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Ray Jimmerson had been trying to get out of jail for a year. For a year, he couldn’t do it. But a month ago he cut a deal over the objections of his lawyer, who wanted out of the case because he felt the deal would put his client in danger. Over the weekend Jimmerson, 25, was killed, the victim of an execution-style shooting on Haight Street in a city he was warned to stay away from. No one knows for sure whether Jimmerson’s shooting early Sunday is linked to his decision to testify against the San Francisco street gang known as “Big Block.” But his death hit like a thunderbolt among the lawyers working a case that, with more than two dozen defendants, is one of the Northern District’s biggest ongoing criminal prosecutions. The killing may sink prosecutors’ efforts to find people willing to testify for the government, and it could make U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel reluctant to turn over the names of informants to the defense. “It’s very distressing,” said Berkeley solo Suzanne Luban, who represents a minor figure in the case. “Nobody deserves to have that happen to them. It hit me like a ton of bricks.” In the aftermath, it’s hard to say whether Jimmerson’s death could have been prevented. But the one thing that is clear is that the one person who could have done the most to protect him — Jimmerson himself — didn’t do it. Jimmerson probably could have entered the witness protection program but he declined. After he was released to his East Bay home, he was warned to stay out of San Francisco, said his lawyer. A witness cannot be forced into protective custody. Acting Northern District U.S. Marshal Thomas Klenieski said strict conditions are attached to offers of witness protection, and if the witness declines to cooperate, the marshals office won’t take the case. Jimmerson also had many friends and family in San Francisco, so the pull may have been irresistible. Jimmerson’s attorney, solo Brian Berson, lays the blame, in part, on the system. “This is the primary, but not the only, reason why I never encourage my clients to cooperate,” said Berson, who was worried about the consequences of Jimmerson’s deal with the government. “I tried to get out of the case, that’s how badly I felt about this,” Berson said. The lawyer’s request was refused. Berson said unless there’s an actual conflict, it’s difficult for lawyers appointed by the court to back out of a case. The episode has made him think about refusing to take appointed cases. “I may now take that route,” Berson said, “because I never want to be put in that position again.” He also blames rigid sentencing guidelines and mandatory sentences, which offer limited avenues for sentence reductions. Other than being cleared of the charges, the only way for a defendant to significantly reduce his sentence is to cooperate with the government. “That’s the system’s fault,” Berson said. Jerrold Ladar, a former federal prosecutor who, as a defense attorney, participated in a case where a witness was murdered, said the effects are long lasting. Defendants don’t soon forget a witness killing, whether it happened in their case or not. “It causes great trouble with cases for years,” Ladar said. Two calls to the San Francisco police department about the investigation were not returned, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday that police consider 18-year-old Dennis Cyrus the prime suspect. Cyrus is already a fugitive from charges that he killed another man. Nor is it certain that the killing is related to the Big Block case. Jimmerson was reportedly testifying in a separate case, and he has a history of violent activity. In 2000, he spent time in the hospital after being shot five times. The U.S. attorney’s office will not comment on Jimmerson’s killing, nor whether he agreed to testify. But defense lawyers said it was not a secret. Berson said it is difficult to hide, especially when a jailed defendant is suddenly freed. “Word spreads like wildfire,” Berson said. And once word gets out, there’s no telling how people will react. “It’s what I always warn my clients about,” said Edward Swanson, of Swanson & McNamara, who represents a client in the case. “No matter what the government says, you can’t always be sure you’re going to be safe.” It is also difficult to fully inform a client on what the potential dangers are, especially during the early stages of a case. “We know an infinitesimally small amount in terms of what the government knows,” Luban said. “People have a right to exercise their own judgment,” Luban said. “Maybe he used poor judgment [in going to San Francisco]. Maybe he thought he was immortal.”

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