Did Kamala Harris Frame and Prosecute a Man for Murder?

A viral Instagram post claims that an appellate court found that presumptive Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris “took part in framing and prosecuting a man named Jamal Trulove for a murder he didn’t commit.” The post also states that Harris “paid the key witness over $60,000 in housing and relocation benefits for testifying against Jamal.” 

The claims include some actual facts of the case, but do so with misleading framing. In 2008 Jamal Trulove was arrested in San Fransisco for the 2007 murder of Seu Kuka. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 50 years. Both Trulove’s arrest and conviction occurred during Harris’ tenure as district attorney of San Francisco, though the case was prosecuted by one of her deputies. Harris did speak publicly about the case, which was tried shortly before her run for California attorney general. Trulove told Vice in a recent interview that Harris was present at both his verdict and sentencing hearings. An appeals court overturned Trulove’s conviction four years later, finding that the prosecution had likely prejudiced the jury by telling them that its key witness had faced threats, a claim that was never backed up with evidence. A retrial was ordered, and in 2015 Trulove was found innocent. 

It wasn’t until Trulove filed a civil suit that any court found Trulove was framed, and Harris was not named in the suit. He filed a suit for damages against the police involved in his case, and a federal jury determined the two lead homicide inspectors on the case were at fault. Trulove was awarded a $10 million settlement plus legal fees, which San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved in 2019, after the jury unanimously found that the inspectors fabricated evidence and left out key information that would have hurt the prosecution’s case. Though her office may have benefited from it, Harris was not named in Trulove’s suit, and there is no evidence that Harris was directly involved in Trulove’s framing. 

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  • Love this fact check! Great job!

  • Thank you for the Fact Check!

  • Overall: I agree that the Instagram message is unfair and inaccurate as written.

    Along with the docket sheet, I've now read — and link (below), if you're interested and don't want to incur the PACER fees — U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers' order of October 12, 2016, which granted some defendants' motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, but denied others defendants' similar motions. I've confirmed that Trulove's lawyers didn't name Harris as a defendant at any stage.

    link: https://www.beldar.org/2020/2016-10-12%20Trulove%20v%20SF%20order%20on%20Defs%27%20m%20to%20dismiss.pdf

    Trulove's lawyers probably didn't have enough, if any, proof of Harris' or any of her prosecutorial deputies' personal knowledge of, or involvement in, the alleged violations of Trulove's civil rights (e.g., when investigating police officers improperly pressured potential witnesses to identify Trulove).

    Regardless, however, there was never any chance that Trulove would or could sue Harris or her deputies in the San Francisco District Attorneys' office: Under the Supreme Court's decision in Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427-28 (1976), Trulove's prosecutors — in contrast to the S.F. police, whom he successfully sued — enjoyed not just qualified immunity, but 𝘢𝘣𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘮𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘺:

    ---begin quote (footnotes omitted)---
    We conclude that the considerations outlined above dictate the same absolute immunity under [28 U.S.C.] § 1983 that the prosecutor enjoys at common law. To be sure, this immunity does leave the genuinely wronged defendant without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty. But the alternative of qualifying a prosecutor's immunity would disserve the broader public interest. It would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system. Moreover, it often would prejudice defendants in criminal cases by skewing post-conviction judicial decisions that should be made with the sole purpose of insuring justice....


    ... We have no occasion to consider whether like or similar reasons require immunity for those aspects of the prosecutor's responsibility that cast him in the role of an administrator or investigative officer rather than that of advocate. We hold only that in initiating a prosecution and in presenting the State's case, the prosecutor is immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983.
    ---end quote---
    link: https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5758861728040203406

    Had the Instagram message instead said, of the Trulove case, that San Francisco police officers — acting at the instance of Harris' deputies in the San Francisco District Attorney's office, and subject to the DA's correction and, at least on some occasions, in-person observation and supervision — were found by a civil jury to have violated Trulove's rights, that would have been accurate and fair.

    That Harris wasn't personally liable to Trulove under section 1983, however, is no endorsement of her competency, fairness, or even adequacy as a district attorney.

    Still, note how this plays into the current political debate — pushed to the forefront of the news by the George Floyd case — over Democrat proposals to abolish qualified immunity for police officers. Before allowing Trulove's case to go to trial, Judge Rogers considered the remaining defendants' motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. She found that at least on some of Trulove's claims and as to some of the remaining defendants, Trulove had submitted sufficient evidence to overcome that qualified immunity:

    ---begin quote---
    Qualified immunity for defendants is denied because there are triable issues of material fact on the underlying constitutional violations. Depending upon the jury’s determination of the disputed issues of fact, the defendants would not be entitled to qualified immunity, since a reasonable officer at the time would have known that such conduct violated clearly established constitutional rights.
    ---end quote---
    link: https://www.beldar.org/2020/2018-02-27%20Trulove%20v%20SF%20order%20on%20Defs%27%20msj%20based%20on%20qual%20immunity.pdf

    Indeed, Sen. Harris has co-sponsored a resolution in the Senate — but oddly, not a bill, meaning this is just a publicity stunt rather than something which could conceivably change the current law — calling for the abolition of qualified immunity for "law enforcement officers":

    ---begin quote---
    “Law enforcement should not be completely shielded from accountability when they violate someone’s civil rights,” said Senator Harris. “It is clear that the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine is broken and in need of reform. It is time that we say clearly that police officers should be held accountable to the law and to the people they are sworn to protect, period.”
    --- end quote----
    link: https://www.harris.senate.gov/news/press-releases/harris-markey-booker-introduce-senate-resolution-to-abolish-qualified-immunity-for-law-enforcement-hold-officers-accountable-for-police-brutality

    Her statement only refers to "police officers," but in some contexts, prosecutors are indeed considered "law enforcement officers." So how does Candidate Harris feel about abolishing the current absolute immunity of the state prosecutors, at whose ultimate upstream direction many of those police officers are acting during criminal investigations?

    Maybe the Dispatch should ask!

  • More substantively, regarding this: "A retrial was ordered, and in 2015 Trulove was found innocent."

    In a criminal trial, the defendant is not "found innocent" even when he's won. The jury can either find the defendant "guilty" or "not guilty." Their options do not include "innocent." And because of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, it's entirely possible and proper for a jury to return a "not guilty" verdict even if they think it's more likely than not that the defendant is indeed guilty.

    Indeed, some defense lawyers explicitly argue to jurors, "Hey, it's okay if you think my client might be guilty, or even probably is guilty. But the evidence just isn't enough to eliminate all reasonable doubts, and therefore your duty is to acquit by finding my client 'not guilty.'"

    Historically, some newspapers would report that a particular defendant had been found "innocent" because of concerns that during editing, someone might accidentally omit the word "not," and the paper would publish a mistaken report that the defendant had been found "guilty," thereby exposing the newspaper to civil liability for libel.

  • A quibble, re this: "Trulove was awarded a $10 million settlement plus legal fees, which San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved in 2019 ...."

    My reaction as a civil trial lawyer, upon reading this, was "wha?"

    The word "awarded" typically refers to either a jury verdict for money damages and/or the final judgment entered thereupon or, if it's been a mandatory arbitration, to an arbitration award. Nobody gets "awarded" a settlement; by its nature, a settlement is a compromise between the parties, rather than a resolution imposed by a court (or arbitration panel award, enforceable by courts).

    Your LA Times link is paywalled, so I'm not sure how it was worded there. But as reported by AP:

    ---begin quote---
    A federal jury last year determined the two lead homicide detectives had violated Trulove’s civil rights and awarded him $14.5 million. Trulove accepted the $13.1 million offer in exchange for the city’s dropping of its appeal.
    ---end quote---
    link: https://apnews.com/7a67ccc75fc041cf9febcced681eed66

    This version does make perfect sense to me: Neither side could know for sure whether the $14.1 million trial court award would be affirmed on appeal; and both sides would incur additional attorneys fees, and expend time and effort, if the city pursued an appeal (even if eventually Trulove's appellate attorneys fees might be tacked on, provided the trial court's verdict was affirmed on appeal). These are all traditional and extremely rational reasons why cases often settle before the appeal gets under way. And that juncture in the life of a lawsuit — when everything is finished in the trial court — is indeed a good time for both sides to reassess their positions and consider anew, and with the benefit of the trial court decision, whether to then compromise.

    That there was such a modest discount off the trial court judgment amount, moreover, tells me that the lawyers privately advising the Board of Supervisors thought the City's chances of winning on appeal were relatively poor.

    1. Bah. Editing error. My comment above ought to have read: "Neither side could know for sure whether the $14.5 million trial court award would be affirmed on appeal ...."

      I blush, especially because my original comment was a quibble about the lack of precision. Where's that editing function we've all be clamoring for, Dispatchers?

      1. *in best impersonation of Bill Clinton’s voice” I feel your pain.

  • Thank you for another informative Fact Check. I appreciate your thorough approach to this work.

  • Thank you for another fact check..context and full disclosure is important. Everyone should take a deep breath and have some charity for the attorneys and judges in our midst. Justice is part of life and life is messy: even the best among us will fail at times. Our society has set up our legal system, and lawyers in particular, to effectively be the only shield for an innocent man, a defense that can be thrown aside by ruthless, amoral people within that system. This is obvious to the wealthy, who hire a team of attorneys as extra "shields".

    1. i agree. Criminal Lawyers can have a tough job. If you're compassionate, you're lambasted fof being soft on crime. If you strictly follow the letter of the law, you are considered unjust and heartless.

  • Always love the Fact Checks.

  • Be great if you could take some of the claims Kevin Williamson makes in his article about her. Can evaluate claims without including Williamson’s name. Saw some comments that he was unfairly criticizing her for what mostly deputies did but he’s usually fair so I am curious. https://bit.ly/3anFVNV

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