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Defense lawyers got their first look at the case against San Francisco Police Chief Earl Sanders and nine other officers Tuesday, and their response was unanimous: that’s it? “Not much,” said Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley partner James Lassart, when asked what he thought of the indictment unveiled in Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin’s courtroom. The arraignment of the 10 SFPD officers was brief but drama-packed. It also offered insight into the early stages of trial strategy in a case that has rocked the city. “It’s unconscionable that certain employment decisions that were made during the course of many decisions would form the basis of a conspiracy charge,” said Oakland attorney John Burris, who represents Sanders. That sentiment — that most of the indictment is essentially an exercise in micro-managing personnel decisions — was echoed by several defense lawyers. “It’s a very weak legal document. It seems to me that it doesn’t charge a crime. It really amounts to a performance critique,” said solo Arthur Wachtel, who represents Lt. Edmond Cota. In the indictment, prosecutors allege that higher-ups obstructed justice by, among other things, transferring Lt. Joe Dutto, the police investigator who was probing the initial police response to a late-night street fight involving three off-duty officers. James Patrick Collins, the solo representing Alex Fagan Jr., offered additional clues to the defense strategy. Collins said that Fagan and the other two officers involved in the fight need time to prepare their defense and do not want to go to trial immediately. Of the two alleged victims involved in the fight outside the Blue Light bar, Collins said one has a criminal record and the other has a “very bad reputation within the community.” That brought prosecutor Albert Murray to his feet, calling Collins’ comments inappropriate. In another sign that the lawyers are acutely aware of the media throng gathered, defense attorney Bill Fazio had Tsenin read the specific acts alleged in the conspiracy charges aloud. He later said he wanted everybody to hear how weak they were. “We’re going to win this case. We’re going to win in court or they’re going to kick it out,” said Fazio, who represents Capt. Greg Corrales. For now, only the three officers involved in the fight are headed for a separate trial — the others indicated they wouldn’t waive their right to a speedy trial — but that could change. More will be known once a transcript of the grand jury proceedings is made available to the defense, expected to come later this week. Right now, said Lassart, who represents Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr., father of one of the accused brawlers, “It’s just the outside. We’ll see the inside.” Things were chaotic outside Department 22 prior to the hearing. An overflow crowd clogged the hallway, while a phalanx of television reporters waited for any sign of the officers. San Francisco police pushed back the crowd and opened a lane. The defendants and supporters from the department entered, stern and single file, as flashbulbs popped in their faces. Sanders led the way in his full dress uniform. Officers closed the door while the courtroom settled, keeping the media out and leading one reporter to holler that the police were stacking the courtroom to keep media out. Upon hearing this, District Attorney Terence Hallinan muttered “bullshit” as he was allowed into court. Eventually, most of the media were admitted to hear nine officers plead “not guilty,” while Sanders was alone in not only approaching the bench, but in vowing that he was “innocent.” “I assume that’s not guilty,” Judge Tsenin told him. Tsenin seemed ready for the circus. When defense lawyers announced they would ask that the grand jury transcript remain sealed, prosecutor Murray said he would object. “I’ll be ready for anything,” Tsenin smiled. Sanders apparently has two lawyers — Burris and San Francisco solo Philip Ryan, once a law partner of Mayor Willie Brown. Though Burris is well-known as a civil rights lawyer, his criminal defense cases are few and far between. “I’ve done a lot of criminal defense work back in the ’80s,” Burris said, expressing confidence. “I just don’t do it everyday now.” Ryan said he has represented Sanders in different matters over the years. He is also the man responsible for several communiques between Sanders and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer during the grand jury’s investigation. Those communiques apparently had to do with Hallinan’s conduct during the grand jury investigation. Speaking after the hearing, Ryan said he had been in touch with Lockyer’s office several times and carried the fruits of his investigation with him in a black, 4-inch-thick binder. Ryan’s actions on behalf of Sanders prompted City Attorney Dennis Herrera to intervene Monday. Herrera sent a letter to Ryan, a copy of which was also sent to Lockyer, to clarify that Ryan was not acting on behalf of the city. “I trust you will correct any misunderstanding anyone may have from your purported representation of Chief Sanders in his official capacity as Chief of Police and will make clear in the future that you are his personal attorney,” Herrera wrote. During a Monday press conference, Lockyer said there is a high bar for his office to get involved in the case, and expressed a desire to stay above the fray. “I have friends on every side and constituents on every side in this fight,” Lockyer said.

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