OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal jury trial over allegations that San Francisco police hid and fabricated evidence to pin a 2007 murder on a former reality TV show contestant kicked off Monday in Oakland, with a forensic pathologist poking holes in the officers' narrative of what happened.
The forensic pathologist, Judy Melinek, disputed an eyewitness account of the altercation given by the officers' star witness in the 2014 murder trial of Jamal Trulove, declaring it was "not at all consistent with the medical and forensic evidence."
Trulove was convicted that year in the shooting death of Seu Kuka in San Francisco’s Sunnydale housing project. A state appeals court later reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial, finding a prosecutor contaminated the verdict during closing arguments.
A new jury acquitted Trulove in 2015 after he served six years of a 50-year-to-life sentence. Trulove sued the city and 18 police officers in 2016, but the case was whittled down over the next two years by presiding U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, leaving four officers as defendants. The city of San Francisco was dismissed as a defendant last year.
In opening statements Monday, Trulove's lawyers told the nine-person jury that the officers, Maureen D’Amico, John Evans, Michael Johnson and Robert McMillan, manipulated witnesses into identifying Trulove as the shooter and hid evidence of unreliable identifications.
They said the shooting occurred when Trulove's younger brother accidentally hit Kuka's car. Angry and drunk, Kuka chased the brother on foot, encountering an unnamed man during the pursuit, whom he punched and knocked to the ground. The man pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot Kuka nine times - six times in the head - killing him almost instantly. The man has not been arrested or prosecuted for the killing, according to Trulove's lawyer Nick Brustin of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin.
Brustin said the officers' eyewitness, Priscilla Lualemaga, told officers she saw part of the altercation from her second-floor bedroom window, but admitted during questioning at the Ingleside Police Station the night of the killing she hadn't seen the actual shooting or the shooter.
She also didn't identify Trulove from a group of mugshots D'Amico and Johnson showed her, even after Johnson allegedly pointed to a photo of Trulove and asked her, "Are you sure it wasn't Trulove?" Brustin said.
Lualemaga said no, but identified Trulove the next day when police showed her an allegedly tainted group of mugshots designed to elicit a positive identification of Trulove.
"Ms. Lualemaga is the poster child for a problematic witness," Brustin said. "And Johnson and D'Amico knew it."
The officers' legal team hit back, telling jurors the evidence used to arrest and prosecute Trulove had been vetted by supervising detectives, multiple prosecutors, and a county judge, who ruled at a preliminary hearing there was enough evidence for Trulove to stand trial.
They disputed the account of the altercation's aftermath Trulove's lawyers gave, insisting Lualemaga told officers she saw the altercation and knew Trulove was the shooter but that she hadn't remembered his name until the next day.
"Lualemaga never recanted," San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Renee Rosenblit said. "The [appeals] court's decision had nothing to do with Trulove's allegations or the conduct of the officers."
During testimony, Trulove's lawyers zeroed in on Lualemaga's 2014 account of the shooting, in which she said she saw the shooter chase Kuka down the hill below her window when he shot him.
But according to Melinek, a forensic examination of Kuka's wounds and the position of the shell casings found at the scene indicated the opposite had occurred; the shooter had chased Kuka up the hill, showing Lualemaga's testimony was unreliable. Melinek also testified she went to the crime scene during her forensic review, and found that based on the position of a light installed above Lualemaga's window, Lualemaga would not have been able to see the shooting.
Melinek performed autopsies for San Francisco police at the time Kuka died, but was not involved in Kuka's.
Attempting to discredit Trulove's theory, San Francisco's attorneys asked Melinek on cross-examination whether it was possible to conclude that Kuka and the shooter were in fact running downhill, based on the trajectory of the bullets.
"Yes," Melinek replied. But, it's "not the correct way to do an analysis. You have to look at the whole big picture, not just at one individual trajectory."
Before he was convicted, Trulove appeared in the VH1 reality show “I Love New York 2," as one of 20 men vying for the affections of reality show star Tiffany “New York” Pollard.
He claims the wrongful conviction "tore him away from his family and budding entertainment career." He seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
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