The Joseph Russoniello days are over, but the way certain criminal prosecutions were handled under his tenure still gets defense attorneys fired up.
That was evident today during the sentencing of convicted Page Street gang member Dennis Cyrus. While U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney worked her way through complicating sentencing matters involving numerous life terms and disputes over newly discovered evidence, gang prosecutors and the a pair of defense attorneys mostly kept things civil and moving along.
But when Chesney noted she wasn’t convinced Cyrus had accepted responsibility for his actions, defense attorney James Scott Thomson seemed to erupt. “He offered to give up his life so that no one would have to go trial,” the defense attorney said, before engaging in a little rant about Russoniello’s handling of gang cases.
Thomson reminded the court Cyrus had tried to plead out at various points before trial, ultimately proposing a plea to life when the government was seeking death. The government refused, and a jury heard the case. Chesney acknowledged the defense felt strongly the case shouldn’t have been prosecuted the way it was, then refocused the discussion.
Later, when the government attorneys made a seemingly innocuous gesture of recognizing the work of the U.S. Probation Office and its pre-sentencing report, Thomson again erupted, huffing that, “Now” the government was ready to “make nice.” He pointed out that prosecutors had been critical of the report.
Chesney acknowledged that emotions have run high in the case.
Ultimately, Chesney denied a defense motion for a new trial, argued by John Philipsborn. He had made the effort after obtaining thousands of pages of new documents dealing with problems with the San Francisco crime lab. Chesney said there was no Brady violation and said the new information wouldn’t have resulted in a different verdict.
She then proceeded to impose the sentences for what prosecutors had described as a murderous crime spree in the name of the Page Street gang. Noting the symbolic gesture of running them back to back, Chesney imposed three consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of release for three murders Cyrus committed. And she handed out another eight life sentences and various other terms of imprisonment for other crimes in the massive RICO case.
In one of the murders, Cyrus beat a man suspected of sleeping with the girlfriend of a fellow gang member, stripped him naked, dragged him outside an apartment and shot him as he lay in the grass.
He was the last of seven defendants charged in the case, which was unveiled in 2005 after a multi-year investigation by state and federal agents.
At the hearing, Cyrus, wearing an orange jail uniform and glasses, declined to address the court.