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San Francisco Settles Wrongful Incarceration Cases for $7.5 Million

Nearly six years after his release from prison, Antoine Goff received a measure of belated justice – a $2.9 million settlement for almost 13 years of wrongful incarceration. Goff and his co-plaintiff, John “J.J.” Tennison, had filed complaints under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that alleged numerous Brady violations [Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)] by both the police and the assistant district attorney involved in their first-degree murder prosecution. Tennison, who was also wrongly incarcerated for 13 years, settled his lawsuit for $4.6 million.

In 1990, Goff and Tennison were charged with the August 19, 1989 murder of Roderick “Cooley” Shannon in San Francisco. Shannon was the victim in one of a series of reprisal killings between residents of Hunter’s Point and Sunny-dale. Local residents were unable to identify Shannon’s assailants but provided the police with descriptions of several of the cars involved. Based on those descriptions, homicide inspectors Napoleon Hendrix and Prentice Earl Sanders (who was later named San Francisco’s Chief of Police) developed a theory of the case connecting Goff and Tennison to the crime.

Dissuaded by neither facts nor physical evidence that discredited their theory, Sanders and Hendrix coached an 11-year-old girl who witnessed the shooting until she was able to implicate Goff and Tennison. They also secretly paid $2,500 to the girl as a cooperating witness; urged her to find a corroborating witness (to compensate for the fact, unknown to the inspectors initially, that Tennison’s car had been impounded at the time of the murder); arranged to pressure the 14-year-old corroborating witness to retract her recantation of a statement implicating Goff and Tennison; ignored subsequent wit-ness statements that definitively identified the shooter; and suppressed a Mirandized, video-taped post-trial confession by Lovinsky Ricard, the actual killer.

As a result, Tennison, who was 17 at the time, and Goff, 18, were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life and 27 years to life, respectively. Their convictions were later overturned and they were declared innocent in Superior Court after the district attorney declined to retry the case. They filed suit in federal court in April 2004, seeking damages for their wrongful incarcera-tion.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, which was denied in part. Significantly, the U.S. District Court held the prose-cutor had a duty to ensure that a defendant receives Brady evidence that comes to light post-conviction. The court also found that the prosecutor was entitled only to qualified (not absolute) immunity in the post-conviction context because, at that stage of the proceedings, the case was assigned to the Attorney General’s office. See: Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco, 2006 WL 733470 (N.D. Cal. 2006).

The defendants appealed, and in a lengthy amended opinion filed on June 23, 2009, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dis-trict court’s summary judgment order. See: Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco, 570 F.3d 1078 (9th Cir. 2009).

Following remand, Goff and Tennison settled their lawsuits in September 2009 for a combined total of $7.5 million. See: Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:04-cv-00574-CW; Goff v. City and County of San Francisco, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:04-cv-01643-CW.

“We think the proposed settlements weigh the costs and risks of litigating the case, in addition to the costs that could be incurred on appeal,” said city attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey. “We think financially it’s a good settlement for the city.”

Of course, it would have been an even better outcome for the city, for San Francisco taxpayers who will foot the bill for the settlement, and for Goff and Tennison had they not been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 13 years in the first place.

Additional source: San Francisco Chronicle

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Related legal cases

Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco

Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco

Goff v. City and County of San Francisco