How many suspects did SF cops frame?

Pub date December 21, 2010

EDITORIAL The job of a district attorney is bringing criminals to justice; everybody knows that. But it’s also the job of the city’s top law enforcement agent to make sure the innocent are protected — and that’s a part that many DAs ignore.

There’s considerable evidence that the San Francisco police have framed suspects, set up evidence, and illegally manipulated the legal system to put the wrong people behind bars. Repeatedly. That’s a crisis that requires active intervention from the District Attorney’s Office — and since Kamala Harris is on her way out the door, it has to be a top priority for her successor.

The latest example: Superior Court Judge Marla Miller ruled Dec. 14 that Caramad Conley was denied his constitutional rights and convicted of murder after San Francisco cops allowed a paid witness to lie on the stand.

Miller concluded that homicide inspector Earl Sanders, who later became police chief and is now retired on a nice pension, knew that witness Clifford Polk was lying and made no effort to correct it.

That’s not the first time Sanders has been tied to an improper conviction. John Tennyson and Antoine Goff were sentenced to 25 years to life in 1990 — and spent 13 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They were convicted after Sanders, and his then-partner Napoleon Hendrix, failed to inform the defense about key evidence.

Tennison and Goff would still be behind bars — except that Tennison’s brother read a Guardian story about the case and put a copy on the windshield of every car in the parking lot where he worked. And some of the people who parked there were lawyers for the top-flight criminal defense firm of Keker & Van Nest LLP.

The lawyers helped Jeff Adachi, then a deputy public defender, convince a federal judge that Tennison and Goff were wrongly convicted, and the two left prison in 2003. The case has now cost the San Francisco taxpayers $7.5 million.

The evidence that may soon free Conley came to light during the Tennison/Goff case — and it looks an awful lot like there’s a pattern here. Sanders and Hendrix (who died of cancer in 2009) worked some 500 homicide cases — and it’s unlikely that these two are isolated instances.

Conley has a shot at leaving prison after 18 years only because lawyers working on another case stumbled on old files, some of them literally buried under debris in a police warehouse. We have to wonder: how many other innocent people are rotting away (at considerable cost to the state) because SF cops helped frame them? And how many killers are still wandering the streets because homicide inspectors and prosecutors took the easy way out and manufactured or suppressed evidence against the first obvious suspect — and sent away the wrong person?

When Harris leaves office next month, a new district attorney will take over responsibility for this mess. It’s not possible, given the limited resources of the department, to go back and review every single case that Sanders and Hendrix worked. But the Conley case involved a key witness who was paid by the cops — that is, an informant getting public money. It’s perfectly legal to pay informants — as long as defense lawyers know that a witness was on the tab at the time of trial. But that didn’t happen in Conley’s case — and there may be many others.

Harris’ successor will have to take on the problems of the crime lab mess and continue to review cases that may be tainted by bad forensic techniques. But he or she needs to assign someone to go back over all of the cases in which Sanders and Hendrix used paid informants and see if any of those convictions need to be reviewed.

In the meantime, Chief George Gascón ought to take the opportunity to review police policies for paying snitches who then take the stand in court. There’s abundant evidence that the current system has serious problems.