(KRON) — A broke homeless woman was paid $30,000 to testify about an Oakland slaying she never witnessed. An allegedly rogue detective was bent on closing a case, with or without real evidence. Two young men were sentenced to serve life in prison for a murder they did not commit. A homicide victim was denied justice because the real killer was never caught. Three children grew up without a father in their life.
This stark picture was painted in a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed Thursday for Giovante Douglas and Cartier Hunter against the Oakland Police Department.
The two Bay Area natives served nearly a decade in maximum security prisons before their convictions were overturned and their freedom was granted.
At a news conference held outside the Oakland courthouse Thursday, civil rights attorney Adanté Pointer told reporters, “Imagine being sentenced to life, to serve the rest of your natural life behind bars, for something you did not do?”
The lawsuit details how the criminal justice system can be twisted into injustice by just one bad apple in the Oakland Police Department. Homicide Detective Phong Tran is now charged with multiple felonies in connection to Douglas and Hunter’s wrongful convictions.
Douglas and Hunter were sentenced to life in prison in 2016 following a jury trial. It was not until 2021 that the trial’s star witness admitted she lied on the witness stand in exchange for thousands of dollars, the suit states. The homeless woman, Aisha Weber, recanted her testimony.
Douglas, now 31, was released from prison in September 2022. At the time of his arrest, Douglas had a two-year-old daughter and newborn son.
Hunter, now 34, was released in February 2023. “Mr. Hunter too was snatched away from his family and forced to both get married and experience his only child’s birth behind bars,” the lawsuit states.
Pointer said, “These men lost their youth to wrongful imprisonment resulting from lies conjured up by an investigator. Two men were robbed of close to a decade of their life, in the prime of their life, due to the unlawful, illegal, despicable, and criminal conduct of an Oakland police officer.”
On April 25, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office charged Tran with perjury, bribery of a witness, attempted bribery of a witness and inducing a witness to give false testimony. Prosecutors said Weber did not witness the murder of Charles Butler Jr. when he was fatally shot on Dec. 22, 2011. Weber lied under oath because she had been coerced and paid off by Tran, prosecutors said.
Weber admitted, “My rent was paid. I had spending money. And, at least once, I was put up in a hotel room for a week,” according to the lawsuit. No physical or forensic evidence ever incriminated Douglas or Hunter.
Meanwhile, Douglas and Hunter are trying to pull the pieces of their lives back together, making up for time lost with family, and getting reacclimated to living in the free world, Pointer said.
“Ten years of stolen life can’t simply be brushed off. Giovante and Cartier are now free, yet will always carry deep wounds inflicted by a broken system,” said civil rights attorney Lateef Gray.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, in San Francisco. The City of Oakland, Oakland Police Department, and Det. Tran are listed as defendants.
The lawsuit details what daily life was like as prisoners in maximum security lockups. Douglas and Hunter saw fellow inmates who were brutally stabbed to death inside San Quentin, Calipatria, New Folsom, Solano, and Salinas Valley state prisons.
Salinas Valley is regarded as one of the most violent prisons in California. When there were race riots between rival prison gangs, Hunter was forced into the prison’s lockdowns because he is Black. Lockdowns meant that prisoners had to stay in their cell, approximately 6 feet by 9 feet, 24-hours a day, according to the lawsuit.
“They suffered through … the horrors of prison. It was a never-ending nightmare. In maximum security prisons, your life is in danger every single day. And the police, the justice system, supported this wrongful conviction. These young men had the fortitude to never fold, to never break, to stand up straight and proclaim their innocence, despite all the odds being against them,” Pointer said.
Det. Tran’s defense attorney and the Oakland police officers’ union decried the charges filed against the detective as outrageous and baseless. The Oakland Police Officers’ Association expressed anger over “baseless perjury charges against a seasoned Oakland Police homicide detective.”