A San Francisco man who allegedly killed a man and injured a woman in a double stabbing late last year has refused to show up in court no fewer than eight times, authorities said Friday.
Dennis Duree, 40, was arrested on Jan. 11 and has been in custody at the San Francisco County Jail ever since, according to booking records. Duree is accused of fatally stabbing 45-year-old Brandon Mitchell and severely injuring an unnamed 38-year-old woman in SoMa on Dec. 28.
Tara Moriarty, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Sheriff's Office, which manages the county jails, told The Standard she could not comment on Duree's situation but said defendants are aware of their court dates and woken up by deputies to go to their hearings.
His court-appointed attorney, Paul DeMeester, told The Standard he does not know why Duree won't appear in court because his client also has declined to meet with him.
"I'm of course very interested in learning what might help him communicate with myself as his lawyer and with the court," DeMeester said. "When I go to the jails, the clients have to come to us. We don’t go up to the pod where they’re housed. ... So if a client doesn't want to come to court or the client doesn't want to come to the interview room, we have to wait till they want to."
DeMeester added that Duree has previously been hospitalized under mental incompetency in prior criminal cases, so he wonders if there is a mental health issue that explains Duree's absence in court.
"My first order of business is trying to find that out," DeMeester said.
Duree is facing one count of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon. The criminal complaint also contains a special allegation that Duree personally used a deadly and dangerous weapon, the DA's Office said.
But Duree has not yet been arraigned on the charges because he has refused to go to court, according to prosecutors. The hearing, during which a judge reads the charges and defendants typically enter a plea, has been continued eight times.
Prosecutors filed a motion to detain him pending trial, which was granted by the court. He is being held without bail.
Duree's next court date has been set for Feb. 8.
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins told The Standard it's not uncommon for defendants to repeatedly refuse to come to court, even for preliminary hearings—a crucial proceeding where a judge determines whether there's sufficient evidence for a case to go to trial.
"We have seen a wave of this continue for years now," Jenkins said in a phone interview. "This is not an isolated situation. It has become what is allowed at the Hall of Justice."
Jenkins said, in her experience, most defendants who repeatedly miss court hearings don't have an underlying mental health issue at play. In some cases, the sheriff's department has told her defendants said they just didn't want to wake up early to go to court.
"They are making a conscious choice to defy coming to court to obstruct the process," she said. "There's many reasons why they do this, including something as trivial as wanting to sleep in."
Jenkins said the court and the sheriff's department need to come up with some kind of protocol to deal with these situations where defendants repeatedly refuse to appear.
"It's unfair to the process, it's unfair to the victims, it's unfair to the witnesses who have been subpoenaed to show up and testify," she said. "It doesn't allow for an effective system of justice."
Moriarty, the sheriff's spokesperson, told The Standard the department has been working with the court and the DA's Office on this issue "for more than a year and a half to make sure that these cases effectively move through the court system."
In a letter to The Standard on Tuesday, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo said that under a 2022 law, defendants who are in-custody and refuse to come to court can be admonished by the court and their hearings can proceed without them as long as their attorney is present.
"The District Attorney's Office has invoked this section on numerous occasions, and the court has ordered admonitions on its own where a defendant has shown a risk of refusing to come to court," Massullo wrote. "It is misleading to suggest that the Superior Court sits idle in these situations when it developed a protocol for these refusals months ago—a protocol that the District Attorney's Office relies on regularly."
DeMeester, a private criminal defense attorney, said while defendants do occasionally refuse to go to court, it's rare for them to miss a hearing eight times. He said the DA's Office could obtain an extraction order to force Duree to appear, but he hopes to avoid that.
"If someone has mental health issues and the mental health issues are indeed the underlying reason for not coming to court, then I want to tread very carefully," DeMeester said. "Because obviously doing it in a forcible way may cause more harm than good."
Jenkins said her office requested an order to extract Duree from his cell at a hearing earlier this week but it was denied. Massullo said the DA's Office has not objected to the continuances of the arraignment and never filed a formal motion to extract Duree.
The court instead ordered a mental health evaluation be conducted, Jenkins said.
"We have to wait and see what bears out from it," Jenkins said. "We can only make another request if we don't believe that there's any valid basis for his refusal, that again he be forced and required to come to court."
If convicted as charged, Duree faces 40 years to life in state prison, according to the District Attorney's office.
Update: Since publishing, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo wrote to The Standard to respond to the district attorney's statements about the case and situations where defendants refuse to go to court.