Jamal Trulove almost saw it coming.
He figured he might be arrested, or at least spend some quality time with police, after his friend Seu Kuka was shot and killed one warm night in July 2007.
"When somebody dies in the hood, everybody feels like they’re involved," he explained recently, during a sit-down with VICE at the clubhouse of United Playaz, a violence-prevention nonprofit based in his hometown of San Francisco. "When someone gets killed, you can plan on getting jacked up by the police regularly."
Trulove had made it out of the city's Sunnydale housing projects, his childhood home, where he had learned to record music and spent years selling CDs out of the trunk of his car. He'd won an internet vote to appear on I Love New York 2, a reality show on VH1. Though he was kicked off on the first episode, he had done enough right to relocate to New York City, where he was trying to develop another reality TV project and advance his music career.
But then he visited the mother of two of his children back in Seaside, California, in October 2008, and his wrongful conviction nightmare began.
He got into an argument with the kids' grandmother, and police were called, Trulove said. The officers went from almost bored to wide-eyed and agitated after running his ID, reaching for their weapons and shouting at him to get on the ground, he recalled. "I'm like, 'Oh, man, whatever this is, I'll be out within 72 hours,'" the maximum length of time police can hold someone without charging them with a crime.
But rather than investigate, as an appellate court later found, San Francisco cops tasked with solving Kuka's murder worked to frame Trulove as the killer within hours of the shooting. Though two dozen or more people saw Kuka die, only a single eyewitness agreed to talk to police. And though she failed to pick Trulove out of a series of photos and identified someone else by name, police eventually coerced her into fingering him, including shortly after his VH1 show aired in late 2007.
An arrest warrant was issued the following year when a second person facing third-strike felony charges told police Trulove was the shooter. It was bad luck that he happened to have a run-in with law enforcement soon afterward.
Despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Trulove was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. "It's the closest thing to dying," he said.
Trulove was transferred to jail in San Francisco, charged with first-degree murder, and brought to trial in early 2010. Despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime—and the fact that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable—he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. For her testimony, the alleged eyewitness also received more than $60,000 in housing and relocation benefits from the office of a rising political star: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.
Trulove's story of wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration has been told before; he even won a $13.1 million payout from the city of San Francisco. But now one of the key players is making a serious run for the White House, and Trulove is anxious to tell his story again—this time including the role Harris played in it, he told VICE in his first-ever interview about Harris and his wrongful prosecution.
As a marijuana legalization-supporting, Trump-trolling 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Harris portrays her career in law-enforcement as that of a "progressive prosecutor," an empathetic and thoughtful purveyor of help who addressed the root causes of crime rather than merely punishing wrongdoers. But Trulove's case is perhaps the most glaring contradiction in Harris' record, one critics like him say is littered with carceral overkill she declines to acknowledge.
Back in 2007, when Harris was San Francisco's D.A., the city's homicide rate hit a 14-year-high. Seventy-five percent of the time, no suspect was ever arrested. Though she faced no serious opposition and was easily reelected that year, Harris arguably wasn't making enough cases to win over the more conservative voters she might need to make a play for statewide or national office in 2010.
That may have served to make winning murder cases like the one against Trulove all the more urgent.
According to Trulove, Harris was present at the hearings announcing both the verdict and the sentencing in his case. She even briefly locked eyes with him at one of the proceedings, offering what seemed like a "smirk," he said.
"She wanted to be present for a celebration of a conviction," Trulove said. "That's what it felt like—a celebration.”
Trulove's case is perhaps the most glaring contradiction in Harris' record, one critics say is littered with carceral overkill.
Harris' victories with voters followed the win in the courtroom. Months after Trulove's 2010 conviction, buoyed by an endorsement from President Barack Obama and touting an increase in her office's felony conviction rate, Harris upset Steve Cooley, the Republican D.A. of Los Angeles County, by a razor-thin margin to become California attorney general. She has not lost an election since, and was elected to the U.S. Senate the same night Donald Trump was elected president.
Meanwhile, following more than a year in San Francisco County Jail, Trulove spent almost five years in state prison. On his very first day, he said, he witnessed a fellow inmate's murder. Later, he survived being shanked in the stomach in San Quentin, one of the most notorious prisons in California's overcrowded penal archipelago, according to his successful civil suit against his city.
Being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit—for the murder of a friend, no less—was Trulove's "worst nightmare," he said. "It's the closest thing to dying."
He stayed sane by reminding himself he was innocent and staying focused on his appeal: Every year he stayed inside, he would tell himself, You know what? I'm going to go home next year, he said, constantly reminding himself what he told the courtroom: "I just didn't do it."
Seeing Harris' name on all his paperwork began to gnaw at him, though: "It's starting to feel personal," he said. Even though she didn't prosecute the cases personally, "when it came to the sign off, it felt personal."
Trulove’s family hired Marc Zilversmit, a Stanford-educated veteran appellate attorney. He tracked down more witnesses who testified that Trulove wasn’t the shooter—and that cops had done him wrong.
