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Giovante Douglas

Other Alameda County, California exonerations
Giovante Douglas and his daughter (Photo: Pointer & Buelna LLP)
At 10:30 a.m. on December 22, 2011, 23-year-old Charles Butler Jr., a recent graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy, was fatally shot after he pulled his car to a stop at the corner of 46th and West streets in North Oakland, California. After the shooting, his car crashed into a parked car and caught fire.

A resident who was a firefighter tried to extinguish the blaze with a fire extinguisher, but could not. He said Butler was lifeless in the front seat.

Sometime later, Mike Korin, the owner of the North Side Market, located near the corner of 45th and Market streets, one block west of where Butler was shot, reported that shortly after 10 a.m. that morning, 19-year-old Giovante Douglas came in, bought a cigar, and left. Butler came in minutes later, as did 22-year-old Cartier Hunter. Butler and Hunter exchanged words – a minor argument, Korin said.

Surveillance video inside the store confirmed Korin’s account. Surveillance video outside the store showed that as Butler pulled up to the store, before he entered, his vehicle tapped the bumper of a Lexus automobile.

In January 2012, Detective Phong Tran interviewed Hunter, who denied involvement in the shooting. He said he knew Butler in passing from the neighborhood.

In April 2012, John Sarriugarte, who lived near the intersection of 46th and Markets streets, told police that a little before 10:30 a.m. on December 22, 2011, he heard gunshots, the revving of an engine, and a car crash. He said he looked out his window and saw a dark car that appeared to be a Lexus drive by. He said that as the car slowed to go over a speed bump, he saw the driver’s face.

Sarriugarte was shown photographic lineups that contained the photographs of Douglas and Hunter. He identified Douglas as the driver of the Lexus. On April 6, police arrested Douglas. He denied involvement in the shooting. He said he was in Sacramento on the day of the shooting, denied driving a Lexus, and denied knowing Hunter. Douglas was released.

Police subsequently interviewed Daniel Cornist, who had lived in the neighborhood and knew both Douglas and Hunter. According to police, Cornist said he had overheard Hunter bragging about shooting Butler.

Police said that another neighborhood resident, Crosby Powell, reported that he and Douglas were “talking trash” a couple of weeks after the shooting. Powell said Douglas raised his shirt to show a handgun tucked in his belt, and said, “Don’t end up being a poster on a telephone pole,” according to police.

By September 2013, no one had been charged in the crime. The police encouraged Butler’s family to go to the media for help. A television station broadcast an account of the family’s interview with a reporter, which included a plea for witnesses to come forward.

According to Detective Tran, Aisha Weber, a woman who had provided information to Tran regarding events in the neighborhood of the shooting beginning in 2011, came forward and said she had witnessed the shooting.

She subsequently identified Douglas and Hunter in photographic lineups and said that Hunter had been the gunman.

On October 4, 2013, Douglas and Hunter were charged with first-degree murder. Douglas was arrested that day. Hunter eluded arrest until April 30, 2014.

In April 2016, they went to trial in Alameda County Superior Court. Weber was the prosecution’s chief witness. She testified that she was walking near 46th and West streets when Butler’s car came to a stop at the intersection. She said a dark-colored Lexus pulled up behind it, and the passenger got out. She said he fired six to nine shots at Butler’s car. The gunman got back into the Lexus, and the car drove away. Weber said that as the car passed her, she recognized Douglas behind the wheel and Hunter in the passenger seat.

She said she left when police arrived because she did not want to get involved. She said she came forward after she saw Butler’s father on the news asking for help.

Weber admitted that she had sold drugs in the past. However, the defense did not question her about her prior convictions for cocaine selling, grand larceny, and perjury.

Under questioning by the prosecution, Weber testified that she had been concerned about who would be in the courtroom. Asked why, she said, “My safety, the safety of my kids.”

Powell testified that just before 10 a.m. on the day of the shooting, he was near 45th and Market streets when he saw Douglas and Hunter drive by in a green Lexus. He said he had seen Douglas in the Lexus before, but he had not previously seen Douglas and Hunter together. He denied saying that he saw a gun in Douglas’s waistband when Douglas lifted his shirt.

The prosecution impeached him with his prior statement that he had seen a gun.

Korin testified about seeing Douglas and Hunter in the market, and that Hunter and Butler had an argument, although it was a minor one.

Sarriugarte, who had identified Douglas in the photographic array as the driver of the car, now testified that Hunter was the driver.

Cornist changed his statement as well. He testified that he never heard Hunter bragging about shooting Butler, and said he didn’t remember saying it to police at all. The prosecution impeached him with his prior statement to police.

During Cornist's testimony, the prosecutor asked him about a conversation they had before court that day. “Didn’t you say, ‘I don’t want to go up there and sit in front of those two dudes?’”

“Yes,” Cornist replied.

“And you said because you’re concerned – you’re afraid, right…?”

“Yeah,” Cornist said.

Cornist admitted that he had cousins living on the same block as a cousin of Douglas and that a person who testified in court was considered a snitch.

