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San Francisco DA, Police Chief Downplay Report of Evidence Withheld on Police MisconductSan Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and Police Chief George Gascon on Tuesday downplayed a news report that evidence of dozens of police officers' convictions and misconduct has routinely been withheld from defense attorneys. Earlier in the day, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the impact on cases could be "explosive," adding: "I have a hard time believing that 120 attorneys who work at the district attorney's office would not have run a criminal conviction check" on police witnesses.
The Recorder2010-05-06 12:00:00 AM
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and Police Chief George Gascon on Tuesday downplayed a news report that evidence of dozens of police officers' misconduct and convictions has routinely been withheld from defense attorneys.
Gascon said he discovered soon after he became chief last August that the police department doesn't have a policy governing the screening of police witnesses and handing over any resulting Brady evidence to the defense. Around that time, he added, he initiated discussions with the DA's office on the lack of a policy.
In a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gascon and Harris said they didn't know yet how many officers could be involved. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday morning that police withheld and prosecutors failed to disclose about 80 officers' criminal histories or misconduct records when they testified at trial.
The need for a Brady policy became "pressing," Gascon said, after an evidence-tampering scandal at San Francisco's crime lab came to light in March.
The former criminalist at the center of that scandal had a 2008 misdemeanor domestic violence conviction in San Mateo County. The public defender's office said it was never informed of the conviction, though Deborah Madden regularly testified at trial. The district attorney's office has also said it was unaware of the conviction until the police informed prosecutors of it when the scandal broke in early March, though Madden's police department supervisor testified as a character witness at her trial.
The district attorney expressed confidence that she and the police chief can work together to resolve the situation.
"I am absolutely certain that we will get to a point in the near future of completely fixing this issue, which is the transfer of information from the department to my office and then appropriately making sure that all others who are entitled to this information receive it," Harris said at the press conference.
Earlier in the day, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the impact on cases could be "explosive."
This problem could be far-reaching, Adachi said at his own press conference, and he placed the blame squarely on Harris.
"I have a hard time believing that 120 attorneys who work at the district attorney's office would not have run a criminal conviction check [on police witnesses] ," Adachi said.
"This is either a systematic failure, which would suggest gross malfeasance, or unethical behavior if they knew these police witnesses had prior convictions and no action was taken."
Harris discounted Adachi's reaction as hyperbole.
"I think it's irresponsible to incite fear, especially when there is no credible information about the number of officers that are involved or the number of cases that are involved at this point," she said.
She also said that, in running police witnesses' rap sheets, the police department and the district attorney's office have to follow state Constitution and government code sections that protect police officers' privacy.
In recent hearings on motions to compel discovery in cases tied to the crime lab scandal, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo has pressed the district attorney's office on whether it has a procedure or policy in place for screening police witnesses and handing over any resulting Brady material.
The DA's office is expected to answer more of her questions on that topic at a discovery hearing Tuesday.
The Chronicle reported that Chief Assistant District Attorney Russell Giuntini wrote a letter to Gascon saying a police department lawyer had revealed April 6 that there were more than 30 officers with criminal histories that would have to be disclosed. Adachi said Tuesday that if the DA's office has known about convictions for several weeks, it could spell trouble for the office at Massullo's hearing.
"They're going to have to have some explaining to do," he said. "Because by withholding this information from a judge that was looking into the whole issue of why criminal convictions were not provided from the police to the district attorney's office -- they're hiding the ball, and that's something most judges don't look too kindly on."