By Crescenzo Vellucci
The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
OAKLAND, CA – Two men who, according to their lawyers, each spent nearly 10 years in prison “based on false witness testimony from a woman paid off by an Oakland Police Department homicide investigator who is now charged with multiple felonies,” Thursday announced a federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.
Giovante Douglas and Cartier Hunter, who named the city of Oakland, Oakland Police Dept., and Phong Tran as defendants, were sentenced to life in prison in 2016 after convictions for killing a man after a 2011 traffic incident.
But, their legal team charges in a statement released Thursday that the “chief witness against them admitted that, at the urging of Oakland Police homicide detective Tran, she lied in an interview with Tran, and again during both the preliminary hearing and from the witness stand at the men’s trial.”
The five count, 31-page pleading said, “Defendants caused Plaintiff Douglas and/or Hunter to suffer the indignity of a public trial, the most severe deprivation of liberty, over 10 years of emotional distress while being locked up for a crime they did not commit, and other injuries and damages.”
“These men lost their youth to wrongful imprisonment resulting from lies conjured up by an investigator who was sworn to rigorously adhere to facts, to protect the innocent, but who for reasons only he knows decided to betray his public duty and the community’s trust,” said Civil Rights Attorney Adanté Pointer, of Oakland’s Pointer & Buelna LLP.
“After almost two years of a stalled investigation, OPD Defendants manufactured an eyewitness, its star witness, Ms. Aisha Weber, who they claimed witnessed the shooting death of Charles Butler Jr. Making matters worse, for years, OPD Defendants then concealed the blatantly improper means used to obtain this concocted eyewitness,” according to the federal pleading.
Pointer disclosed the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in late April charged Tran with perjury, bribery of a witness, attempted bribery of a witness and inducing a witness to give false testimony. Pointer added the woman “recanted her testimony in 2021 and said she was paid as much as $30,000 for testifying.”
“Weber lied while under oath, as she did not witness the Butler murder and was merely operating under the strict instructions of Defendants Tran and other OPD officers… she was portrayed as a Good Samaritan who just happened to stumble upon some evidence while in the neighborhood (but) she was Defendant Tran’s longstanding informant, who was being rewarded mightily in exchange for her false testimony,” the suit claims.
The complaint added, “Mr. Douglas’s and Mr. Hunter’s convictions were the result of egregious and unconstitutional misconduct by the Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers investigating the Butler Jr. shooting, including lead investigator, OPD Officer Phong Tran.”
The filing added, “No physical or forensic evidence ever incriminated” either of the now plaintiffs, and the only ‘evidence’ was ‘manufactured identification unlawfully procured by OPD Officer Tran and other OPD Defendants.’”
The lawsuit argued that when the Oakland District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges in the case in 2012, “Understanding the probative value of eyewitness identifications, Defendant Tran became obsessed with securing eyewitness identifications…the truthfulness and accuracy of such identifications becoming a secondary motive in the mind and operation of (Tran).”
The complaint also alleges Tran “attempted to pressure a real percipient witness to the Butler Jr. shooting into falsely identifying Plaintiff Douglas and/or Plaintiff Hunter as the culprits…attempting to bribe this witness by telling her that he could get robbery charges against her son dropped in exchange for her falsely identifying” the two plaintiffs.
“Ultimately, even after multiple attempts by Defendant Tran, this witness chose not to join Defendant Tran in his ‘the ends justify the means’ approach to crime solving and declined to falsely identify” Douglas or Hunter,” the pleading noted.
The filing alleges criminal proceedings against Douglas and Hunter were “initiated with malice in that Defendants caused the charges against Plaintiffs…to be filed by knowingly providing the prosecution misinformation, concealing exculpatory evidence, and otherwise engaging in wrongful and bad faith conduct.”
The pleading added during Detective Tran’s “tenure as a member of the OPD, high ranking officials within the OPD knew of, condoned, ratified and turned a blind eye” to Tran’s “misconduct.”
Both men were freed after their convictions were vacated and the charges dismissed. Douglas, now 31, was released in September 2022. Hunter, now 34, was released in February of this year.
Meanwhile, both men 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. This lawsuit is about helping to heal those wounds, reclaiming their dignity, and holding accountable those who planted the seeds of this profound injustice,” said Civil Rights Attorney Lateef Gray, also of Pointer & Buelna.