Detective Tran testified that after the news report aired, Weber came to the station. Tran testified that Weber was “very scared” during her interview. She said she did not want her name to be used and did not want her face to be shown when her initial interview was recorded on video.

Tran also testified that Powell originally told police that Douglas lifted up his shirt to reveal a gun, and said, “Don’t end up in a burning car.” The detective also testified that Cornist was afraid and did not want his name on any police reports.

The defense called a firearms analysis expert who testified that based on the location of the bullet holes in Butler’s car and the location of the expended shell casings, the gunshots were fired from a moving car, not by someone standing outside Butler’s car as Weber had testified.

On July 26, 2016, the jury convicted Douglas of first-degree murder. Hunter was convicted of first-degree murder and intentional discharge of a firearm. Douglas was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. Hunter was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2018, the First District California Court of Appeal upheld their convictions.

In May 2021, attorney Matthew Dalton filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Douglas. The petition said that Weber had recanted her trial testimony and admitted that she had not witnessed the shooting. Moreover, Weber said that Detective Tran had paid her as much as $30,000 for testifying.

In an affidavit, Weber said that at the time of the shooting, she had “significant money problems.” She had left her husband with her two children and moved from Fairfield, California to Oakland. “I was unemployed. Instead, I sold drugs in order to get money for myself and my children. We were basically homeless.”

Weber said she and the children were living in homeless shelters in nearby Richmond and San Leandro. After taking the children to school, she would visit the neighborhood in North Oakland and “sell drugs if I had the opportunity.”

At the time of the shooting, Weber said she was about seven blocks from where Butler was shot. “I never went to 46th Street,” she said. “I did not see the person or persons that shot Mr. Butler. I did not see any car that may have been involved in the shooting.”

She said she believed she could get paid and get housing if she agreed to be a witness in the case. She said she had heard on the street that police suspected Douglas and Hunter were responsible for the shooting. After seeing the news report about Butler’s family, Weber said she went to the police and talked to Tran. She said she falsely told them she saw the shooting and identified Douglas and Hunter.

She said she then began receiving payments from the police department. “Those payments came in cash and checks,” Weber said. She said Tran delivered the payments to her at a Starbucks coffee shop.

She said that at one point she and Tran had lunch with Butler’s family. “The family was very friendly and I sympathized with them,” Weber said. “I was very reluctant to continue to cooperate with the police, but I felt obligated to help the family. I was convinced that the police had arrested the correct men.”

Prior to the trial, she told a friend, Nate Reed, that she was testifying even though she had not seen the killing. Reed provided an affidavit for the habeas writ confirming that in 2013, after Weber told him what was going on and that she was working with Detective Tran, he urged her to tell the truth. “She told me that the police were paying her money and that she really could not get out of it,” Reed said. “She was worried she would lose her children if she did not help the police….I told her that she was doing a very dangerous thing.”

Reed said that in April 2021, Weber reached out to him to ask for help in finding a lawyer because “she was trying to fix the mistake she made…She said that she wonder[ed] if they were really involved and is very worried that she helped send two men to prison for something they did not do.”

Reed directed Weber to Dalton.

The writ also contained an affidavit from a woman who said she was driving near 46th and Market streets at the time of the crime when she saw a young man run in front of her car. “That person got into a car. I did not see the person well,” the woman said. “I did not see the person’s face. I did not see any shooting. I did not hear any gunshots.” She said the young man got into a dark green car, possibly a Lexus.

She said that Tran offered to help her son, who was in jail at the time on a robbery charge. Tran, she said, “was persistent. I felt pressure. I told him the same thing I had been saying all along. I did [not] know who ran in front of my car.”

After the writ was filed, the Alameda County District Attorney’s office began an investigation of Weber’s claims.

On September 13, 2022, the prosecution agreed to the vacating of the Hunter’s and Douglas’s convictions. The charges were dismissed, and both men were released.

In April 2023, Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price announced that Tran had been charged with two counts of perjury for giving false testimony at the trial of Hunter and Douglas. Tran also was charged with subornation of perjury and bribery of a witness. Tran also was charged with attempted bribery of the woman who saw the man run in front of her car.

Price said Tran had lied when he testified that he did not know Weber before she came forward. In fact, Tran had known her for more than a year. He had met her in 2010, when she had been shot and wounded. At that time, she had declined to identify who shot her. Over time, Weber had begun giving what Tran called “background” information about the neighborhood. Price said that Tran had admitted he knew Weber prior to her coming to the police station, and that he had admitted he had “sometimes provided her with cash payments from his own money.”

“Lying and manipulating a witness are serious violations of the public trust, and Officer Tran will be held accountable,” Price said in a statement. “When the integrity of a conviction is at issue in one case, it raises questions in every other case that officer has investigated.”

Consequently, Price said the office intended to review at least 125 cases that Tran investigated. The Northern California Innocence Project agreed to assist the office with the review.

In June 2023, Hunter and Douglas filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Oakland and Detective Tran. Hunter and Douglas also filed claims for compensation from the state of California.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/16/2023
Last Updated: 1/6/2024
State:California
County:Alameda
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2016
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:26 to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No