Oakland police investigator headed for trial after allegedly bribing witness in botched murder case

An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled on Wednesday that a veteran Oakland police investigator must stand trial on charges of perjury and bribery in a botched murder trial.

Phong Tran, a longtime homicide investigator, is accused of bribing a witness to testify and identify two men as the killers of Charles Butler Jr. who was shot and killed in North Oakland in 2011.

Aisha Weber first testified that she knew who killed Butler, but later admitted that she lied and didn't see the homicide, and that Tran paid her $5,000 for the false testimony. 


Oakland police investigator paid witness $5,000, coached testimony, woman testifies

Oakland police homicide investigator Phong Tran walked to court Friday as a criminal defendant, charged by Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price with perjury and bribing a witness.

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, a progressive who's made charging police misconduct a top priority, was in court Wednesday when Judge Clifford Blakely ruled there was enough evidence for Tran to stand trial.

"If you violate the law, even if you are a police officer, you will be held accountable," Price said outside the courthouse.

During the preliminary hearing, Weber said that Tran paid her $5,000 after she testified during the murder trial.

Butler was fatally shot after he bumped into a car while parking outside a market in North Oakland.

Weber testified during the preliminary hearing that though she didn't witness the shooting, Tran told her, "That's OK. I'm going to tell you everything you need to know."

"I was told what to say by Officer Tran," Weber told the court.

"We want witnesses to be able to come forward truthfully, unafraid, and not because they are bribed or given false incentives," Price said.

However, Tran's case will hinge on Weber's credibility, KTVU legal analyst Michael Cardoza said. 

"The witness who was allegedly bribed, her credibility will be the main issue for a jury to decide," Cardoza added. "It is a question did she lie then when she said, ‘I know who committed these murders,’ or is she lying now when she says, ‘No, I got bribed?'"

Butler's case went unsolved until 2013, when KTVU aired a story featuring Tran, and the victim's terminally ill father pleading for tips. And just a week after that broadcast Weber came forward, saying she saw two men commit the crime. The judge cited KTVU's report in his ruling Wednesday.

Prosecutors say Tran made it look as if Weber took the initiative when in fact Tran had been paying her and had met her previously. At the murder trial, Weber identified Giovante Douglas and Cartier Hunter as the killers.

The two men were convicted and sentenced to life. They spent almost a decade behind bars before being released are now suing Tran and the city of Oakland.

Prosecuting the case against Tran are Zachary Linowitz, an ex-Contra Costa County public defender and Leah Abraham, a former San Francisco prosecutor under then-DA Chesa Boudin.

Representing Tran is ex-San Francisco and Solano County prosecutor Andrew Ganz.

In a statement, Ganz said, "Over the past few days, the lack of merit as to the charges against Detective Tran was exposed in a courtroom.  The District Attorney understands the shortcomings of this case, resorting to tactics like press conferences to whip up emotion outside of the courtroom in an attempt to improperly influence public opinion and the outcome, and ultimately to justify dismissing as many murder cases as they can.  The District Attorney also understands, and the public should, that this is a very early stage, and almost all cases end up getting past the very low legal standard at preliminary hearing.  At this time, I must simply respect the ruling of the judge, even though this should have been the exception based on the actual evidence and law."

Henry Lee is a KTVU crime reporter. E-mail Henry at Henry.Lee@fox.com and follow him on Twitter @henrykleeKTVU and facebook.com/henrykleefan