Once you’re in prison, getting the criminal justice system to listen to your claims of innocence can feel next to impossible. But after years of tireless effort, three men managed to get the ear of San Francisco’s District Attorney and experts who came to see their side of things.
One of those men saw his conviction overturned. For the others, though, hope is faltering or gone.
Since Brooke Jenkins took office as DA, she has requested continuances or outright opposed resentencing petitions that came after months of investigations into cases by the DA’s Innocence Commission.
“It’s devastating,” said attorney Leslie Prince, whose client, Troy Smith, presently serving a 26-year sentence, was one of those whose cases had been reopened by the DA’s office, and then slammed shut when Jenkins took office.
“It was very disappointing, because we really were very hopeful at one point,” said Prince. Smith, in prison for a Union Square jewelry heist, was anticipating resentencing, thanks to new evidence indicating that his fingerprints may have been planted at the scene and a DA had pressured an accomplice to identify him. As the court considered these arguments, Jenkins became DA, and withdrew the petition to resentence Smith, said attorneys familiar with the case.
She also decimated the office, firing Arcelia Hurtado, who oversaw the office’s Post-Conviction Unit and served as the DA’s liaison to the Innocence Commission, and two other attorneys in her unit.
“It’s basically ignoring a panel of experts who’ve investigated, scrutinized, combed through thousands and thousands of pages, talked to multiple witnesses, consulted with experts in the field,” said Hurtado. “It’s basically taking that investigation and shoving it down the toilet.”
The Innocence Commission, a body that investigates cases independent of the DA’s office and then passes on its recommendations to that office, also investigated and recommended resentencing for Ronnie Louvier, a suspect in a drive-by shooting in 2008.
Louvier has served 14 years of his 43 year-to-life sentence. Lawyers recommended resentencing under former DA Chesa Boudin, arguing that police pressured witnesses to provide false testimony. Jenkins’ office pushed to delay the case.
A judge denied one request to delay, but when Jenkins again wanted to delay rather than moving ahead to argue for the Innocence Commission’s recommendation for 15 years, the judge denied the request and resentenced Louvier to 25 years to life. Instead of being out by next year, Louvier will serve considerably more time.
DA spokesperson Randy Quezada said the DA’s office needed more time “to better understand” the arguments made by the past administration in Louvier’s case. In Smith’s theft case, Quezada cited public safety concerns for the DA’s opposition to resentencing.
In its 24-month lifespan, the Innocence Commission has, so far, only exonerated one person: Joaquin Ciria walked free earlier this year after a judge ruled that new evidence cast enough doubt on his conviction. He had served 32 years in prison.
The commission, which works with the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Racial Justice Clinic, was created by Boudin in 2020, along with a new Post-Conviction Unit.
Jenkins was supportive of the new commission when it was first created, and praised Boudin enthusiastically in emails.
Upon taking over the District Attorney seat after Boudin was recalled, however, Jenkins seems to have had a change of heart. Not only has the new DA been working counter to the post-conviction efforts of the past two years, she has additionally fired Hurtado and not replaced her, meaning the commission’s work is on hold.
“We haven’t met,” said retired judge LaDoris Cordell, who sits on the commission. “We can’t do anything on our own, because we’re a part of, or created by, the DA’s office.”
And commission members have allegedly lost access to their DA email accounts, an issue Supervisor Dean Preston raised at a Board of Supervisors meeting last week. Jenkins’ policy director, Tara Anderson, said she knew nothing about access changes, and promised to report back.
Preston’s aide, Melissa Hernandez, told Mission Local that Preston’s office has not yet received any response. When asked for more information, the DA’s spokesperson declined to comment.
In an interview with Mission Local, Hurtado called the DA’s actions “shameful” and “unethical.” As the liaison for the Innocence Commission, Hurtado conducted initial reviews of cases that were brought forward, before passing them to the commission. In some cases, she said, there was no viable evidence requiring further review, but in a “small percentage” of cases, police or prosecutor misconduct or other new evidence meant the office had a duty to thoroughly investigate.
Hurtado said she was never asked to provide context or explanation of the commission’s findings to the new DA about these cases. A week after Jenkins’ July 7 appointment, Hurtado was fired.
The Innocence Commission’s chair, USF law professor Lara Bazelon, told Mission Local that she had a “very cordial” meeting with Jenkins and her team last month about the commission, but hadn’t heard anything since.
“We’re anxious to keep working, and we hope that we’ll be allowed to be,” Bazelon said. “Unless and until a replacement for Arcelia is made, we can’t function.”
The commission’s financial future is also uncertain. At a Sept. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting, a one-time grant retroactively funding legal services from USF’s Racial Justice Clinic was approved, but will only continue through November.
Prior to the creation of the commission, Hurtado said an internal Conviction Integrity Unit at the DA’s office looked into closed cases, but she did not believe it successfully exonerated any wrongful convictions. Critics of this system say this is because prosecutors are reluctant to overturn their own office’s convictions.
“It’s sad that it had to happen this way, for a lot of people’s hard work to fall by the wayside and be destroyed,” Hurtado said. “Especially for people who relied on the commission, and relied on the idea that a prosecutor’s office would care about remedies post-conviction.”
Prince, Smith’s attorney, said she and her client started out very optimistic. “To have the DA come into court and recommend resentencing … they’re usually the ones opposing it. That’s not something they take lightly.” She is still pursuing a federal habeas corpus petition for her client, whom she says got “a raw deal,” and she believes to be innocent.