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The eleventh-hour appearance of a potential jailhouse witness against an accused cop killer in San Francisco has prompted a swirl of pretrial activity � and some unusual defense strategy. During a pretrial hearing Thursday, the defense pulled the witness’s criminal defense attorney, James Collins, onto the stand, part of a weeks-long strategy to try to eliminate or devalue potential testimony by a man named Vincent Jacobo. Defendant David Hill is accused of shooting two police officers, one of them, Isaac Espinoza, fatally. To prove a special circumstance that could get him life without the possibility of parole, the prosecution has to show that he knew, or reasonably should have known, that Espinoza was a police officer. Jacobo claims to have overheard Hill tell someone that he knew the plainclothes cops were police officers before the shooting. As a defense lawyer on direct examination by another defense lawyer, Collins was probably a more savvy and, at times, more efficient witness than most. After withstanding numerous questions about discussions Collins had about his client’s case with Chief Assistant DA Russell Giuntini, Collins tried to steer around the minutiae. “Let me short-circuit this,” he said. “I talked about � was there a way we could have him do 15 years in federal housing.” As is typical when jailhouse witnesses come forward, the defense says Jacobo is lying to get a cushier deal in his own case. But Hill’s team has also made two in limine motions that might eliminate the possibility of the testimony, or hand his side some defensive weapons at trial. First, they argue that prosecutors should have debriefed Jacobo and enlightened the defense about him sooner than they did, earlier this year. And secondly, they contend that the prosecution essentially let Jacobo act as an agent of the government, by leaving him near Hill, where he could continue to interact with him, after they knew he might be a witness. In court Thursday morning, Hill’s lawyer traded arguments with James Lassart, an attorney Collins brought in to represent him in his role as a witness, over how much Collins could be shielded from questioning by the attorney-client privilege. In the end, Superior Court Judge Carol Yaggy agreed to let Hill’s counsel probe Collins on two issues: about Jacobo’s claim that Hill knew Espinoza was a police officer, and on whatever consideration prosecutors may have offered him in exchange. With Collins and Lassart, plus Deputy Public Defender Martin Sabelli representing Hill’s interest, and prosecutor George Butterworth standing in for Assistant DA Harry Dorfman, Thursday’s proceedings grew almost comically confusing at times. One question made Collins pause and turn to the judge, saying he thought it “walks the fine line” of attorney-client privilege. That prompted Sabelli to object to Collins speaking directly to the judge as a witness, suggesting that if anyone should raise an objection on Collins’ behalf, it should be Lassart. Then Butterworth interjected, saying it was his role to object to Sabelli’s questions. “Mr. Lassart is here to advise Mr. Collins,” he added. An hour into Collins’ testimony, the questioning had revealed some details of how Jacobo’s assistance was offered to prosecutors: Collins testified that in July he mentioned to Giuntini at the coffee shop across the street from the courthouse that he might have some information to offer prosecutors regarding the Hill case, but he added he kept details vague at the time. The courtroom may get more lively with objections next week. That’s when Sabelli is scheduled to delve into any questions that can be expected to prompt Collins to claim attorney-client privilege. Collins wasn’t the first lawyer to take the stand as the defense tried to discredit Jacobo’s testimony. And he won’t be the last. Dorfman has already been called as a witness, as have Jerry Coleman and Kimberly Toney Williams, two of his colleagues who have prosecuted Jacobo. Next week, Giuntini is scheduled to take the stand.

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