Second witness under DA’s protection shot to death

In what District Attorney Kamala Harris called an “absolute tragedy and outrage,” a second witness under her office’s protection was murdered after returning to San Francisco.

Justin Lee, 40, was in the witness protection program for less than one month before deciding to return to the Mission district Monday night, where he was chased and shot several times while on the ground near 26th and Mission streets.

Lee recently testified against Sean Robinson, who allegedly tried to kill him in May 2005. After receiving threats for his testimony, the district attorney’s office said they sent him to a “safe and trusted” location.

It’s the second time one of the district attorney’s witnesses was gunned down for testifying. Harris said both cases occurred because the witness returned to San Francisco.

In May 2006, Terrell Rollins, 22, was fatally shot in the head by three masked men in front of an auto repair store on 269 Bayview Blvd.

Rollins testified against Daniel Dennard and Deonte Bennett, who allegedly shot and killed a man in 2005.

Rollins was living in nearby Millbrae as part of the witness protection program, and officials urged him not to return to The City, but he did so anyway. Dennard and Bennett were in jail at the time of Rollins’ slaying, but went free when no witnesses could testify at the trial.

Rollins testified in a secret grand jury and when he was murdered his testimony could not be used against the accused because the defense attorney was not initially allowed to cross-examine him during the grand jury testimony.

But in Robinson’s attempted murder trial, prosecutors may still be able to use Lee’s testimony because he was cross-examined during a preliminary hearing. The District Attorney’s Office said they will evaluate the status of the case to determine how to proceed. A date-setting hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.

Rollins’ killing led to several changes. Harris helped pass state legislation in October that doubled funding for the state’s witness-protection plan. The bill also doubled the length of time witnesses could receive help from the government finding new jobs, doctors, schools, and homes in their new location.

Also in October, Harris tripled the number of sworn investigators assigned to the San Francisco’s Witness Relocation and Support Program; staffed the program with veteran law enforcement officers, including former Department of Justice special agents; and convened San Francisco’s first citywide summit on witness intimidation.

bbegin@examiner.com  

Examiner Staff Writer Will Reisman contributed to this report.

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