San Francisco, CA — A San Francisco father facing life in prison for a violent robbery was acquitted Thursday after testimony revealed another man admitted to the crime shortly before his death, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated three days before finding Charles Ryan Jr., 46, not guilty of residential robbery, first degree burglary, assault, and battery with serious bodily injury. The felony charges included an enhancement for causing great bodily injury and carried a potential sentence of life in prison. Ryan was convicted only of receiving stolen property, a misdemeanor, and was released Thursday after spending six years awaiting trial, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway.
Prosecutors alleged that Ryan ambushed a 63-year-old man in an Inner Richmond District garage on Dec. 29, 2009, hitting him in the face and head before stealing his wallet and cell phone. The victim suffered a split lip and broken finger in the attack.
Ryan was arrested after he was spotted on gas station cameras attempting to use the victim’s stolen credit cards. Police with a search warrant found a jacket in Ryan’s residence with the man’s DNA on it.
But the evidence was not what it seemed. On the day of the robbery, Ryan had spotted 26-year-old acquaintance Christopher Johnson walking in the rain. Ryan stopped his car and agreed to take Johnson to Potrero Hill. In exchange for the ride, Johnson gave him the credit cards, which Ryan attempted to use to fill up his tank. Johnson also loaned Ryan his jacket to fend off the bad weather.
Ryan suspected Johnson had committed the robbery, but kept quiet in fear of being labeled a snitch. In 2010, Johnson died in a shootout with Antioch police while committing a home burglary.
After learning of Johnson’s death in 2011, Ryan voiced his suspicions. Public Defender Investigator Jill Schroeder tracked down Johnson’s brother, who took the stand in Ryan’s trial. The witness testified that his brother admitted to beating and robbing the man, confessing that he felt guilty an innocent man was jailed for the crime.
When shown the jacket that tested positive for the victim’s DNA, the witness began to cry on the stand and said, “That’s my brother’s.”
Ryan, a father of five who at the time of his arrest was preparing to open a power-washing business, took the stand in his own defense.
“Mr. Ryan provided detailed, credible testimony. The jury saw him for what he was—truthful,” Hathaway said. “Often times a jury can’t make the leap between their lives and the lives of our clients. These jurors were empathetic and understood the presumption of innocence.”
In addition, Johnson fit the initial suspect description—A black man was in his 20s, clean shaven and with a light complexion. Ryan was 40 at the time of the crime, with facial hair, large earrings and a dark complexion.
The officer who spotted the suspect took the stand, as well as his sergeant, but the two provided conflicting testimony, Hathaway said.
Adachi said the case illustrates the importance of a thorough investigation.
“Mr. Ryan lost six years of freedom simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Adachi said. “He is now free to go home to his children and pursue his dreams thanks to a public defender investigator and attorney who were willing to look for additional witnesses to clear his name.”