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Hallinan Often Is Center of Fray in City by the Bay

D.A.'s prosecution of police leaders is the latest in a long string of battles.

March 10, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan -- the onetime amateur boxer who embraces medical marijuana and eschews the death penalty -- has found himself at the center of one fray after another since his election eight years ago.

There was the day he fired much of his staff by leaving pink slips on the lawyers' chairs -- when they were at lunch. There were the fisticuffs at Izzy's Steaks and Chops, where the new D.A. landed a blow on a man who was taunting him.

And now there is Hallinan's topsy-turvy prosecution of San Francisco's police chief and top command staff, a case that would daunt even a federal prosecutor's office. The chief and police commanders are charged with trying to obstruct an investigation of a brawl involving three off-duty patrol officers.

Mayor Willie Brown has publicly savaged Hallinan. Legal experts have questioned his ethics and chances of prevailing. Even some of his own prosecutors privately expect that he will lose the case and, perhaps, his job.

Characteristically, San Francisco's top prosecutor seems to be taking on the biggest and most dangerous fight of his political career almost by himself. And just months before he faces reelection. Many here are asking, why?

For his part, the impetuous 66-year-old San Francisco native insisted that he had no choice but to file the charges against Police Chief Earl Sanders and the others.

"I had nothing to do with it when those cops chose to beat those kids on Union Street and when the brass decided it was not going to cooperate...," Hallinan said of the Nov. 20 brawl. "It just came my way."

Hallinan's supporters said the indictments, whatever the outcome, will bring change to a Police Department that needs reform.

"So he sticks his neck out," said Patrick Hallinan, Terence's older brother and a criminal defense lawyer here. "He jeopardizes his own future and career for what he thinks is the right thing to do."

But others said that Terence Hallinan is going too far and that his words betray his deep-seated dislike of the police. Once the victim of a police assault himself, Hallinan had many run-ins with officers in his youth and was arrested repeatedly as an adult at civil rights marches.

"When you indict the command unit of a police department, you do it when there is some really severe and high-level corruption," said Frank Passaglia, who worked in the D.A.'s office 18 years, the last two under Hallinan. "You certainly don't indict them over some street brawl where alcohol was involved."

Hallinan, whose boyhood nickname is "Kayo," said he is undaunted by the criticism. In fact, he said, crowds have applauded him all over town since Feb. 27, when a grand jury he helped direct indicted much of the department's upper echelon.

Hallinan had told the panel that there was insufficient evidence to charge Chief Sanders and the other police supervisors. But the grand jury indicted them anyway, charging them with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Although Hallinan is convinced that there was a cover-up, he should have told the presiding judge to dismiss the indictments because the evidence is not there, said a former prosecutor who knows Hallinan well.

"He can't help himself," this former prosecutor said. "This strikes a blow, at least temporarily, that he is sympathetic with. He found out the grand jurors were on his side. He has had problems with the police for a long time."

Hallinan, he said, is "the man of La Mancha here, willing to go after windmills even though he was totally fighting [the] air. And willing to do it for the principle, and maybe the political boost."

Hallinan barely won reelection four years ago, and his office has been under attack in the local press for winning a lower percentage of its cases than any D.A.'s office in the state. Many also believe that Hallinan will almost certainly lose support among blacks for indicting the city's first black police chief.

But the liberal city may take a sympathetic view of a prosecutor who is willing to go after the Police Department, where officers with mountains of citizen complaints can still get promotions.

"His name ID is virtually 100% now," said Don Solem, a campaign consultant and public relations specialist here. "That is always helpful. And No. 2, he looks like he is fighting the Establishment. I wouldn't count him out on this."

The second of six sons, Hallinan grew up in a politically radical and wealthy family. His father, the late Vincent Hallinan, was jailed several times for contempt of court during his renowned career as a criminal defense attorney.

Terence and his brothers were picked on at school because of their father's leftist views, so Vincent Hallinan had a boxing ring built for them and taught them to fight. The elder Hallinan was behind bars during Terence's teen years, and the son got into many scrapes with the police.

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