A San Francisco judge blasted District Attorney Chesa Boudin Tuesday, harshly criticizing his office for putting the politics of reform before the “fundamentals of competent, professional prosecution.”
During an open court hearing in a gun case, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan harangued the District Attorney’s Office for being disorganized and suffering from “constant turnover.” While Chan, a former public defender, said attention should be paid to criminal justice reform, he faulted the office for focusing on broader issues while neglecting its basic legal duties.
“I cannot express in any more certain terms my disapproval of the manner in which the Office of the District Attorney is being managed,” Chan said during the hearing, according to court transcripts obtained by The Examiner. “Not to make light of the situation, but you can’t run an airline this way.”
“I hope that people in the District Attorney’s Office will shift their focus from some of the bigger issues and concern themselves with the unglamorous yet necessary work of public prosecution,” Chan continued. “It’s time to really take care of business at home instead of thinking about the national or state stage.”
The news comes at a turbulent time for Boudin, who is facing an attempted recall from critics who argue his leadership has made San Francisco less safe. A former public defender, he ascended to office in late 2019 on a platform of reducing mass incarceration and reforming the criminal justice system. Boudin has pointed to declining crime data to defend himself, but his impact on those trends is hard to measure given the pandemic and his short tenure.
Chan made his scathing comments in court after a deputy public defender, Martina Avalos, asked the judge to dismiss a 2019 gun case against her client, Kenan Shackelford. Her argument was that the District Attorney’s Office had failed to properly disclose DNA evidence to her office that could help her client defend himself. At issue are hundreds of pages of DNA evidence that prosecutors did not turn over for more than a year, according to Avalos.
“It is egregious when we’ve had a year and a pandemic for them to sit on this to turn it over and to fulfill their ethical obligations,” Avalos said in court, according to the transcripts. “And there is no excuse for management to say, ‘Oh, well, we’ve had different DA’s in here.’ They are all one Chesa Boudin. They are all one District Attorney.”
Chan did not end up dismissing the case based on the discovery issue, but allowed the District Attorney’s Office to drop the charges against Shackelford on its own. The DA’s office indicated in court that it planned to refile the case.
In a statement, Boudin spokesperson Rachel Marshall said the office was disappointed Chan “disparaged” its veteran prosecutors in public.
“It’s disappointing that the judge in this case decided to air his grievances in open court rather than through the existing communication channels,” Marshall said.
Marshall said Chan has since apologized to Boudin “for his statements and how they’ve been interpreted and regrets that that others have used this in furtherance of their own political goals.”
She went on to acknowledge that the office “inadvertently” did not disclose evidence on time, but disputed that the office sat on it. She said the office turned over the evidence the same day it was received, and argued that the evidence would not have helped acquit Shackelford.
“Nonetheless late discovery is unacceptable to us, and we are working to make sure it never happens again in this or any other case,” Marshall said. “We will continue to hold our lawyers to the highest ethical standards.”
Reached by phone, Avalos said the issue is part of a larger pattern of the District Attorney’s Office failing to properly turn over evidence that, in some cases, could help the accused defend themselves.
Just last week, prosecutors dismissed another case after Avalos raised a similar issue. The office allegedly sat on an email for more than a year that would have helped prove her client’s innocence. That prompted San Francisco Superior Court Judge Rita Lin to ask the office to retrain its staff on the issue, Avalos said.
Both cases involved extensive turnover. At least four assistant district attorneys worked the Shackelford case, while at least three handled the other case dismissed last week, according to Avalos.
“I don’t know if it has to do with turnover. I don’t know if it has to do with the pandemic creating a weird backlog (of court cases rushing to trial),” Avalos said. “But that’s no excuse in my book.”
Marshall said the office announced mandatory training for its prosecutors on the rules around disclosing evidence last Wednesday.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect an additional response from the District Attorney’s Office disputing the claim that the office sat on evidence.