Since he took office in 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown has granted 283 commutations and 1,332 pardons; more than any California Governor since the 40s.A lot of those happen on Christmas Eve, and this holiday Brown granted 143 pardons and 131 commutations. But the list did not include Napoleon Brown (no relation), who has served 18 years of his 44-year manslaughter sentence for a particularly brutal night of crime. Napoleon Brown is the older brother of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who took the unusual step of using her Progressive cred in an attempt to get her brother some leniency.
What exactly did the Mayor’s big brother do? In June 2000, Brown and another man — Sala Thorn — walked into Johnny Rockets diner in San Francisco’s Marina District as the manager was locking up. They pistol-whipped the manager, forced him to open a safe, took $7,000 to $11,000 in cash, locked four employees in the basemen, and left in a Ford Escort owned by its female driver, Lenties White.
Soon after, a nearby police officer heard a radio bulletin about the robbery, and noticed a Ford Escort that looked suspicious. So he followed it out of the city onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Then, for some reason, the car stopped halfway across the bridge in a buffer zone between the north and south lanes. The driver’s door opened. Lenties White fell into the path of a southbound car, was hit, and killed. Police say she was pushed. Napoleon Brown and Sala Thorn were charged with robbery, carjacking and murder. Brown was convicted on all counts. Thorn was only convicted for felony evading police. Because of a technicality, Brown’s charge was changed to manslaughter. Brown pled guilty, and was sentenced to 42 years.
Fast forward to Christmas 2018. Mayor Breed, her mother, and Napoleon Brown all wrote to Jerry Brown asking for commutation. Breed often mentions the hardships she and her brother suffered while growing up in the housing projects of San Francisco’s Western Addition, and blames that environment for contributing to Brown’s heroin addiction. Evidently, it’s still contributing, because just last year, Brown was caught with heroin in prison, adding another two years to his sentence.
She claims that Solano State Prison is not the best place for her brother to redeem himself and that he will have a much better chance of becoming a model citizen out of prison. In a recent statement, the Mayor said, “Napoleon struggled early on with a sense of hopelessness. And like many others, he developed a bad drug problem at an early age. His drug addiction led to a young life of crime.” She also said, “My family and our community is ready and willing to help support my brother, and we will take this responsibility seriously if his sentence is commuted. I believe he will better serve society, the community, his family, and his children outside of prison. I guarantee we can secure him access to a job, to a good home, to the counselling and services he and every other addict need for the rest of their lives.”
His freedom, she says, is “what’s best for both Napoleon and society overall.”
A lot of people, including me, feel this request is way over an ethical line that should be easy to spot.? Chuck Smith, a long time prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said the Mayor’s letter raises all sorts of questions. “The timing of it is troublesome,” Smith said. “She could have written this letter six months ago, when she wasn’t mayor — and she didn’t. The governor obviously is leaving office soon.” Smith is also not pleased because the letter omits a few facts, including Brown’s recent heroin possession in prison, and the bogus alibi Breed gave her brother years ago.
“If there are negative facts,’’ he said, “it is the obligation of the office holder to bring forth those negative facts and address them. Rather than just try to sweep them under the rug…. It smacks of ethics which are not exactly up to par in my opinion.”
The victim’s mother, Sandra McNeil, put it more strongly. “I don’t think it would be justice,” she said. “She’s the Mayor, so she’s got a little power, so she thinks she can get her brother out.”
Fortunately, Jerry Brown did not buy the new Mayor’s plea. He refused to commute Napoleon Brown’s sentence, and his office refused to comment.
The only thing left to say is taken directly from the City of San Francisco’s website, either written or approved by Mayor Breed:
Whoever you are and wherever you are in our City, you deserve to feel safe. As Mayor, I will make sure that our public safety departments have the resources, support, and staffing levels they need to keep all of our communities safe while we continue to lead the way on criminal justice reforms.
Photo credit: City of San Francisco website.