'We’re suffering:' Rampant trial delays in San Francisco anguish victims

When four young men were gunned down inside a car in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, city officials vowed to find the killers and bring justice to the families.

But six years and one arrest later, the mothers of the victims remain grieving and infuriated. Every other month they’ve been showing up for court dates of accused killer Lee Farley Jr., reliving the trauma of losing their sons.

And six years later, the case has not gone to trial

 "It’s not OK. We’re suffering every single day. We’re suffering. We’re traumatized," said Sala Chandler, who’s 19-year-old son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, was killed with the three others as he went to cash his paycheck while on break at a Benihana restaurant.

The high-profile Jan. 9, 2015 killings expose a troubling trend in San Francisco’s criminal justice system: Dozens of serious cases languish for years without going to trial.

KTVU filed a public records request with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to see the number of jailed defendants being held before trial. The numbers were startling.

Of the 814 inmates in jail, 680 are unsentenced and awaiting trial. One hundred and fifteen of them have been jailed between one and three years. Fifty-three have been jailed between three and five years. And 44 inmates have been jailed over five years before going to trial.

These numbers likely represent the most serious cases. Most inmates in less violent cases in San Francisco are out of custody on conditional release pre-trial.

San Francisco appears to be far behind the rest of the state in bringing cases to trial. According to a report by the state judicial council, the city adjudicates just 43% of felony cases in under a year. But statewide, almost 80% of cases are complete within 12 months.

The coronavirus pandemic has only made the problem worse. Last year, courts around California were shuttered as officials scrambled to control the spread of the virus. More than a year later, the San Francisco courts have limited hearings and trials as the entire state begins to re-open.

The pandemic isn't an excuse to for the quadruple homicide victims’ families.

"They’re blaming it on Covid, but what happened before Covid? Covid was last year. So take one year away and that’s five years," said Kanikah-Mawusi LeMon, whose grandson, 21-year-old Harith Atchan, was killed in the 2015 shooting.

The other victims were 20-year-old David Saucier and Manuel O’Neal, 22.

KTVU has been following the families’ plight since the killings happened. We visited the mothers at a court date in March 2020.

"It’s absolutely ridiculous, inhumane and it just puts more grief on top of what we already have to handle with our son’s being murdered," Atchan’s mother, Ayahna Atchan, said.

The cause of the delays falls on many parts of the justice system, but one side as much of the control over when a case can proceed to trial.

Criminal defendants are presumed innocent and have a constitutional right to a speedy trail. Most defendants, however, waive that right so their attorneys can prepare their case.

But in some cases, delays are used as a legal strategy, witnesses disappear, investigators retire and memories fade over time – giving more leverage to the defense as time drags on.

Many defense attorneys, though, argue that cases in general are overcharged and prosecutors keep the courts clogged by digging in when plea bargaining.

Advocates say it’s up to the courts to make sure cases move through the system.

"It’s a big hot mess quite frankly and that’s what we’ve got here when delays are going on for years and years and years," said LaDoris Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge.

She says the higher courts should get involved and there needs to be more judges and courtrooms available -- especially as trials begin returning to normal.

"I think none of us wants to be part of a legal system that just has everybody in limbo," she said.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin campaigned on clearing languishing cases – particularly violent cases like murders and sex assaults. He said he inherited a 5,000-case backlog when he took office last year and 1 in 5 of them were more than two years old.

"It’s a long standing problem in San Francisco that cases age unacceptably," Boudin said. "It’s unfair to the victims who are waiting for closure."

Three months into his first term the courts closed, but crimes haven’t stopped and cases have been piling up. He said he wants San Francisco to begin letting more cases go to trial immediately.

 "I want to move cases. I want to try cases. I want to get back in the courtroom myself, and to do that we really need the courts to be back at full capacity," he said.

Boudin told KTVU he has made the Lee Farley Jr. case a priority and got it through a preliminary hearing during the pandemic.

Farley’s attorney, Peter Fitzpatrick, said his client has pleaded not guilty and doesn’t believe he will be convicted.

He said the district attorney’s office shares some responsibility for dragging the case out. It’s had three prosecutors since Boudin took office.

"It’s been an unfortunate confluence of staffing that has caused the delay and the mothers are rightfully anguished, but it’s nothing that’s happening directly on purpose," he said.

The mothers in the meantime will continue showing up at court – hoping for some resolution. The next court date is Friday.

"It’s been grueling," Ayahna Atchan said. "It’s been grievous and it’s been an inhumane process."

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky