Lenties White was on the cold, dark roadway in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge for less than half a minute before a drunk driver veered into a closed lane and struck and killed her. Shortly before, as a police officer approached her vehicle following a Marina District robbery, she got out of the driver’s seat—or was pushed.
A detailed account of what led up to her death that early morning in June 2000 secured a conviction and then faded from memory—until the case became renowned years later not for its own merits but its link to the powerful. The man convicted in White’s death was Napoleon Brown. His sister London Breed went on to become mayor of San Francisco.
Nearly two decades after the case went to trial, that fateful night on the bridge came back into focus when Brown asked for the court to reconsider his 44-year sentence for manslaughter. And as those details resurface, so do questions about what exactly happened and who was at fault.
Ana Gonzalez, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued against granting Brown a new sentence.
“We think he was the actual killer,” she said at an October hearing in the resentencing. “If a person throws someone in front of a train, they are the actual killer.”
The resentencing review also revives questions about intent and culpability. Did Brown push White out of the car? Was he responsible for her death moments later from being struck by a drunk driver? What did her last words mean in terms of Brown’s responsibility? What role did police play in the fatal outcome?
“There are still substantial legal doubts,” Brown’s lawyer Marc Zilversmit said in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, where he made his case about the nature of the role his client played in White’s death.
Complicating the matter was the timing of the review. Though filed in 2019, some key proceedings in Brown’s resentencing came up shortly after Mayor Breed named Brooke Jenkins San Francisco district attorney, a conflict that sparked concerns about whether someone appointed by Brown’s sister could handle the case with fairness.
Ultimately, Judge Brendan Conroy let the case proceed as long as Jenkins remained firewalled from the case.
Now, Judge Conroy is set to rule on whether to reduce Brown’s sentence under a new law that narrowed the definition of felony murder and allowed for the kind of resentencing reviews that brought the mayor’s brother into the spotlight.
The summer night in 2000 that gave rise to the case began with Brown and alleged accomplices, including Sala Thorn, sticking up workers at a Johnny Rockets in the Marina and then fleeing in a car. Though White was at the steering wheel, it’s unclear if she was waiting as an accomplice.
A plainclothes SFPD officer named Gary Watts, who happened to be nearby, spotted the getaway vehicle and made chase as it headed north and eventually onto the Golden Gate Bridge.
Video of the scene reviewed by The Standard shows a Ford Escort stopped in a closed, safety lane at about 1 a.m. The car stopped in the middle of the bridge between the northbound and southbound lanes, just shy of the south tower. Officer Watts pulls up behind the Escort.
Details are hard to make out, but the grainy footage paints a picture in broad strokes, showing the two vehicles parked in a line down the center of the bridge with little traffic around them.
According to accounts in court, White then got out of the car as Thorn circled from the passenger’s seat. Prosecutors say Brown, meanwhile, was in the backseat—a detail disputed by his lawyers, who say there’s no evidence to assert that.
Testimony and court documents say that’s when Officer Watts stood on the dark bridge with his gun out while yelling, “SF police! Get down!” It was unclear if the command was directed at White, Thorn or both of them. White stayed, while Thorn got in the Escort and peeled away. Within 30 seconds, a drunk driver later identified as Kermit Allen drove into the middle lane and struck White.
“I recall seeing she [White] went out of the vehicle,” Watts testified at trial. “She was out of breath and went into lanes of traffic.” Watts said he radioed that a “[f]emale got out of the vehicle and ran into the number three lane and got hit and male passenger took off.” Later, prosecutors noted that Watts mistakenly stated the wrong lane he saw White go into.
The video shows the Escort drive away before another vehicle swerves into the center lane before veering back into the southbound lanes.
Before White died, police say she told them that Brown made her get out of the car.
Brown got away that day. But police arrested Thorn after finding him with the Escort in Marin County; he was eventually acquitted on all charges except for evading police.
Zilversmit says the drunk driver and the officer at the scene bear more blame for White’s death.
Brown’s lawyer said Officer Watts was barking orders while detaining White when the drunk driver came veering into her. Zilversmit said the rookie cop bungled the situation, that he “had a duty to protect her, and he didn’t.”
“He had a lack of experience, which explains the mistake,” Zilvermsit said. “He didn’t see a vehicle until the Escort drove off.”
Though there’s no evidence that puts Brown in the car, Zilversmit said it would have been next to impossible for someone in the backseat to push a driver out of the car anyway.
Even if Brown didn’t touch White, prosecutors say he aided and abetted her death by giving Thorn “the nerve [...] to push her out.”
Zilversmit says there’s another notable detail, though prosecutors said it had no direct bearing on what happened: White was high on enough cocaine to possibly kill her or at least alter her behavior and perceptions.
Prosecutors, for their part, maintain Brown is responsible for White’s killing because he should have anticipated oncoming traffic.
“White identified the defendant as the person who pushed her out,” Gonzalez, the prosecutor, said in court. “She said: ‘He threw me out of the car.’”
Judge Conroy is set to make a final ruling on March 6.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org