Friday, February 18, 2011 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A San Francisco City College student was found not guilty of gun-related charges Thursday afternoon after a weeklong trial that revealed police tampered with the crime scene.
LaRon Johnson, 24, was found not guilty of receiving stolen property, concealing a firearm in a vehicle and concealing a loaded firearm. The jury deliberated just over two hours before reaching its verdict, said Johnson’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jennie Otis. Johnson is the second public defender client acquitted of gun charges in the past year due to evidence tampering by police. He faced a year in jail if convicted of the misdemeanor charges.
Johnson, a San Francisco native with no prior convictions, was arrested June 23, 2010 while parked on a Bayview street. The fulltime student had fallen asleep while waiting for his girlfriend, who was visiting a friend, Otis said. Police officers who knocked on his window claimed to see him conceal an object.
A search of Johnson’s car revealed a stolen handgun, of which Johnson denied prior knowledge. Johnson volunteered to the officers that he had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket.
What happened next would become critically important in Johnson’s trial.
“The officer documenting the crime scene took the marijuana and placed it next to the gun, staging the photographs so that a viewer would connect the gun with the drugs,” Otis said. “That’s unethical. The officer’s job is to document the evidence, not cast it in a light that makes Mr. Johnson appear most guilty.”
The officer admitted on the stand that he placed the marijuana next to the gun. Johnson, who also took the stand, testified that the gun had likely been left in the car by an acquaintance. Johnson’s grandmother testified that her grandson would frequently loan out his vehicle.
In the end, it was the evidence tampering that set Johnson free.
“Jurors felt that if the photos weren’t an honest representation, they probably couldn’t trust a lot of things about the case,” Otis said.
The verdict comes less than a year after a jury acquitted Wayne Lee Banks Jr., 26, of carrying a concealed weapon. Banks, also a City College student with no prior convictions, was charged after police submitted photographs of his legal, unloaded gun partially wedged into the corner of his seat during a traffic stop. Banks maintained the gun was in plain sight. During cross examination, the sergeant admitted that the photographs were taken after he had handled the gun and placed it in that position. Banks was acquitted March 24, 2010.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the deliberate compromising of evidence in both cases was disturbing.
“A fair, unbiased justice system depends on police officers honestly documenting the evidence,” Adachi said. “Fortunately, we were able to prove that tampering occurred in these two cases and justice prevailed.”