Framed for Murder: $10M Awarded to San Francisco Man Who Spent 6 Years in Prison
By Bob Egelko
A federal court jury awarded $10 million in damages Friday to a San Francisco man who spent six years in prison before his murder conviction was thrown out.
Jamal Trulove accused four San Francisco police officers of framing him for a 2007 killing at the city's Sunnydale public housing complex. An eight-member jury in Oakland heard three weeks of testimony and deliberated for two days before unanimously finding Friday that the two lead homicide inspectors on the case, Michael Johnson and Maureen D'Amico, had violated Trulove's rights by fabricating evidence against him and withholding evidence that might have helped him.
Jurors found no wrongdoing by a third inspector, Robert McMillan, or by Officer John Evans, the crime-scene investigator. All four officers are now retired. The city is responsible for the damages.
"It's about time," said Kate Chatfield, a lawyer for Trulove. "Justice is not (merely) being acquitted for a crime you did not do. This was finally justice."
Her co-counsel, Alex Reisman, said Trulove was in tears after the verdict was read.
Trulove, now 33, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for the murder of a friend, Seu Kuka, who was shot in the back in July 2007.
The main evidence against him came from a neighbor who testified that she saw Trulove chase down Kuka and shoot him after a late-night argument. Her first identification was tentative, but she affirmed it after seeing Trulove three months later as a guest on the reality TV show "I Love New York 2."
A state appeals court overturned Trulove's conviction in 2014, after finding that the prosecutor had made an unfounded claim to the jury, telling jurors that the neighbor had been threatened and risked her life by coming forward.
A second trial resulted in a jury acquittal in 2015.
In his damage suit, Trulove accused police of coercing the witness to identify him.
In a ruling Feb. 27 that allowed the case to go to trial, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers cited evidence that Johnson, one of the inspectors, questioned the eyewitness shortly after the killing, pointed to a clipboard and asked, "Are you sure it wasn't Jamal Trulove?" The witness replied that she didn't know, the judge said.
Later, Gonzalez Rogers said, Inspector D'Amico showed the witness a single photo of Trulove rather than the usual police practice of presenting photos of different people and asking the witness to identify the perpetrator. Johnson, the judge said, showed the same witness a suggestive photo array consisting of Trulove and others she had already discounted as being the shooter.
There was also evidence that the officers were aware of another possible suspect who was never investigated, the judge said.
The city's lawyers denied that the officers had coerced the witness and also argued that their alleged misconduct was irrelevant because San Francisco prosecutors, using the evidence the officers presented, made an independent decision to charge Trulove. Therefore, the lawyers contended, the officers' actions had no effect on the case.
But Gonzalez Rogers said the decision to prosecute Trulove didn't necessarily exonerate the officers, because it wasn't clear that the prosecutors who made that decision had been aware of evidence of the officers' "coercive and suggestive conduct."
During the trial in his damage suit, Trulove testified about his life in prison. Chatfield said he described "the fear from the time you get up ... the daily humiliation," and the four years he spent without visits from his family because he was held in a remote location.
She said he now works at an after-school program for at-risk children in San Francisco.
John Coté, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the verdict was disappointing. He noted that Trulove had initially sued 14 officers, most of whom were dismissed as defendants, and had sought $26 million in damages.
"We are analyzing the jury's findings and will determine from there how to proceed," Coté said. "Our goal is always to ensure that justice is served."
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