San Francisco, CA — A man facing life in prison for a 2009 shooting that left one man dead and another seriously injured was acquitted of all charges, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated for one day before reaching their verdict Thursday afternoon, finding Diante Johnson, 23, not guilty of murder and attempted murder. Both charges carried gun enhancements.
The Daly City resident was accused of fatally shooting 23-year-old Marquez Benson and wounding another man Aug. 27, 2009 as the victims sat in a parked car at 9 a.m. in the Bayview District. U.S. Marshals arrested Johnson the following month in Ogden, Utah.
But evidence presented at the nearly three-week trial raised questions of the gunman’s identity and cast doubt on prosecutors, who withheld critical evidence until the eve of trial and claimed to have lost a tape that would have assisted in Johnson’s defense, said Johnson’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt.
Quandt also presented testimony from two eyewitnesses to the shooting who said the gunman had dreadlocks. Johnson has never had dreadlocks.
Quandt said the withholding of evidence likely troubled jurors and factored into their decision. At issue was a taped interview with a neighbor who saw a dreadlocked man in the area shortly before the shooting. The woman also told police that an acquaintance told her he witnessed the dreadlocked man exiting a nearby residence, walking to the parked car and shooting both victims.
Though the neighbor spoke to investigators in 2009, prosecutors withheld the exculpatory evidence until the week before opening statements. Additionally, they claimed the tape was lost and only provided Quandt with the investigator’s notes from the interview. The district attorney’s office then found and submitted the tape on the second day of trial. The missing evidence was the single interview in more than 30 tapes that contained information that could have exonerated Johnson, Quandt said.
The judge ruled that Quandt could explore the breech in front of the jury. Under questioning, prosecutors claimed they withheld the evidence out of fear for the neighbor’s safety.
“It’s an understandable position, but there’s a penal code provision that deals with these precise situations,” Quandt said. “They could have simply given the evidence to the judge and the judge would have ruled on whether it would be turned over to the defense. Instead, police investigators and prosecutors conspired to conceal the existence of the evidence for two years. It exposed the biased nature of the entire investigation and tainted the state’s case when the jury saw that prosecutors failed to follow the rules.”
Adachi applauded the jurors’ decision.
“Jurors must be able to trust that the case they hear is not tainted in any way – particularly if they are being asked to send someone to prison for life. In this case, there was also strong evidence that Mr. Johnson had been misidentified as the gunman,” Adachi said.