One family’s long wait for justice … and still counting
By Chuck Remsberg
How long should it take before a suspect who’s in custody stands trial for murdering a police officer?
Five years and counting — does that sound reasonable?
More like a travesty of justice, in the eyes of San Jose, Calif., officers and the frustrated family of rookie Jeff Fontana who was gunned down with a fatal shot to the face on what appears to have been a vehicle stop in the early hours of Oct. 28, 2001.
Eleven days later, a 22-year-old fugitive with a long rap sheet was arrested and charged. Since then, he’s been to court more than 100 times on motions and hearings before three different judges, been represented by four lawyers, has compiled 2,500 pages of transcripts. And still he has not faced the full consequences of his alleged responsibility for the ultimate homicide, the wanton slaying of a peace officer.
This week, Jeff Fontana’s parents, Tony and Sandy Fontana, met with prosecutor Lane Liroff for yet another update on the case. He told them he felt the case “is getting closer to trial,” but Sandy emerged from the meeting feeling at least another 6 months of waiting lie ahead. “Every prediction I’ve given,” Liroff admitted to PoliceOne, “has been way off.”
“I used to think we had a great judicial system,” Sandy Fontana told PoliceOne. “Now I think it’s a horrible system. Endless frustration — that’s what it is, totally.”
Twenty-four-year-old Jeffrey Fontana, who’d wanted to be a cop since he was 8 or 10 years old and who said his academy graduation was the proudest day of his life, was two weeks into patrolling on his own for San Jose PD when he met his killer. “We will never really know what happened until the murderer speaks,” says his mother.
He was slain in a tiny cul-de-sac in a “bucolic” upscale neighborhood before dawn. A resident heard a gunshot and phoned 911. Jeff was found sprawled on his back on the pavement between his unit and a “nondescript” Hyundai, his flashlight nearby. He’d been shot through the right eye. His pistol was still snapped in his holster. “I only hope he died instantly,” his mother says.
It was easy to finger DeShawn Campbell as the suspect. The Hyundai and the gun used to kill Jeff belonged to Campbell’s father. DeShawn’s keys were in the ignition, and his fingerprints were in the car. He was on the lam from two felony warrants and has a criminal history that includes robbery and assaulting police officers.
A young woman who was with Campbell and others shortly before the murder told investigators they’d been listening to a radio show that discussed how best to kill someone wearing soft body armor — by shooting them in the head.
What may have brought Campbell to the neighborhood is publicly unclear. One report says the area had been plagued with a series of car break-ins. Sandy Fontana says she’s heard rumors of a drug party, a fight, a threat to kill an adversary, a quick trip home to get a gun, and an angry return that was interrupted by Jeff’s car stop.
Whatever, an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip led to where Campbell was hiding out, and the police hauled him in. “He should have been in jail” on the charges that were pending against him when Jeff was killed, Sandy says. “But he’d convinced a judge that he should be released to help care for his child” he’d fathered by a girlfriend.
After a preliminary hearing when evidence was ruled sufficient for Campbell to stand trial for Jeff’s murder, Sandy says she and Tony were told by Prosecutor Liroff to expect the case to drag on for three or four years. “Now,” she says, “it’s five going to six.”
There have been so many hearings and promises of “imminent” trial that the Fontanas have stopped going to most of the proceedings in despair of anything substantive taking place beyond yet another defense motion and another inevitable postponement.
For Campbell, a speedy trial is no priority. Since Jeff’s murder, he has been found guilty of four felonies and has been sentenced to nearly 20 years. He’s serving the time in county jail rather than prison to allow convenient access to his attorney in the Fontana case.
Initially Campbell was assigned to public defenders. A major delay occurred after one of those lawyers also agreed to represent him in a civil wrongful death suit brought by the Fontanas as a backstop to the criminal proceedings. A judge ruled this a conflict of interest, and Campbell was assigned to private counsel, still paid for by the county.
Some of the defense’s delaying motions Sandy considers plainly “ridiculous.” One, for instance, sought (unsuccessfully) to have the entire county prosecutor’s office recused from the case because of defense dissatisfaction with Liroff. Another petitioned for delay (successfully) because the defense attorney broke a finger. “What can’t a lawyer do with one finger broken?” Sandy asks. “Our feeling is that the defense is using any tactic for delaying this more and more.”
Right now, although the Fontanas were told the case would go to trial last December [’05], Campbell’s lawyer, Ed Sousa, is waging a determined battle to have the defendant ruled mentally retarded so he would not be eligible for the death penalty. When a judge decreed last month that the prosecution as well as the defense could conduct testing, Sousa appealed to the state Supreme Court and got a stay that could last at least until the end of this year.
It’s like the shopworn defense strategy of stalling until witnesses die, disappear, forget or wear out — on steroids.
Sousa, who has defended more than a dozen accused killers, has said that the trial could begin “tomorrow” if the state would back off of pursuing the death penalty. The Fontanas oppose this compromise.
The long ordeal, Liroff told PoliceOne, “has been terrible. California cases always seem to move slower than in the rest of the country.” But judges in the Fontana murder seem to have been particularly “unwilling to push the case. None of the judges has any death penalty experience and there is almost no case law in California where mental retardation is claimed. We’re making new law in almost every step we take.”
Meanwhile, the Fontanas wait for justice and, hopefully, some degree of closure that may come with it. Last June [’06] Sandy quit her job in human resources with the San Francisco ’49ers to devote full time to monitoring the case. She has written the governor, the state attorney general and others in an effort to get the trial pushed forward. After polite run-arounds, she has concluded that “nobody oversees judges and attorneys.”
Defense lawyer Sousa has told one inquiring reporter that his pre-trial motions have taken so long because he is “being meticulous with the responsibility of trying to save a young man’s life.”
Prosecutor Liroff, whom the Fontanas like and do not criticize, tells them he’s cautious with the case for fear of creating grounds for dismissal or appeal. He keeps a rubbing from Jeff’s tombstone framed on his office wall. The prosecution of DeShawn Campbell is his only assignment.
While the Fontana matter has snailed across some 61 months without resolution, other officer homicides in other jurisdictions in the area that occurred after Jeff’s have already been in court and disposed of, as have other high-profile civilian murders.
Each year on the anniversary of Jeff’s slaying, the Fontanas hold a public vigil as a visible reminder that the case is still in limbo. This year hundreds of officers, relatives and others gathered at dusk around the spot Jeff was found shot. A large photo of him, smiling broadly, was propped against a light pole, surrounded by flowers.
The crowd followed a row of uniformed officers on horseback to a nearby dog park that’s been named for him and appointed with a bronze statue of him in uniform. He has his arm extended to a child who’s wearing Jeff’s hat and saluting him. “He was very good at working with children to solve problems,” his mother says.
At the vigil, Chief Rob Davis expressed his frustration at telling the Fontana family year after year to “hang in there. Five years is too long,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
“Aside from Jeff being my son, he was a police officer,” Sandy says. “How must all this make other officers feel every day when they put on their gun and badge to go to work? If they don’t get justice for one of their own, how must they feel?”
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[For more details on Jeff Fontana’s murder and the delays in bringing his suspected killer to justice, read
[For more details on Jeff Fontana’s murder and the delays in bringing his suspected killer to justice, read Suspected cop killer in limbo].
[Our thanks to Juan Reyes, editor of the police union publication The Vanguard, and Ofcr. Becky Marquez, liaison to the Fontana family from the San Jose Police Officers Assn., for their help in facilitating this report.]
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