A 4-year-old federal gang prosecution finally wound to a close Wednesday morning with the sentencing of Emile Fort, a member of the city’s Down Below gang and the convicted murderer of three people (including a 7-week-old infant). Fort was sentenced by Judge William Alsup to slightly more than 41 years in prison.
Fort had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder as part of a plea deal with the government that would spare him from both the death penalty and life in prison. The other accused members of the Down Below gang had all pleaded guilty in the years since the case was filed. But suspense swirled around whether Alsup would approve the deal, given its history.
Alsup explains how someone like Fort winds up with a 'lenient proposal' like this, after the jump ...
The Down Below prosecution has been an operatic saga in the Northern District U.S. attorney’s office. Prosecutors in San Francisco opposed seeking death, but successive attorney generals, including Michael Mukasey, overruled them. Trial finally began in February, but after about a week of evidence, Attorney General Eric Holder reversed course and agreed to the deal.
At the hearing, Fort read quietly and nervously from a folded piece of paper, expressing remorse for the killings and saying that he had made a lot of “very bad” decisions and hoped to become a better person. After he and relatives of some of the victims made statements, Alsup tried to explain why such a “dangerous person” wasn’t being put away for good.
“Many of you out there are asking, ‘How can it be that someone like that won’t get the death penalty …or life without parole?’” he said. “There’s no doubt that this is a lenient proposal.”
But Alsup went on to explain the weaknesses of the government’s case. In federal court, he noted, Fort’s murders aren’t enough for a guilty verdict without the added dose of conspiracy, and based on what federal prosecutors told him during an in camera hearing, proving the conspiracy wasn’t a sure thing.
“Many witnesses who have real evidence to give refused to do so, just plain ol’ refused to do so,” he said.
Alsup then went on to ask why, if Fort’s case would be hard to prove in federal court, the local DA hadn’t taken the case. (He didn’t name her, but that would be Kamala Harris.)
“I’m not entitled to know. … Maybe the public is entitled to ask,” he said. “This is up to local police who brought this to federal prosecutors. … Why they didn’t bring it to the local district attorney, I don’t know. Maybe they did and there was a joint decision.” Maybe federal prosecutors have more resources, Alsup speculated.
Harris’ office did not respond to a request for comment by Wednesday evening.
— Evan Hill