Jamal Trulove stands with District Attorney candidate Chesa Boudin outside the Hall of Justice on Tuesday. Trulove spent seven years in jail on a wrongful conviction.

DA candidate Chesa Boudin proposes dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions

An overworked bureau tasked with probing police shootings currently reviews innocence claims

For more than six years, Jamal Trulove was locked up for a killing that he says he did not commit.

The former reality TV show contestant was convicted of murder in 2010 for the slaying of his friend at the Sunnydale housing projects. The case hinged on a witness who, his lawyers later showed, falsely identified him as the shooter.

But Trulove was not able to prove his innocence until 2015 when, after successfully appealing his conviction and facing a second round of charges in connection with the same killing, a jury acquitted him of murder.

Trulove has since settled a lawsuit with San Francisco for $13.1 million after another jury found that police had framed him.

On Tuesday, district attorney candidate Chesa Boudin used the case as an example of the wrongs that could be prevented if prosecutors had a unit focused solely on investigating “credible claims of innocence.”

Boudin, a deputy public defender and one of four candidates in the race, said he would establish a Wrongful Convictions Unit to investigate such claims before and after conviction. The claims would first be reviewed by a civilian Innocence Commission made up of a retired judge, defense attorney and others.

“If we want to keep San Francisco safe, it’s not just about sending more people to prison,” Boudin said at a press conference outside the Hall of Justice. “It’s about making sure that we don’t send the wrong people to prison in the first place.”

Trulove joined Boudin at the press conference.

“The hands of justice are very slow, but too many times we’re too quick to convict somebody,” Trulove said. “We got to change that.”

Boudin said the unit would be comprised of six attorneys who would not only investigate innocence claims but recommend policy to help prevent wrongful convictions. In terms of the Trulove case, he said he would hope that as district attorney he would not have filed the case in the first place.

By the time Trulove’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 2014, Boudin said “it was obvious that he had been wrongfully convicted” and that the case should not have been charged a second time. The case was built on key witness whose testimony was coerced by police and undermined by forensic evidence, he said.

“When cases like that, with that overwhelming evidence of innocence, go to trial, it not only wastes resources in the courtroom,” Boudin said. “It also means that the District Attorney’s Office is more committed to convictions than to justice and that’s got to change. It’s a culture. It’s an attitude.”

The District Attorney’s Office already has a unit that investigates claims of innocence under District Attorney George Gascon. But the task is just one of the duties of the recently created Independent Investigations Bureau, which is primarily charged with investigating police shootings.

IIB also investigates in-custody deaths and excessive force cases. The unit has six attorneys, six investigators and two paralegals.

But Max Szabo, a spokesperson for Gascon, said the unit has only been fully staffed since 2017. Since then, IIB has investigated dozens of shooting, in-custody death and excessive force cases.

“Of the seven cases that have been referred to us for conviction review, we have completed our review of five,” Szabo said.

The unit has not sought to overturn any convictions since it was created three years ago, Szabo said. Boudin is critical of that.

Boudin said his unit would include six attorneys. He would not seek funding for the positions from the Board of Supervisors, but rather hopes to use funds saved by not taking certain cases to trial in the first place, he said.

Attorney Alex Reisman, who represented Trulove on retrial, said he believes a Wrongful Conviction Unit could have helped exonerate his client.

“If there was a responsible unit in the District Attorney’s Office that defense lawyers could trust to do the right thing, then I would come and say ‘look here is the evidence I got in the case, I trust that you are going to give it a fair hearing and you’re not going to prosecute this case,’” Reisman said.

Boudin’s contenders in the November election have differing ideas for handling wrongful convictions.

Like Boudin, former Police Commission President Suzy Loftus also does not envision IIB continuing to investigate innocence claims if she were to win in November.

But for her, that task would likely fall under her proposed Civil Rights Unit, which would have a broad set of duties aimed at instituting “new policies and practices aimed at creating a more fair and just system.”

“Every office has the obligation to review these claims,” Loftus said. “What I’m committed to ensuring is that we have the infrastructure and the ability with academics and experts to identify how it happened and change our policies internally so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Candidate Leif Dautch, a deputy attorney general, said he would “focus on hiring ethical prosecutors and providing them the training and resources they need.”

“The DA’s Independant Investigations Bureau already investigates claims of innocence and reports directly to the DA, so I don’t think another layer of bureaucracy or a new unit is the answer,” Dautch said of Boudin’s proposal.

Nancy Tung, an Alameda County assistant district attorney and the fourth candidate in the race, was also critical of Boudin’s proposal.

“I don’t think you need to establish a unit in order to do the functions that the DA already has the power to do,” Tung said.

Tung said she was concerned that creating a new unit without seeking additional funding for new for new hires, as Boudin proposes, would put pressure on the prosecutors trying cases.

Tung said she believes IIB already has the capacity to investigate innocence claims.

Boudin’s press conference came on the same day that Loftus announced an unrelated policy position on fatal traffic collisions.

Loftus said as district attorney, her office would focus on reducing traffic deaths to zero and apply the same scrutiny to deaths caused by traffic violations as those caused by other violent means.

Her announcement was in part motivated by the death of 14-year-old Madlen Koteva, who was struck by a car while crossing the street near Lake Merced.

“Vision Zero has been something that I’ve focused on for many years but unfortunately a young woman who played soccer with my daughter was recently killed,” Loftus said. “It’s just a reminder to me that we are waiting for the very worst thing to happen and what we need to do is proactively lay out our plans.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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