Witness’ Death Underscores Grand Jury Concern

On top of the tragedy inherent in the recent slaying of a witness in a San Francisco murder case, there was a trace of irony, as well.

The case in which the victim, Terrell Rollins, had testified was reportedly the first time that DA Kamala Harris’ office had taken a “black-on-black” homicide to a grand jury, after she had declined to do so in at least seven such cases where police had requested it. [UPDATE: The reports were apparently wrong; the DA's office says it was Harris' third trip to the grand jury in such a case.]

She has previously defended her thinking, at least in part, by pointing out that if a witness should become unavailable, his grand jury testimony can’t be used at trial. (Such is not the case with a preliminary hearing, the other venue for ensuring allegations are strong enough to proceed to trial.)

In any case, the grand jury proceeding at which Rollins testified marked a change in course for Harris — one that she and the police chief celebrated at a joint press conference in early March to announce the resulting indictments against two men. At the time, Harris reportedly noted the trial testimony concern but also the investigative potential of a grand jury, and said her office was taking a case-by-case approach. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she said at the time, “It proved to be the right tool in this case.”

Now that Rollins is dead and his testimony is presumably lost to the prosecution, one wonders whether the district attorney or police will be more reluctant to head to a grand jury again.

No word on that yet; we’re waiting on return calls from spokespeople for both.

It also remains to be seen whether Rollins’ connection to the witness protection program run by the DA’s office, and the spotlight on his killing, will make city officials more willing or less inclined to give Harris the additional funding she had already requested for the program. (Just to recap, the DA has said that Rollins was shot after returning to the city without official armed escorts, something relocated witnesses are told not to do.)

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the mayor, who favored pumping more money into witness protection last year, has already called for a full review of the city’s witness protection efforts in light of Rollins’ killing.

One of San Francisco’s 11 supervisors also told CalLaw.com that the program deserves more resources, but not without a clear strategy and accountability. “The problem with the program is it lacks the street credibility,” said Ross Mirkarimi, who used to work in the DA’s office (he said he turned down a chance to head the witness protection program about four years ago). “So there has to be a whole promotional aspect, in marketing it so it makes sense to those on the street.”

Pam Smith

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