Police, DA try to save convictions 

Police and prosecutors are scrambling to reverse years of secrecy when it comes to the criminal records of Police Department witnesses, a potentially illegal practice that could lead to the dismissal of hundreds of cases.

What started as an admonishment for failing to disclose the criminal history of one Police Department employee, embattled lab technician Deborah Madden, is expected to balloon today as Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo hears that the criminal records of more than one police employee have been kept from defense attorneys. By law, prosecutors are required to provide any information that could be used to disqualify a witness’ testimony, such as criminal history or internal disciplinary actions. But police never provided that information to prosecutors and prosecutors never asked for it.

In an April 6 e-mail, Chief District Attorney Russ Giuntini told police Chief George Gascón there were more than 30 officers whose histories should have been disclosed to defense attorneys.

Gascón would not confirm that number and said he has called on the state Department of Justice to conduct a thorough review of department employees’ backgrounds. He said he learned that the department did not have a policy in late September or early October and then he initiated a conversation with the District Attorney’s Office.

While the office now has a written policy after Massullo berated it for failing to do so in the past, the Police Department is still working on one. At issue, Gascón said, are laws that shield police officials from public scrutiny.

But those protections do not extend to court motions that can be heard in private, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Despite having asked in pretrial hearings, Adachi said his office has never been informed of a police employee’s potentially damaging past.

Adachi called the inability of the District Attorney’s Office to discover that information and divulge it to defense lawyers “inexcusable and unethical.”

District Attorney Kamala Harris said she learned of the potentially damaging effects of their lack of a policy only recently, when Madden was accused of skimming cocaine from police evidence. She noted that such policies are rare throughout the state.

“At the point that we became aware of the case involving the lab technician it became clear that [we] could not operate under certain assumptions, particularly the assumption that employees of the Police Department have not been convicted of a crime,” Harris said.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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Brent Begin

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