Wearing his blue dress uniform, a grim-faced Police Chief Earl Sanders on Tuesday pleaded innocent as he and six commanders were arraigned at the Hall of Justice here on charges that they conspired to cover up a street brawl involving three off-duty policemen.
Officials also released the specific allegations that have thrown the San Francisco police force of 2,300 into turmoil for the last week. Lawyers for the defendants immediately launched a counteroffensive, calling the allegations "flimsy" and poorly drawn. And they attacked the man who asked for the indictments -- San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan.
Immediately after the brief but emotional court hearing, defense attorneys called the indictments against Sanders and the others absurd. They said the indictments, some of which were written by hand in an apparent rush, fell far short of what is required to support criminal conviction.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles, said that in a long legal career, she had "never seen anything like this before."
"A grand jury writes in its own overt acts [buttressing the charges] and the D.A. [Hallinan] signs off on them? They didn't even take time to retype the [indictments]."
She said the indictments were rife with imprecise language and catch-alls, such as accusing two defendants of "generally [failing] to conduct proper police duties in the course of an investigation."
Peter Keane, dean of the Golden Gate University Law School and a former public defender, called the allegations "very weak." Saying that he had not seen a handwritten indictment in California in more than 75 years, Keane said, "It means the grand jury was scribbling and changing and editing right up to the last minute."
He said the indictment showed the eagerness of Hallinan to undertake this kind of prosecution. Merely "giving statements to the media [was depicted in the indictments as] overt acts of a conspiracy," Keane said, referring to the allegations against at least one officer. "That's a first."
Attorney Jim Collins, who represents one of the officers involved in the brawl that triggered the scandal, called the documents "the most pathetic indictments I've ever seen." He referred to the panel as "19 stupid" grand jurors.
Mark MacNamara, a spokesman for Hallinan, said the office stood by the indictments.
"To judge the quality of a case on the basis of the indictment is like judging a book on the table of contents," MacNamara said. He stressed that the strength of the case will become clear when hundreds of pages of transcripts are released later this month.
The indictments handed down Feb. 27 and released Tuesday listed several acts by the police brass that prosecutors said constituted obstruction of justice. A number of counts centered on an allegation previously made public -- that top officers impeded the work of a lieutenant who headed the investigation into the brawl. Later, the lieutenant was transferred to another assignment by top officials.
Sanders, 65, took an abrupt medical leave Monday, handing the day-to-day reins of the department to Heather Fong, his acting assistant chief and the department's highest-ranking Asian American. The six other supervisors voluntarily stepped down without pay for the remainder of the investigation.
As Fong quietly began her first day on the job, Sanders led a remarkable parade of 10 officers through a crush of reporters and off-duty officers to face the criminal charges inside a courtroom packed with relatives and supporters.
Two floors below the office where Sanders just days earlier commanded the Police Department, Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin presided over the packed courtroom. Hallinan sat to one side of the court with the deputy district attorney who will prosecute the case. The D.A. said he was present to represent "the people."
One by one, three young officers allegedly involved in a Nov. 20 sidewalk assault stood in place. Wearing business suits and close-cropped hair, each answered briskly when asked for his plea: "Not guilty, your honor." One, Alex Fagan Jr., is the son and namesake of the department's second-highest-ranking officer, an assistant chief who also was indicted.
Next, Sanders' own deputies began entering the same plea: "Not guilty, not guilty ... " repeated two deputy chiefs. Then it was Sanders' turn. As his wife looked on, the stocky chief stood, his jaw set. He strode slowly toward the bench.
"Innocent, your honor," he said.
Explained the chief's defense attorney, John Burris: "The chief said 'innocent' because 'not guilty' means there may be some evidence [of guilt]. 'Innocent' means he did not do anything ... and believes he is factually innocent."
Not long after the chief left the courtroom, Mayor Willie Brown announced that his longtime friend was taken to the hospital. One of Sanders' attorneys said later that the chief -- who has a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes -- was resting at home.
Burris and several other defense attorneys said they were surprised at how weak the accusations were. They said they will evaluate grand jury transcripts that will be available to them next week, then expect that they will move to throw out all charges.
Defense attorneys said they may move to keep the grand jury transcripts from being released to the public, a move the district attorney's office said it would oppose. The judge scheduled a session Tuesday to consider that issue, and any others.
Burris said the acts alleged against the chief, including the transfer of the lieutenant investigating the brawl, amounted to nothing more than the department's top leader exercising his proper authority.
"To suggest the chief would commit a crime for three rookie officers in broad daylight is ridiculous," Burris said. "I am confident he will be exonerated."
The indictment details five counts against the 10 officers. One of the counts charges Sanders and the others with conspiracy to obstruct justice and details six overt acts by one or more of the defendants. The indictments allege that Deputy Chief David Robinson, who heads investigations, thwarted the efforts of the lieutenant assigned to investigate the street brawl by denying requests for police cell phone information and e-mails.
Former prosecutor Bill Fazio, who is representing Capt. Gregory Corrales, said he was shocked by the sloppiness of the indictment. The one count charging his client is handwritten and accuses him of promoting "misinformation" by describing the brawl as mutual combat.
"How that rises to being an overt action in a criminal case is beyond me," Fazio said. "This is not an everyday indictment."
After lawyers review the grand jury transcripts, Collins said, attorneys for the three defendants charged in the brawl may decide to separate their trial from that of the high-ranking commanders.
Burris suggested that Sanders wants to eventually return as the Police Department's chief executive. "He likes being the chief. He wants to be the chief," he said. "It's important for his legacy that he is exonerated sooner rather than later."
In his dark hour Tuesday, Sanders had other supporters on hand. One was a woman who said she had regular chats with the chief in her neighborhood barbershop. "It's disgraceful that our chief and his command [staff] are put out and indicted like this," said Feysan Lodde, 54. "He is level-headed and he listens. What's happened to forgiveness, and why are all these people throwing stones?"
Times correspondents Michelle Munn and Chris O'Connell contributed to this report.