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The Ghetto Expert

A put-down of George Butterworth, the head of gang-related prosecutions during Terence Hallinan's eight years as San Francisco District Attorney, drew a response from AVA reader Jim Miller, a retired SFPD officer. He wrote that Butterworth “worked hard at prosecuting gang cases. He took his work seriously and was skilled.” Miller also noted that the array of inmates' photos on Butterworth's bulletin board was hardly unique at the Hall of Justice. (I had been appalled by their 100% brownness.)

Kamala Harris made Butterworth the head of homicide prosecutions in 2006 after asking two widely respected civilian lawyers to review his role in the prosecution of J.J. Tennison and Antoine Goff. In a piece about Harris's selection of Butterworth, the Chronicle quoted veteran homicide prosecutor Al Giannini calling him “a brilliant choice… He has more knowledge in the Bayview (sic) than anybody in the office. He has the respect of the Police Department. He has worked closely with federal law enforcement agencies.”

How much “knowledge” did George Butterworth have about the lives of people in the projects? I took another look at the memo he sent me back in 2000 when reporters started inquiring about J.J. Tennison and Antoine Goff, two men convicted in 1991 for a murder that another man subsequently confessed to. Tennison and Goff were still in prison, still proclaiming their innocence. Butterworth's 7-point memo seems devoid of empathy.

Re: Tennison v. Henry — Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus

I have read with some care the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of John Tennison in the 1989 murder case. Without a careful review of the file, which is now ten years old, it would be impossible for me to answer questions about specifics. However, I am left with the following impressions:

1. The petition contains allegations and conclusions that had never been formally responded to in federal court by the prosecution. They are, therefore, mere allegations. It is for the Office of the Attorney General to respond if and when requested to do so by the court.

2. The allegations contained in the petition regarding the admissions of Lovinsky Ricard were made known to the trial judge who ruled upon them before sentencing Mr. Tennison on the murder charge. Mr. Tennison's initial videotaped interview at the office of the public defender, with a coat over his head to conceal his identity, was ruled by the trial court to be untrustworthy hearsay. The fact that the interview was conducted by a deputy public defender at a time when Mr. Ricard was being represented by that office in a felony prosecution could only serve to cast further doubt on the veracity/admissibility of the statement.

3. The allegations of Chante Smith have been known to the defense and prosecution for almost ten years. Her version of the events gives rise to the probability that she was not even at the scene of the murder, much less that she was in a position to exculpate John Tennison. They are simply unworthy of belief.

4. The fact that John Tennison and Chante Smith have passed a lie detector test is not admissible in California under the evidence code because such tests are not sufficiently trustworthy. The particular facts and circumstances relating to the testing of John Tennison and Chante Smith are unlikely to affect this rule.

5. Despite characterizations in the petition of the two prosecution witnesses as ‘questionable,’ a jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Tennison was a principal in the shotgun execution of a young man who happened to be driving the car of the intended victim.

6. This matter has been reviewed several times by the Office of the District Attorney and the San Francisco Police Department based upon the allegations raised in the petition for writ of habeas corpus. Nothing has been presented to date that would justify ‘reopening’ the investigation into the murder of Roderick Shannon.

7. There have been a number of misleading statements about the case circulated recently to the media and to the public on this case alleging ‘recent’ developments. However, there is really nothing ‘new’ in the petition for writ of habeas corpus. The ground has been plowed and plowed for ten years in the state courts. Whether the District Court will undertake to plow it again remains to be seen.

Butterworth's vaunted “knowledge” of the Bayview district was limited to the organizational structure and leadership of various gangs. J.J. Tennison was just another orange jumpsuit in a Polaroid on the wall.

In my time at the Hall of Justice I met cops and prosecutors with real experience and understanding of life in the projects. They knew people who lived there. I met others who commuted in from Novato and whose “knowledge” of life in the urban ghetto was, at best, pop sociology.

“Police Blame SF Killings on Rap Gang War” a front-page Chronicle headline announced on May 5, 2000. Inspector Kevin Whitfield told the reporters that an SFPD gang task force investigation into a recent spate of shootings revealed that: “It all started over the music. It was over who was putting out the best music, who was putting out music first. Then it became about Big Block felt disrespected in music by members of Westmob.”

Deputy Chief Rich Holder was quoted repeating the SFPD line: “They are beefing over music issues.” And the reporters Jaxon Van Derbeken and Jonathan Curiel, repeated it for them: “Police have added patrols and formed a task force to calm the southeastern part of the city. They said people are dying because of feuds over who is the most talented rapper, who is selling the most CDs, and who is being insulted in songs.”

Fortunately, the reporters supplemented the SFPD's titillating “Rap Gang War” story with some relevant background. “The fight is between successors of gangs that have long clashed over turf and the drug trade.” In other words, mighty Westmob and Big Block each comprised about 20 desperately poor teenagers and unemployed young adults who vie for street corners on which to sell weed and crack. They dream of buying studio time so their talented friends can record. It's not about music, it's about money! Or, to be more precise, it's about the lack of money. The enduring poverty of the ghetto.

Inspector Whitfield of the SFPD gang task force appeared twice more in the Chronicle piece, sharing his dangerous, superficial expertise:

• “Whitfield said the younger members of the groups are causing most of the problems. ‘The young generation of these record companies-gangs (sic), they are at a point right now where they really don't care about anything,’ he said.”

• “Patrick Brown, 28, was shot to death Saturday at Third and Underwood Streets, and 25-year-old Kenneth Gathron died Saturday night at 111 Cameron Way. Both men were associated with the Westmob group, Whitfield said.”

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