Finally, justice

Pub date June 10, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

It’s not every day a journalist helps overturn life sentences and win multimillion dollar settlements for the aggrieved parties. But that’s exactly what happened last week when San Francisco reportedly agreed to pay $4.5 million to John Tennison, who spent 13 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

Tennison and his alleged accomplice, Antoine Goff, who were sentenced to life for the execution of Roderick "Cooley" Shannon in 1989, were still behind bars when former Guardian reporter A.C. Thompson dug into their case in 2001.

At the time police linked Shannon’s murder to a war between hoodsters in Visitation Valley and Hunter’s Point over control of the drug trade. Tennison and Goff both had alibis. As Thompson revealed ("The Hardest Time," 01/17/01), witnesses were coached to lie that the pair had committed the murder. In addition, defense lawyers weren’t told about witnesses who said the men were innocent or that a man named Lovinsky Ricard confessed to the crime.

When the Guardian published "The Hardest Time" as a cover story in 2001, Tennison’s brother, who worked in a parking lot near the Keker & Van Nest law office, put copies on the windshield of every car hoping lawyers would read it and offer to help. That’s what happened.

Two of the Keker firm’s associates, Ethan Balogh and Elliot Peters, picked up the case and helped SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi and a team of lawyers win Tennison and Goff’s freedom, working for three years pro bono.

Although it’s a triumph that the city agreed to compensate Tennison (a similar claim by Goff is pending), Shannon’s killer is still at large. In addition, former SF Police Chief Earl Sanders, detective Napoleon Hendrix, and prosecutor George Butterworth walked away without so much as a reprimand, even though Thompson ("The Chief’s other legal problem," 03/05/03) suggested they may have unethically helped put Tennison and Goff behind bars.

In 2003, when Tennison’s sentence was overturned, Thompson wrote: "After my journalistic probe, I felt fairly certain that a terrible injustice had been done, that Tennison and Goff had not killed Shannon, that police and prosecutors had engaged in dubious behavior, and that the real executioner was walking the streets. Still, I never expected the two men to go free. The criminal justice system is stacked against convicts who assert their innocence."