political points with the more hard-nosed, law-and-order friendly elements of her base. Though none would speak on the record since they have publicly backed Breed, some used words like “repugnant,” “livid,” and even “Trumpian” to describe her perceived use of station to reduce her brother’s sentence.

Yet legal experts across the political spectrum willing to speak on the record agreed: Breed was not in the wrong for writing the letter in the first place, even if she erred in its crafting.

University of San Francisco political science professor James Lance Taylor made an interesting point: since letters requesting commutation of sentences are publicly available, it was likely anticipated by Breed that this would become public, which means this is above board.

“Putting it in writing is safe for her, as opposed to some back channel using her democratic positions to sway the governor,” he said.

John Burris, a Breed supporter and civil rights attorney, said he’s been angered to see the shortened sentences for those betraying the United States for President Donald Trump, while black and brown men and women suffer life-sentences for crimes far less heinous.

In that context, he said, Breed’s brother deserves mercy.

“He served (nearly) twenty years, it was a long time,” Burris said.

Perhaps the most surprising opinion I heard came from Peter Keane, a former Ethics Commissioner known for his fiery independence, who is also dean emeritus at Golden Gate University Law School.

Keane hasn’t been shy in calling out San Francisco politicians for their misdeeds, often with colorful language and at pitched decibels.

Yet when I called him, Keane told me Breed writing the letter “was neither unethical or immoral,” and becoming mayor doesn’t strip her of her moral duty to her family.

“She doesn’t give up her humanity,” he said.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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