The hardest time

After a decade in lockup, J.J. Tennison still maintains his innocence - and his lawyer is still fighting for him

Here are the few undisputed facts in the slaying of Roderick "Cooly" Shannon: in the quiet early-morning hours of Aug. 19, 1989, Shannon piloted his mother's green sedan past the modest, boxy houses of their Visitacion Valley neighborhood. As Shannon coasted along, a posse of young men piled into four cars and gave chase, careening after him through the darkened streets. At the intersection of Delta Street and Visitacion Avenue, the hunted 18-year-old plowed up on the sidewalk, crashed into a chain-link fence, and fled on foot. He ran a couple of blocks, pounding into the parking lot of Super Fair, a graffiti- covered liquor- and- groceries joint. The mob - about 12 deep - grabbed him as he tried to scale the fence between the store and the house next door.

They pummeled Shannon. Then one of the thugs executed him with shotgun blasts to the shoulder and head.

Police linked Shannon's murder to a raging war between hood-sters from Vis Valley and Hunters Point. Young people - mostly African American - in the two housing project-heavy districts were waging a bloody battle for control of the drug trade, a battle that had escalated into a string of life-for-life revenge killings.

Homicide cops figured Shannon's execution was a retaliatory hit for the "Cheap Charlie" slayings six months earlier. "Cheap" Charlie Hughes was a player in the Hunters Point drug business who'd been gunned down on his home turf at the intersection of Newcomb Avenue and Mendell Street in a massive firefight. The attack, thought at the time to be the handiwork of gangsters from Sunnydale public housing, also took the life of Roshawn Johnson and sent nine others to the hospital with gunshot wounds. Shannon's killers, the San Francisco Police Department contended, either thought he had a role in the Cheap Charlie shoot-up or simply wanted to take a Sunnydale homeboy out of the game.

In the fall of 1990 two young men were locked up for Shannon's murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in the state penitentiary.

Both men had alibis, and 10 years later both maintain their innocence. There are a lot of reasons to believe them.

The prosecution's case relied almost completely on the shaky, ever changing testimony of a pair of adolescent car thieves. A new eyewitness says the convicted men had no part in the killing. And in a plot twist straight out of Hollywood, another person has confessed to the crime.

Despite a pile of exonerating evidence, the prisoners remain caged. But one of them - a spiritual, soft- spoken man named John J. Tennison - has an unusually passionate, stubborn lawyer on his side. Jeff Adachi, a sharp-dressed idealist known for winning tough cases, has spent 11 long years fighting for Tennison's freedom - and isn't about to give up. This is the story of the lifer and the lawyer who wouldn't quit.

The 12-gauge shotgun that took Shannon's life was never found. Immediately after his death, homicide detectives Napoleon Hendrix and Prentice "Earl" Sanders spent three fruitless days scouring the city for clues. The killers left little meaningful evidence at the murder scene - no fingerprints, no footprints, no blood, no DNA.

Then a 12-year-old Samoan girl named Masina Fauolo called, offering eyewitness information. She said nothing about anybody named Tennison. But after months of talking to the inspectors, Fauolo, a pal of the victim who lived a few blocks from the crime scene in subsidized housing, identified Tennison as a key player in the murder. "Fat J.J.," she said, held Shannon, while a man named Anton Goff blew him away. A few months later Fauolo's friend Pauline Maluina, then 14, chimed in with a corroborating narrative.

Besides Fauolo and Maluina, no one would admit to having seen the killing.

During the autumn of 1989, propelled by the testimony of the two girls, police rounded up Tennison and Goff and hit them with first- degree murder charges.

Enter Adachi, a tough- talking young public defender.

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