SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Claims that San Francisco police conspired to fabricate evidence to pin a former reality TV show contestant with a murder he did not commit must be decided by a jury, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Jamal Trulove was acquitted of murder at retrial in 2015 after serving six years of a 50-years-to-life prison term for the 2007 murder of Seu Kuka in San Francisco’s Sunnydale housing projects.
Before he was convicted of murder, Trulove appeared in the VH1 reality show “I Love New York 2” in 2007, as one of 20 men vying for the affections of reality show star Tiffany “New York” Pollard.
Trulove says the wrongful conviction “tore him away from his family and budding entertainment career” and left him and his children with permanent psychological scars.
He claims the lead investigators thought he was a gang member based on “his associations as a child,” though he was not.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that four of five officers must face claims that they conspired to taint witnesses, withhold evidence and maliciously prosecute Trulove for a murder he did not commit.
One of the officers, Carla Lee, allegedly gave a key witness a description of Trulove on the night of murder. Later at the police station, when showing the witness photos of purported gang members, Lee allegedly pointed to a picture of Trulove and said, “Are you sure it wasn’t Jamal Trulove?”
Even if a jury were to accept that version of events, Gonzalez Rogers found, Trulove still lacks evidence to prove that Lee conspired with others to coerce the witness or hide details about the witness identification process.
But the judge did not reach the same conclusion for claims against four other officers: John Evans, Robert McMillan, Maureen D’Amico and Michael Johnson.
“Plaintiff has offered evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that defendants McMillan, D’Amico, and Johnson misrepresented evidence in the investigation, and used investigative techniques that were so coercive that defendants knew, or were deliberately indifferent to the risk that, they were likely to yield false information," Gonzalez Rogers wrote in her 15-page ruling.
She said a reasonable jury could also find that Evans deliberately withheld an analysis of forensic findings from the crime scene, such as the location of shell casings, that contradicted witness testimony.
During Trulove’s second trial, Evans told a jury that the locations of casings is random, that casings go in all directions, that determining the location of a shooter from the casings is a fallacy, and that “a large percentage of casings end up in front of the shooter — statements he knew could be impeached” by other evidence, Gonzalez Rogers wrote.
Evidence of witness tainting and withholding of evidence could also support claims of malicious prosecution, the judge found.
“For the same reasons that a reasonable jury could find that they deliberately fabricated evidence, the jury could reasonably find that they caused plaintiff to be prosecuted without
probable cause,” Gonzalez Rogers wrote.
On claims of conspiracy, the judge found there were “triable issues of fact” as to whether police knew other officers were using improper methods to prosecute Trulove. Those claims must be decided by a jury.
A state appeals court overturned Trulove’s conviction and ordered a retrial in 2014, finding that a prosecutor contaminated the jury verdict by saying in her closing argument that a witness was willing to “risk her life” to tell the truth about Trulove. A new jury acquitted Trulove of the murder charges in March 2015.
Trulove sued the city and 18 police officers in January 2016. The case was whittled down through a series of motions to dismiss, leaving only five officers as defendants. The City of San Francisco was dismissed as a defendant in April 2017.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said the city does not believe the accused officers conspired to maliciously prosecute Trulove, as alleged.
“We certainly believe that San Francisco officers acted appropriately in their investigation of the brutal murder underlying this case,” Cote said in an email Tuesday.
Trulove’s attorney Alexander Reisman, with the Brisbane firm, could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
A jury trial is set for Thursday, March 8, in Oakland.
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