San Francisco, CA – Last week, robbery and assault charges against two men were dismissed based, in part, on videotaped evidence from San Francisco crime-surveillance cameras. The videotapes, which were obtained by the Public Defender’s Office, confirmed their alibis that they were elsewhere at the time the crimes were committed. The two men, Neil Butler, 23, and Robert Dillon, 21, were imprisoned for approximately 69 days before the charges were dropped on October 16, 2007.
In the early morning hours of August 6, 2007, two airline workers were assaulted and robbed by three males on the corner of 14th and Mission Streets. Police responded immediately to the victims’ 911 call. The victims described their attackers as African American.
At the time of the incident, several groups of people were standing near 16th and Mission Streets, where four city-owned crime-surveillance cameras are installed. Butler and Dillon, both African American, were spotted by police near the intersection and were arrested on suspicion of the robbery and assault that occurred two blocks away.
Both Butler and Dillon were taken to the Mission Police Station where the victims identified the handcuffed men as their attackers. Butler waived his rights and explained to officers that he had been on 16th and Mission Streets at the time that the robbery took place. The police department conducted no additional investigation to confirm or dispel his alibi. Butler and Dillon were booked for robbery and assault with intent to commit great bodily harm.
At Butler’s first court appearance, a witness informed Butler’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt, that she had been with Butler on 16th and Mission Streets at the time of the robbery and that surveillance cameras might prove this. Quandt called the Department of Emergency Management to request copies of the tapes. However, Quandt’s request was denied, because city policy restricts the release the surveillance tapes to the police department and all tapes are erased after seven days. At Quandt’s request, the Department of Emergency Management agreed not to erase the tapes pending a formal request.
Quandt contacted the SFPD Inspector assigned to the case to inform him of the existence of the tapes and to request a copy. The videotapes proved that Butler and Dillon’s alibis checked out. Quandt informed the prosecutor, who reviewed the tapes and dropped the charges on the day the case was set for trial.
“Throughout the duration of this investigation, my client spent 69 days in jail,” says Deputy Public Defender Quandt. “Had the police checked out the videotapes that they knew were installed on that corner, Mr. Butler’s ordeal could have been avoided completely. Instead, two innocent men spent over two months in jail and the real perpetrators have not been identified.”
Public Defender Jeff Adachi has raised concerns about the city’s policy of destroying crime tapes in seven days and not making them available to the defense. “If San Francisco is going to use crime cameras, crime-surveillance tapes must be made available to the defense. Had my office not requested that the tapes be preserved, evidence of innocence would have been lost. The city’s policy surrounding use of the tapes is dangerously one-sided.”
The mission of the Public Defender’s office is to provide vigorous, effective, competent and ethical legal representation to persons who are accused of crime and cannot afford to hire an attorney. Established in 1921, the San Francisco Public Defender has a long, proud history of providing top-notch representation to its clients, and championing programs that help people turn their lives around.