Hallinan Often Is Center of Fray in City by the Bay

Times Staff Writer

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan -- the onetime amateur boxer who embraces medical marijuana and eschews the death penalty -- has found himself at the center of one fray after another since his election eight years ago.

There was the day he fired much of his staff by leaving pink slips on the lawyers' chairs -- when they were at lunch. There were the fisticuffs at Izzy's Steaks and Chops, where the new D.A. landed a blow on a man who was taunting him.

And now there is Hallinan's topsy-turvy prosecution of San Francisco's police chief and top command staff, a case that would daunt even a federal prosecutor's office. The chief and police commanders are charged with trying to obstruct an investigation of a brawl involving three off-duty patrol officers.

Mayor Willie Brown has publicly savaged Hallinan. Legal experts have questioned his ethics and chances of prevailing. Even some of his own prosecutors privately expect that he will lose the case and, perhaps, his job.

Characteristically, San Francisco's top prosecutor seems to be taking on the biggest and most dangerous fight of his political career almost by himself. And just months before he faces reelection. Many here are asking, why?

For his part, the impetuous 66-year-old San Francisco native insisted that he had no choice but to file the charges against Police Chief Earl Sanders and the others.

"I had nothing to do with it when those cops chose to beat those kids on Union Street and when the brass decided it was not going to cooperate...," Hallinan said of the Nov. 20 brawl. "It just came my way."

Hallinan's supporters said the indictments, whatever the outcome, will bring change to a Police Department that needs reform.

"So he sticks his neck out," said Patrick Hallinan, Terence's older brother and a criminal defense lawyer here. "He jeopardizes his own future and career for what he thinks is the right thing to do."

But others said that Terence Hallinan is going too far and that his words betray his deep-seated dislike of the police. Once the victim of a police assault himself, Hallinan had many run-ins with officers in his youth and was arrested repeatedly as an adult at civil rights marches.

"When you indict the command unit of a police department, you do it when there is some really severe and high-level corruption," said Frank Passaglia, who worked in the D.A.'s office 18 years, the last two under Hallinan. "You certainly don't indict them over some street brawl where alcohol was involved."

Hallinan, whose boyhood nickname is "Kayo," said he is undaunted by the criticism. In fact, he said, crowds have applauded him all over town since Feb. 27, when a grand jury he helped direct indicted much of the department's upper echelon.

Hallinan had told the panel that there was insufficient evidence to charge Chief Sanders and the other police supervisors. But the grand jury indicted them anyway, charging them with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Although Hallinan is convinced that there was a cover-up, he should have told the presiding judge to dismiss the indictments because the evidence is not there, said a former prosecutor who knows Hallinan well.

"He can't help himself," this former prosecutor said. "This strikes a blow, at least temporarily, that he is sympathetic with. He found out the grand jurors were on his side. He has had problems with the police for a long time."

Hallinan, he said, is "the man of La Mancha here, willing to go after windmills even though he was totally fighting [the] air. And willing to do it for the principle, and maybe the political boost."

Hallinan barely won reelection four years ago, and his office has been under attack in the local press for winning a lower percentage of its cases than any D.A.'s office in the state. Many also believe that Hallinan will almost certainly lose support among blacks for indicting the city's first black police chief.

But the liberal city may take a sympathetic view of a prosecutor who is willing to go after the Police Department, where officers with mountains of citizen complaints can still get promotions.

"His name ID is virtually 100% now," said Don Solem, a campaign consultant and public relations specialist here. "That is always helpful. And No. 2, he looks like he is fighting the Establishment. I wouldn't count him out on this."

The second of six sons, Hallinan grew up in a politically radical and wealthy family. His father, the late Vincent Hallinan, was jailed several times for contempt of court during his renowned career as a criminal defense attorney.

Terence and his brothers were picked on at school because of their father's leftist views, so Vincent Hallinan had a boxing ring built for them and taught them to fight. The elder Hallinan was behind bars during Terence's teen years, and the son got into many scrapes with the police.

The State Bar of California, alarmed at Hallinan's police record, later tried to deny him a license to practice law. But Hallinan's mother was always proud of her boys, whom she called "my wild Irish rogues."

A former criminal defense lawyer and elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Hallinan had no prosecutorial experience when voters elected him district attorney.

