San Francisco Mayor Defends Asking Governor to Release Imprisoned Brother
In October, London Breed and other family members sent letters to the governor, asking him to consider an early release date for her older brother, Napoleon Brown, who has served nearly two decades of a 44-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery.
By Dominic Fracassa
San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Wednesday she stands by her decision to ask outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown to free her imprisoned brother, while acknowledging she had served as an alibi witness at her brother's trial before he was convicted in the 2000 death of a woman on the Golden Gate Bridge.
In October, Breed and other family members sent letters to the governor, asking him to consider an early release date for her older brother, Napoleon Brown, who has served nearly two decades of a 44-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery.
Breed has never publicly discussed her brother's case in detail since becoming a San Francisco politician. Her letter, which became public Tuesday, revealed her role in the case for the first time and raised questions about whether she acted appropriately in seeking leniency for a family member.
Breed's letter used what appeared to be personal stationery that featured "Mayor London Breed" in block letters at the top. She mentioned her status as the city's mayor in the body of the letter. In an interview Wednesday, she said she expected the letter to eventually become a part of the public record.
"I want to be clear that this is not uncommon for me," Breed said. "I've done a lot of work involving criminal justice reform. I believe in people paying their debts and being given a second chance."
Breed said she testified to the best of her recollection at the 2005 trial of her brother, who was initially convicted of murder in the killing of the 25-year-old woman, Lenties White. Authorities said Brown pushed White from a getaway car that was fleeing north across the Golden Gate Bridge after a robbery. She was struck by an oncoming drunken driver and later died.
Brown, now 46, successfully appealed the conviction, arguing his defense attorney was inadequate, before pleading no contest to charges including involuntary manslaughter in 2011 in a deal with the San Francisco district attorney's office.
On Wednesday, Breed confirmed she testified that at around midnight on June 18, 2000, she arrived at her grandmother's house in San Francisco's Western Addition to find Brown asleep on the couch. Breed was then 25, and was 30 when she took the stand at the trial.
A 2014 court filing by U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said, "[Petitioner's] sister, London Breed, provided an alibi for defendant. When she arrived at her grandmother's house around midnight on June 18, 2000, defendant was asleep on the couch. She could not remember if he was still there when she left for work in the morning."
Court records indicate that Brown and an accomplice committed an armed robbery at a Johnny Rockets restaurant on Chestnut Street in the Marina district sometime between midnight and 12:30 that same night, though police at the time described the robbery as occurring at 12:40 a.m.
Breed on Wednesday declined to discuss the night in detail.
"I told the police and I told the courts what I recalled from that night," Breed said. "That was my best recollection of that evening."
Breed was a San Francisco supervisor from 2013 to last December, when she became acting mayor upon the sudden death of Ed Lee. She was then elected mayor in June.
In recent years, she has said her brother was incarcerated for robbery and other charges, but has not mentioned the homicide conviction or the connection to the Golden Gate Bridge case, which generated headlines when it happened.
Court documents in the case also show that Breed initially told investigators in 2000 that her brother went by "Sonny Boy" or possibly "S.B." White had made a dying declaration identifying "S.B." as her killer. But at trial, Breed denied telling police that Brown used the "S.B." nickname, records show.
Government ethics experts said Breed's letter to the governor, which was dated Oct. 23 and first revealed Tuesday night by NBC Bay Area, did not appear to violate any city or state ethics laws.
"I don't believe there is any violation of any of the jurisdictional ordinances of the (San Francisco) Ethics Commission," said Quentin Kopp, a former judge and state senator who serves as the commission's vice chair. "She's entitled as a human being to advocate a release from confinement.
"She shouldn't use the word 'mayor'" on such a letter, Kopp said, "but that doesn't rise to the level where I would ask the Ethics Commission to devote time to."
Potential conflicts of interest would hinge on whether an official stood to receive a financial benefit from an action, or attempted to improperly influence a government decision. Breed's letter doesn't appear to do either, said Jim Sutton, a San Francisco election attorney.
"As a general matter, the law does not prohibit her from asking the governor to commute the sentence because she does not serve to financially benefit from it, and it's not a decision of city government. It's a decision of state government," he said.
Breed said she didn't use any city resources to create the letter but had spoken to Gov. Brown about the commutation request and "about the process, who to contact, things like that."
In one paragraph of her letter, Breed said she could "guarantee" the governor that she and her family could find her brother a job, a home and counseling services to help ensure a successful life outside of prison.
"Just to be clear, it's not to get him a city job," Breed said Wednesday.
Peter Keane, a former chair of the Ethics Commission, said he saw "nothing illegal, immoral or unethical about what she did."
"This is her brother, for God's sake," he said. "He's been in jail and she's trying to help him out. You or I or anyone can ask the government to give clemency to our brother, who is in prison. Had she not written a letter asking for leniency for her brother, you'd say there's something wrong with this person."
In her letter, Breed asked the governor to "consider leniency" for Brown, who she said is "committed to turning his life around." She called his 44-year sentence "unfair," but added that she made "no excuses" for his behavior.
"His decisions, his actions, led him to the place he finds himself now. Still, I ask that you consider mercy, and rehabilitation," she wrote.
A spokesman for the governor's office said Brown, who leaves office Jan. 7, does not comment on pending applications for commuted prison sentences.
Napoleon Brown has argued that he was addicted to drugs at the time of the robbery and White's death. Two years ago, he was found in possession of heroin at Solano State Prison in Vacaville, authorities said. Breed did not mention the new charge in her letter.
Rico Hamilton, White's first cousin, said Wednesday that the prospect of Brown's early release has brought up a well of emotions for his family, particularly for Sandra McNeil, the victim's mother.
The two families have been intertwined since White's death and Brown's conviction, Hamilton said. Breed helped him find work and a place to live after he himself got out of prison. Hamilton said he was "1,000 percent sure" that Breed had contacted McNeil following the incident.
Hamilton said he personally supported Brown's early release, provided he had an opportunity to show contrition to McNeil and the family.
"How do we start the healing?" he said. "This would be a perfect time for families to get together and really start working on that healing."
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Megan Cassidy and Evan Sernoffsky contributed to this story.
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