For the Guardian, and for all the attorneys involved, this was a once-in-a-lifetime case. In 1990, Hunters Point residents John J. Tennison and Antoine Goff were convicted of the 1989 gang-related murder of Roderick Shannon and later given sentences of 25 years to life.
Jeff Adachi, Tennison's attorney and now the city's elected public defender, was shocked by a verdict that was based almost solely on the constantly mutating testimony of two young girls, ages 12 and 14, who were joyriding in a stolen car, so he continued to gather evidence.
Eventually Adachi discovered that police inspectors Earl Sanders and Napoleon Hendrix and prosecutor George Butterworth had withheld key exculpatory evidence in the case, including damaging polygraph tests on the key witnesses, other eyewitness testimony fingering a man named Lovinsky Ricard, and even a taped confession in which Ricard admitted to the murder.
After writer A.C. Thompson and the Guardian published a cover story on the case (see "The Hardest Time," 1/17/01), it was picked up pro bono by attorneys Ethan Balogh and Elliot Peters of the high-powered firm Keker & Van Nest LLP, who unearthed even more evidence that the men had been framed, including a sworn statement by one of the two key prosecution witnesses recanting her testimony and saying city officials had coached her to lie.
In 2003, federal Judge Claudia Wilken agreed to hear Tennison's case and ruled that the prosecution team had illegally buried five different pieces of exculpatory evidence, any one of which "could have caused the result of Tennison's new trial motion and of his trial to have been different."
She ordered Tennison immediately freed after 13 years in prison. The district attorney at the time, Terrence Hallinan, not only agreed and decided not to retry Tennison, he proactively sought the release of Goff, who was freed a few weeks later.
"The only case you can make is that this was an intentional suppression of evidence that led to the conviction of any innocent man," Adachi told the Guardian in 2003 (see "Innocent!" 9/3/03). In the article, Hallinan said "I don't just believe this was an improper conviction; I believe Tennison is an innocent man."
But the pair has had a harder time winning compensation for their lost years. State judges denied their request, relying on the initial jury verdict, so they sued San Francisco in 2003, alleging that the prosecution team intentionally deprived them of their basic rights.
"What happened to these guys was a horrible miscarriage of justice," Balogh said.
The City Attorney's Office has aggressively fought the case, arguing that the prosecution team enjoys blanket immunity. The courts haven't agreed with that contention at any level, although the city spent the last two years taking it all the way to the Ninth Circuit, which largely exonerated Butterworth. The case is now set for a full trial in federal district court in September.
"They are unwilling to admit they made a mistake," Elliot said. "They are doing everything not to face up to their responsibility to these two guys."
The lawyers said both Herrera and District Attorney Kamala Harris had an obligation to look into what happened in these cases, to punish official wrongdoing, and to try to bring the actual murderer to justice.