One appeal, in 2013, ended in a downgrade of his conviction, but maintained that the case was sound and that the D.A.'s office had the right man. Then, in January 2014, the appellate court found prosecutorial misconduct and threw out Trulove's conviction, ordering a second trial.
The state's case had hinged almost entirely on the testimony of the bogus, compromised eyewitness. "The jury found that detectives showed an eyewitness a single photo of Trulove rather than presenting the person with photos of other people as part of a 'lineup' to identify a suspect," as the AP reported after Trulove won his payout. The appellate court also found that Linda Allen, Harris' prosecutor in the case, had lied when she told Trulove's first jury that the eyewitness feared for her life for testifying against him. (In press reports following the conviction, Harris went on record praising the eyewitness's bravery.)
In the new trial, without a credible eyewitness, and with police and prosecutors' misdeeds known, Trulove was acquitted. Such reversals are rare: Appeals courts upheld 81 percent of all felony convictions in 2010, a U.S. Justice Department review later found.
Armed with the acquittal, Trulove sued and received the big settlement last year. But those most immediately responsible for his fate have evaded accountability.
The two homicide inspectors, Maureen D'Amico and Michael Johnson, found by a jury in his civil suit to have framed Trulove, have retired, while Linda Allen is still employed and still prosecuting cases for the San Francisco District Attorney's office. "We make decisions based on presented evidence," a spokesman for current District Attorney George Gascón said. "The first jury found Mr. Trulove guilty based on that evidence. His conviction was overturned and the second jury found him not guilty. We respect the jury's decision and the subsequent rulings by the court." He could not say whether Harris was present at Trulove's proceedings or whether she had had a personal hand in his conviction.
Meanwhile, Harris left San Francisco and has continued leaping upwards. But Trulove's case isn’t the only one in which she showed herself to pursue convictions in league with dubious allies, critics said.
In a New York Times op-ed published in January, University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon described various instances when Harris, either as district attorney or state attorney general, vigorously defended cases in which prosecutors were accused of fabricating testimony or withholding potentially exculpatory evidence—stacking the deck against the accused.
"My issue with [Harris] is the way she characterizes herself and her record. If she were just straightforward, it wouldn't be a problem."—Lara Bazelon
Other critics alleged that Harris slow-rolled investigations while covering for crooked prosecutors, such as the Orange County D.A.s who planted snitches inside jails to coerce confessions. A federal Justice Department review later found clear civil-rights violations.
"But Harris did nothing," said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. The then-attorney general "even defended the D.A. (a position which lost in the California Court of Appeal in a unanimous decision)," he added. "I do not believe that her role as California Attorney General can be described as being a ‘progressive prosecutor.'"
Despite repeated attempts over a period of several weeks, representatives for Harris' campaign did not provide comment to VICE before this story was published. Nor has Harris or anyone from her Senate office or her campaign reached out to Trulove, the actor told VICE.
One former SF District Attorney's Office employee, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely and not risk professional consequences, said prosecutions like Trulove's would have had to be approved by Harris. But the approval process was a rubber stamp, and it was highly unlikely she was familiar with the details, they said, instead relying on reviews conducted by deputies, including the head of the homicide unit. (For what it's worth, this source added, the consensus in the office, even after Trulove's first conviction was overturned, was that he was guilty.)
But as with all successful prosecutions, "[s]he was happy to take the credit," Bazelon, the law professor who has criticized Harris in the past, told VICE, adding, "I do think it's important to be fair and recognize that it’s not easy to be a prosecutor. She did have a lot of hard decisions to make. My issue with her is the way she characterizes herself and her record. If she were just straightforward, it wouldn't be a problem.”
Indeed, Harris' campaign-trail description of her record as someone less interested in punishing than rehabilitating "is almost the polar opposite of what I felt and what our community felt in San Francisco," Trulove said.
Following his release, Trulove resumed his acting career, appearing in a supporting role in the successful indie film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. He said he used some of his award money to fly members of the cast to the Sundance film festival, where the movie won a special jury prize and a dramatic directing award. Last week, he and other members of the cast and crew jetted to London for the U.K. premiere. Next comes awards season, and more opportunity for accolades—and maybe his next role.
Remarkably, if he harbors ill-will—as opposed to frustration—toward Harris, Trulove doesn't show it.
"I like what Senator Harris is doing as a senator," he said, ticking off Harris talking points like reforming cash bail, ending private prisons, and enacting housing programs as welcome and necessary reforms.
"These are all positives that will help communities like mine," he said. "But you can't shadow over your past, just like I can’t."
Trulove has since relocated to Los Angeles, where he's developing a documentary series about other wrongfully convicted victims of an overzealous criminal-justice system. Some of them he knows from state prisons he was sent to, and some are from places like Sunnydale, a place he couldn't recall Harris ever visiting when she was D.A.
He does remember a brief period of excitement when she was first elected—but it quickly became apparent that for Harris, justice was political, he said.
"When election year comes around, I don't care if it's mayor, district attorney, president, attorney general," he said, "it seems like more people start going to jail."
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