The hardest time - Page 6

After a decade in lockup, J.J. Tennison still maintains his innocence - and his lawyer is still fighting for him
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I pray and pray and pray that nothing happens to my mother while I'm gone." From his neck hangs a gold cross, jewelry that once belonged to Mike.

Four or five times a week Tennison's mind flashes back to the moment he heard the guilty verdict. "I was in total shock, disbelief," he recounts softly. "My whole body went numb. I couldn't hear for maybe 30 seconds. Couldn't speak for maybe another 30 seconds. Out-of-body experience - I just couldn't believe it.

"As long as it's been, I can remember that day right now as we speak. At times when I'm just sitting back thinking to myself, I remember just hearing 'guilty.' And sometimes I think, what if it was the other way around?"

Every single day of the past decade has "basically been the same. Each step ain't getting no easier. It's basically the same routine. First thang when I wake: damn I'm still here. I put it in my mind how I'm gonna deal with this day without interrupting anybody's program, keep anybody from interrupting my program. Physically it's the same thang. But mentally it's getting tougher and tougher."

Like most of this town's city-paid defense lawyers, Adachi, a Sacramento native, doesn't conform to the popular, television- inspired conception of a public defender. He doesn't show up for court in rumpled, coffee- stained suits; isn't perpetually outgunned by sharp- witted prosecutors; hasn't been ground down to a state of indifference.

The son of an auto mechanic and a medical lab technician, Adachi is a true nonbeliever, questioning whether a person of color can ever find justice in an American courtroom.

A handsome, slickly dressed man with greased-back hair and a sleek sable Mercedes, he possesses a genius for ripping apart prosecution testimony. Watching him at work - he's a pit bull in the courtroom - I get the sense that there is nothing in the world Adachi likes more than practicing law.

These days he takes only the toughest cases. He recently represented Lam Choi, the man indicted for offing a Tenderloin mob boss in 1996 in a high- profile, Mafia- style rubout. He is the lawyer for Jehad Baqleh, the cabbie accused of raping and killing 24-year-old Julie Day. If a murder hits the front pages, chances are Adachi will work it, and much of the time his clients go free. Second in command in the office, he has already filed papers to run for the top slot when current chief Jeff Brown steps down in 2002, and many of his colleagues think he's a natural choice for the job.

But back in 1989, Adachi was a relative newjack, with just three years under his belt as a city-paid defender. The Tennison- Goff trial was the first murder case he worked from start to finish.

Believing the prosecution had a flimsy case, the young attorney didn't mount a major- league, call-up- every- witness-you-can-find defense. "That's the only thing I regret: not putting on more of a case. We really didn't think it was necessary because what the girls said made no sense. It was chock-full of contradictions."

Goff's trial attorney, Barry Melton agrees. "We never really believed they had enough of a case to convict these kids," recounts Melton, now top public defender in Yolo County. "After all, they were trying to hang these guys on the words of a 14-year-old car thief."

Both defendants had alibis, but both lawyers were loath to put the exonerating figures - black adolescent thugsters - on the stand, knowing they'd play badly to the jury. Tennison, for his part, contended that during the time in question he'd been picking up friends from the Broadmoor bowling alley. Adachi was scared to even admit to the jury that his client had left the house on the night of the killing.

"If they didn't think these two kids were in a gang, when they saw all the alibi kids, they definitely would've," Melton explains. "It's been my experience that half the time people can't remember what they were doing."

The jury ruling struck the legal team like an industrial- strength electrical shock. "Oh ...

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