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Criminal Justice

Politics, Corruption, Public Downfalls: The Year in Bay Area Court

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Dec. 21, 2022 • 9:00am
The interior of the San Francisco Superior Courthouse at 400 McAllister St., which overlooks City Hall, on Aug. 16, 2022 | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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Some of the highest-profile court cases in San Francisco and across the bay in 2022 involved political through lines.

A bribery scandal took down city leaders in San Francisco. A corruption trial ended a sheriff’s decadeslong career in Santa Clara County. A conviction for sex abuse landed a prison warden behind bars in Alameda County. Those are just some of the cases with political through lines that played out in Bay Area courts in 2022. 

Prosecutors made it a defining feature in their case against David DePape, saying right-wing conspiracy fueled the foiled plot to kill Nancy Pelosi that led to him nearly killing her husband with a hammer.

Sometimes it was less overt.

When San Francisco police used DNA from a rape kit to arrest someone in an unrelated robbery, the politics ran as more of an undercurrent, propelling national outrage and a civil rights lawsuit. 

Politics featured into a high-profile acquittal of a SFPD cop for excessive force—a blow to then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s efforts to hold police accountable.

The same could be said for San Francisco’s landmark litigation that held Walgreens and other companies responsible for their roles in the opioid crisis. 

Inside the Superior Court of San Francisco at 850 Bryant St. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Public Corruption 

The year opened with a major coup for federal prosecutors: Former SF Department of Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru pleaded guilty in an ongoing political corruption case that reached the highest levels of city government. 

Nuru was arrested in January 2020 for orchestrating pay-to-play schemes in a scandal that went on to ensnare a number of city officials and contractors. 

Federal prosecutors charged other local figures as well, including the then-San Francisco Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly and Walter Wong, a businessman who helped companies navigate San Francisco’s bureaucracy.

The scandal led investigators to San Francisco trash hauler Recology, with prosecutors accusing executives of donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to a slush fund Nuru used to treat his staff. 

Nuru was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Misused Rape Kits

The rape kit arrest that catapulted San Francisco into national headlines earlier this year began in December 2021, when a crime lab matched DNA from a burglary with an oral swab from a 5-year-old rape kit.

Police used the DNA match to arrest the sexual assault victim. When then-DA Boudin declined to file a charge against her, he exposed how the crime lab had been using rape victim DNA to investigate separate crimes for several years. 

SFPD ended the practice and a state law extended the ban throughout California. As for the victim whose case ignited the change, she’s pursuing a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. 

The Thomas J. Cahill Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Policing Police

It wasn’t long before another politically charged case ended badly for the DA.

Believed to be the first time a San Francisco cop went to trial for excessive force on the job, it marked the first real test of Boudin’s promise to hold police accountable through prosecution. 

SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel was accused of beating a man with a baton after responding to a 911 call about domestic violence at Fisherman’s Wharf in October 2019. 

Boudin filed four felony assault-and-battery charges against Stangel. The case ended this past March when he was found not guilty on three counts and a jury hung on the other.

SF Opioid Trial

A landmark victory came over the summer when San Francisco prevailed over Walgreens as part of a larger legal fight against the pharmaceutical supply chain that set the stage for the city’s overdose crisis.

The judge in the case ruled that Walgreens failed to flag doctors with suspicious prescribing patterns and breached its regulatory duty to take “reasonable steps to prevent the drugs from being diverted and harming the public.” 

Dublin Prison Warden

The conviction of a warden who once oversaw a women’s prison in Alameda County illustrated how he used his authority to exploit and abuse. 

Ray Garcia—one of five guards at the prison accused of abuse—retired last year after the FBI found nude photos of inmates on his work cellphone.  

Federal prosecutors said Garcia would use flattery and promises of transfers to lower-security prisons as a way to groom inmates he sexually assaulted.

Now Garcia’s the one behind bars, facing 15 years after being found guilty on eight counts of abuse. 

A Sheriff’s Downfall 

In another fall from grace, a corruption probe expelled Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith after nearly a quarter century in office. 

Smith made history with her election in 1998 as California’s first female sheriff. But her star began to lose its luster in recent years amid allegations impeding a jail-injury investigation and fast-tracking concealed gun permits for political donors. 

A guilty verdict in the civil corruption trial earlier this month finally culminated Smith’s 24-year tenure.

David DePape (pictured in orange) pleaded not guilty to state and federal charges of attempted kidnapping and assault. | Vicki Behringer for The Standard

Assasination Attempt

Perhaps no case was more prominent or political than David DePape’s.

Prosecutors say right-wing conspiracies sparked his attempt to kidnap and kill Nancy Pelosi. But with the Speaker of the House out of town when DePape arrived at her San Francisco home, he instead ran into her husband, Paul Pelosi, whom he allegedly struck with a hammer just as police arrived. 

DePape has since pleaded guilty to state and federal charges of kidnapping and assault. 

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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