The hardest time - Page 12

After a decade in lockup, J.J. Tennison still maintains his innocence - and his lawyer is still fighting for him
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His account of the night in question - that he was sleeping at a friend's house, then picking up pals from the bowling alley - corresponds to what he told detectives 11 years ago as they ran the good cop-<\d>bad cop routine.

Why would Fauolo and Maluina lie and put away an innocent man, I ask.

"Over the years I've asked myself the same question and still haven't come up with an answer," he tells me. But "right out the gate it was no doubt in my mind that the homicide inspectors, the D.A., or somebody put 'em up to this, because I knew they were pointing out the wrong person. As for [Goff], at the time I wasn't sure, but I was definitely sure that they had the wrong person when they pointed out me.

"I've said it from day one: I'm not a murderer. I was a drug dealer at the time. It wasn't nothing to be proud of, or ashamed of. I was locked up for it twice. I did my time.

"In a time when you want people to believe in the justice system and that the system works, I'm a perfect example that the system is screwed up - from the top to the bottom. And as of right now I can't see it no other way. Everything is in black and white."

Tennison is relaxed, coming off like a man who can't be bothered to front, as I put him on trial all over again. Maybe he's guilty as hell; maybe he snuffed out Shannon's young life. But if so, his body language and speech patterns offer no subtle indications of that. When Tennison was picked up by the SFPD, Hendrix and Sanders interrogated him for hours, without a lawyer, and his explanation of the crucial hours never wavered. I wonder if something in his 17-year-old demeanor spelled out "executioner" to the homicide detectives.

I put the question to Sanders. "I worked over 500 murder cases," the veteran lawman responds. "I've talked to a lot of killers in my day, and if I had any indication that he was innocent, I would've let him go."

Uncomfortable playing Solomon, I run Tennison's story by an old ex-con who spent 25 years in some of the state's most notorious lockups. "Every guy inside will tell you he's innocent," I tell him. "And every bleeding-heart journo wants to believe him."

"Yeah, but you know, after 10 years or so inside, it becomes really hard to lie," the former prisoner responds. "You just get so tired, so worn down, it's impossible to keep up a lie."

Never mind the fact that Tennison passed a polygraph test.

The 9th Circuit's ruling arrives in Adachi's mailbox Dec. 15. He reads through the five-page decision with his heart in his throat. The key information comes in the last two paragraphs: "Tennison's conviction appears to rest largely on the testimony [of two little girls]. Tennison's new evidence, taken together, calls into question the reliability of these eyewitness identifications."

And then, two sentences later: victory. The judges are overturning the ruling of the lower court, instructing federal judge Claudia Wilken to mount a "thorough review" of Tennison's situation.

It doesn't mean the inmate is going home tomorrow, nor even that he'll necessarily get a new trial, but the decision does require Wilken to examine the sworn statements of Ricard and Witness X and to determine whether a retrial should be ordered.

Adachi is elated. Dolly Tennison seems relieved, as if she can finally start breathing again. Bruce Tennison feels like "Christmas came early."

An upbeat John J. Tennison phones me. "I finally had three judges look over the case and see what should've been saw a long time ago."

Grinning today, the prisoner has already begun steeling himself for rejection at the next round. "I play a lot of basketball to take my mind off it. The [courts] are playing God. My life is in other people's hands, and there's nothing I can physically do. Nothing."

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