SF police officers' pasts jeopardize cases

May 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
San Francisco's top prosecutor, District Attorney Kamala Harris, is fighting back against accusations from the public defender, Jeff Adachi. He says the district attorney's office failed to follow the law when it comes to disclosing the criminal or misconduct backgrounds of police officers who testify in court.

The rhetoric is heating up between the district attorney and the public defender on this issue, so much so that one accused the other of playing politics with public safety.

"This is either a systematic failure which would either suggest gross malfeasance or unethical behavior on the part of both departments," Adachi said in a hastily called news conference on Tuesday morning. "If this evidence is true, it is explosive."

That's how Adachi described the latest scandal to rock the city's criminal justice system. At issue is the use of witness testimony from as many as 80 San Francisco police officers with criminal convictions or other misconduct in their personnel files.

"In many of these cases, the credibility of the police officer is key," said Adachi.

ABC7's legal analyst Dean Johnson explains, under the Constitution, defendants in criminal cases are entitled to know about the witnesses' credibility, if they've ever been convicted of moral turpitude or other felony crimes.

"Apparently, when the witnesses are police officers, they've been given a special privilege and a lot of people may have been convicted without knowing that information," said Johnson.

Adachi believes hundreds of criminal convictions could be in jeopardy.

"The suggestion that as many as 10,000 cases could be affected is wild speculation and at this point we should not begin playing games with the public and inciting fear," said Harris.

"We're talking about a situation which goes far beyond what we've seen already with Ms. Madden at the crime lab," said Adachi.

More than 600 narcotics cases have been dismissed after it was revealed that retired criminalist Deborah Madden stole cocaine evidence from the drug lab.

Adachi claims his office was never told of the drug theft or of Madden's prior domestic violence conviction.

Police Chief George Gascon and the district attorney promise better communication going forward.

"One of the reasons why I'm here is because I was brought here was to reform this police department," said Gascon.

"Here's the bottom line. This may require some petitions for review, this process by the defense, but it will not result in the automatic release of anyone," said Harris.

If there's one thing the district attorney and the public defender agree on, it's that they do not expect anyone will be released from jail immediately because of this issue. If a defendant successfully appeals a case, it would likely result in a new trial.

Gascon has called a news conference on Wednesday morning to discuss these developments. At that time, he will also release the results of a state attorney general's investigation of the San Francisco Crime Lab's section that tests DNA and weapons.

The results of the its investigation into the drug testing section of the lab were already made public several weeks ago. The investigation was requested by Chief Gascon.


Load Comments