He brought to the office a history of sour experience with the police. In 1968, a San Francisco officer bashed Hallinan's head when he attended an antiwar demonstration as an attorney for the Associated Students of San Francisco State University.

He had to have 16 stitches, and the police charged him with assault. Terence's father defended his son, and a jury acquitted him. The younger Hallinan then sued the Police Department as a result of his injuries, and a jury awarded him more than $10,000.

Hallinan was arrested 16 times during civil rights marches, and he has told others that the FBI kept a file on him. As a criminal defense lawyer, he routinely cross-examined police and came to view them with marked skepticism.

"This guy is a political animal," Passaglia said. "And he hates the cops. He has been at odds with cops the entire time he has been in that office."

Hallinan's strained relationship with the Police Department has taken many turns since he became district attorney. The police blame him for San Francisco's low conviction rate. He chides officers for misusing overtime, an issue that hits their pocketbooks.

The D.A. is not alone in criticizing the department. Because the SFPD is the only police department in a city that doubles as a county, endorsements by the Police Officers Assn. are highly coveted by political candidates here.

"The price of that is the police are able to get away with a lot of stuff -- lax management, [big] overtime budgets and appointments to high command positions that don't reflect necessarily the ability of the person to do the job," said Jeff Brown, for 22 years the city's elected public defender and now a member of the California Public Utilities Commission.

When the indicted police officers were arraigned last week, police crammed the hallways of the Hall of Justice. A reporter asked Hallinan what he thought of the scene. With a disgusted shrug, the D.A. said before a television camera: "I hope they are not on overtime for this."

Police have hurled the insults right back. In an interview with The Times several years ago, Police Capt. Gregory Corrales was asked how police regarded Hallinan.

"He is held in the esteem that one would imagine a renowned drug attorney would be held in by working cops," Corrales said. The supervisor of two of the off-duty officers involved in the brawl, Corrales is now among the indicted.

For nearly a week, Hallinan talked tough about the indictments and compared the police cover-up to Watergate. But on Friday, he said he might ask a court to drop the charges against the command staff if he decides that there is not enough evidence to win convictions. Whatever his ultimate decision, political observers said, Hallinan will try to emerge as a crusader against police brutality.

"When Hallinan is in trouble, he goes left [politically] because that is where his base is," said Jeff Brown, the veteran public defender. "This case is a challenge to him, and going left means taking these cops on."

As an elected official, Hallinan has drawn votes from the most liberal segments of an extremely liberal city: tenant activists, medical marijuana supporters, ethnic minorities and gays. Some of his most visible prosecutions have been aimed at shoring up that base.

Early in his tenure, Hallinan charged a landlord with manslaughter after a balcony in his building collapsed, killing a woman and injuring many others during a party.

He made a statement by prosecuting the case personally. But that strategy backfired: Jurors later gave him poor reviews. The landlord was convicted of two misdemeanor building code violations, and one was reversed on appeal.

Hallinan's office made another splash in 2001, in the case of a San Francisco woman who died in a dog mauling. The D.A. brought the case to a grand jury, seeking manslaughter charges against the owners of the dogs. Instead, the grand jury returned an indictment of second-degree murder against one defendant, Marjorie Knoller.

A jury convicted Knoller of the charge, but the trial judge reduced it to manslaughter.

As in the current police investigation, Hallinan's critics said he had let the panel go its own way -- a so-called "runaway" grand jury -- rather than forcing the civilian jurors to bend to the law.

Attorney William L. Osterhoudt said he knows of no other case in which a San Francisco D.A. allowed grand jurors to file charges beyond what the prosecution wanted.

"I don't know what [Hallinan] does in there ...," the lawyer said. "Terry apparently just lets the evidence all hang out. It is a very peculiar thing."

Two former prosecutors said Hallinan gave speeches to the grand jury in the police case and lost control because of his inexperience as a prosecutor. And a deputy D.A. who presented the case also failed to rein in the jurors, they said.

There is no one in the D.A.'s office who will stand up to Hallinan because of his power to terminate underlings, lawyers said. Brown said there are plenty of "yes" men in the office, adding: "He needs a guy around him who is a 'no' man."

Hallinan told The Times on Friday that he will decide whether to proceed with the prosecution after reviewing more carefully the grand jury records.

"I will read the whole thing over and see what I have got there," he said. "I really can't worry about the politics of it."

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