Crime lab issues lead murderer to seek new trial

Lawyers for a former San Francisco gang member convicted of three murders told a federal judge Tuesday they will ask for a new trial on the grounds that some evidence from the case might have be thrown into doubt by the city's ongoing crime lab scandal.

“We'll have a motion that will clearly deal with laboratory science issues,” defense attorney John Philipsborn told U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco.

Chesney scheduled a Nov. 19 hearing on the motion in the case of former Page Street Gang member Dennis Cyrus, 26. She also tentatively scheduled Cyrus' sentencing for that date, subject to whether she grants the bid for a new trial.

A jury in Chesney's court convicted Cyrus last year of 16 federal crimes, including racketeering conspiracy, cocaine conspiracy and possession and three gang-related murders committed in 2002.

Prosecutors said the gang used violence, intimidation and murder to protect its turf in the Western Addition neighborhood for selling crack cocaine and other drugs.

The murder convictions made Cyrus eligible for a rare federal death penalty, but the jury opted instead for a sentence of life in prison without possibility of release.

Cyrus' defense attorneys have said in court filings that some of his convictions could be undermined by recently disclosed problems with the drug analysis unit of the San Francisco police crime laboratory and former technician Deborah Madden.

Madden is suspected of stealing small amounts of cocaine from the facility, although she has not been criminally charged with doing so, and also allegedly told investigators there was “sloppy work” done at the drug unit in general.

The police laboratory analyzed the cocaine used in Cyrus' federal case, and Madden was one of seven present and former lab technicians who testified.

Federal prosecutors have now given Cyrus' lawyers 4,200 pages of material about the laboratory, which they obtained from San Francisco police after the trial, for use in preparing the new trial motion.

On Tuesday, Chesney turned down a bid by defense attorneys to require federal authorities to look even further into problems with the laboratory.

“At this point, it appears to me that the government has done all it's required to do,” she said.

But, the judge added, “This entire situation was not something created by the defense. It's a legitimate inquiry on their part as to how these disclosures have affected the validity of the convictions.” 

Prosecutors have claimed in filings that the drug unit issues “cast no doubt on any of Cyrus's multiple federal convictions.”

They have said the drug analysts' testimony was corroborated by trial witnesses who testified the Page Street gang sold crack cocaine daily in amounts far greater than the amount seized and tested by San Francisco police.

Prosecutors have also noted that Cyrus was convicted of one of the murders, of government informant Ray Jimmerson, both as a racketeering-related killing and in a separate count as the slaying of a protected federal witness. That separate count did not hinge on any drug evidence.

Prosecutors contend, and Chesney has agreed, that she is required by federal law to sentence him to life in prison without possibility of release if she turns down the motion for a new trial.

But Philipsborn said outside of court Tuesday that the defense attorneys might argue on appeal that federal law allows for a life sentence with the possibility of release.

There is currently no parole in the federal criminal system, but release from a sentence is allowed under some circumstance.

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