The hardest time - Page 4

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

The other girl, Maluina said, had filled her in on the details of the crime, instructing her to single out the "biggest guy" in the mug shot lineup. (Tennison at that point carried about 200 pounds on his roughly five-foot-nine frame.) "The only reason I picked out J.J.'s picture is because Masina told me to," she pleaded.

His case crumbling rapidly, Hendrix phoned Fauolo - who had moved to Samoa - and put Maluina on the line. By the time the two friends were finished talking, the girl's story had morphed once again: Actually, she was there, Maluina informed the men.

When the jury heard the case in October 1990, Maluina was steadfast: she'd seen the crime and could pinpoint Goff as the gunman and Tennison as an accomplice. Fear had driven her testimony through its chameleonic changes, she told the court. She hadn't wanted to be busted for the stolen car, so she'd left it out of her story. She'd recanted her testimony and denied witnessing the crime because she'd feared violent retribution.

Like Tennison's supposed second car, Fauolo and Maluina's boosted sedan was never found; either police had failed to track down the hot car, or perhaps it never existed.

The jury, which took three days to arrive at a guilty verdict, believed Maluina and Fauolo.

I pass through many locked steel doors to reach the home of J.J. Tennison.

At the gates of Mule Creek State Prison, two and a half hours northeast of San Francisco in Amador County, I empty my pockets and stand in my socks. A female prison guard, a middle-aged white woman with a gravity- defying shock of bottle blond hair, scopes the insides of my shoes for contraband. "Bleep-bleep-bleep," shrieks the metal detector as a Latino mom, grade-school kids in tow, passes through. It's her underwire bra. The guards have her take it off.

I walk through the metal detector without incident. Ahead of me a 12-foot-tall chain-link door slides open. The moment I step through, it shuts behind me, locking me inside of a claustrophobic six-by-eight-foot cage equipped with two security cameras. The cage door pops open, and I walk out into a small courtyard hemmed in by razor wire. I stride across a heat-scorched lawn into another squat cinder-block building.

Here a stoic correctional officer in a green jumpsuit checks me over before unbolting the thick door to the cafeteria- like visiting room.

Tennison, a bulky black man with a freshly shaved head and a bright smile that seems out of place in this drab universe, greets me warmly. He speaks quietly but forcefully, as if this rare face-to-face encounter with the outside world could end at any moment, a soft drawl rounding off the edges of his words. Now 29, he is hefty but not overweight, childhood fat shed for muscle, his complexion coffee- colored, eyes penetrating.

I've journeyed here with Adachi, and a palpable tension hangs in the air when the lawyer relates recent developments in the case. The two men lock eyes; sweat beads on Tennison's tall forehead. Adachi has little good news. "I know it doesn't seem like we're doing shit, 'cause you're still in here," he says.

The prisoner responds in a near whisper: "It just gets harder and harder every day."

The youngest of four boys, Tennison grew up "on the hill," as they say in Hunters Point, on Northridge Street, splitting time between his divorced parents, Dolly Tennison, a shoe salesperson, and John Tennison Sr., a sheet- metal worker at the shipyard. The tough, largely African American neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco comprised his entire childhood world.

At Sir Francis Drake elementary, Tennison recalls, "I was pretty much like any other kid going there: did the work, didn't like it, played sports." Physically chunky from an early age, Tennison loved athletics - "any kind of sports" - but football was his game; that is, when he could keep out of trouble.

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