The hardest time - Page 11

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

I'll sit here all day long waiting for [J.J.] to call as long as I can hear his voice," she tells me, pointing to the photo of her dead son, "
<\!s>'cause there's one over there I can't touch."

Like the parent of a long- disappeared child, she holds out an almost irrational hope that her son will one day emerge from exile. "My best day is when I go visit my kid. It's hard knowing my child may not be coming home soon, but he's gon' come home." Dolly is her son's rock; prayer, she tells me, is her anchor.

Slowly shaking his head, 34-year-old Bruce, a San Francisco parking lot attendant, raises his voice. "I understand that it's been 10 years outta his life, but it's been 10 years outta my life, too, 10 years outta my momma's life. Gone. Can never get back." Enraged, he blames the legal system for his brother's lot.

Bruce daydreams about the day his younger sibling is liberated: "He'd just call me and tell me what he'd wanna ride home in. Budget'll rent anything - a limo, an R.V., whatever. I want just to ride and talk with him - free. No doors closing behind us. The wind blowing on our little bald heads. Seeing the sun rise and the sun set."

On a mid- November morning, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest- ranking federal court in the western United States, will hear Tennison's plea. The judiciary hasn't smiled on Tennison's appeals: four courts have vetoed his bid for a new trial. The last rejection - by a federal district judge - came in March, leaving Adachi "gutted" and Tennison dejected.

The 9th Circuit's Mission Street courtrooms are housed in a stately $91 million granite edifice - the interior all marble and polished wood. Inside courtroom three, a pristine chamber worthy of a Tennessee Williams drama, hangs a tile mosaic depicting a freed slave, shackles snapped, approaching a white Lady Justice on bended knee. Beneath the image, on a walnut pew, sit Dolly and Bruce Tennison.

Dolly, dressed for business in a black pantsuit, clutches a form letter from the court: Adachi's ally, attorney Multhaup, will have 10 minutes to argue before the bench. Bruce throws an arm around his mother's shoulders. Eleven years in prison, and J.J. Tennison's fate - whether he will spend the rest of his days behind bars - rests on a 10-minute conversation and a legal brief. Multhaup's argument today is simple: the lower federal court has abandoned its constitutional duty by refusing to review new evidence in the case.

"We have a claim here that the petitioner is presenting new evidence of factual innocence," Multhaup tells the panel somewhat nervously.

"But the state courts reviewed this evidence," one judge replies.

"We had a preemptive strike by the [federal] District Court. The [S.F.] Superior Court that dismissed the case was in no way reasonable, in my opinion. And how many times does this happen in the criminal justice system? We have a person who's come forward and confessed to the crime."

The judges launch a fusillade of questions at Multhaup, at one point rattling him a bit. In 10 minutes the hearing is history.

Outside the courtroom the Tennisons, solemn faced, huddle with Multhaup. The attorney plays the optimist, while Diana Samuelson, the lawyer handling Goff's appeals, is less sanguine, telling me she thinks the circuit will kill the petition.

Prosecutor Butterworth would not speak to the Bay Guardian for this piece. He did, however, fax a one-page rebuttal to Tennison's charges, which reads in part: "This matter has been reviewed several times by the office of the District Attorney and the San Francisco Police Department based upon the allegations raised [in Tennison's ongoing appeal]. Nothing has been presented to date that would justify 're-opening' the investigation."

Grilling Tennison, I look for cracks in his story, telling slipups that might point to his guilt.

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