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Brandon Washington

Other Exonerations from Sacramento County, California
Just after 11 p.m. on June 5, 2010, 18-year-old D’Andre Blackwell was shot to death at a Holiday Inn Express in Elk Grove, California, a suburb of Sacramento.

A recent high-school graduate was hosting a party at the hotel, and numerous young people—who had learned about the event through social media—converged on the hotel. Some of these young people had affiliations with local gangs, and the shooting occurred during a period of substantial violence between these groups in the Sacramento area.

The Elk Grove Police Department, working with the Sacramento Police Department and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, investigated the homicide. More than eight months later, beginning on February 23, 2011, officials arrested eight young men in connection with Blackwell’s death and the assault on Blackwell’s two friends, Leon Macafee and Rakeem Collins.

Those arrested included 22-year-old Brandon Washington, Al Henry Allen, and Jahmal Dawson, who were all charged with murder, two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of assault, along with gang enhancements.

Three of the other persons arrested—Raymond Shaw, Isaevion Anderson, and Kionte Lightner—agreed to testify against Washington, Allen, and Dawson in exchange for reduced charges and sentences.

Their trial in Sacramento County Superior Court began in late May 2013. Neither Collins nor Macafee identified any of the defendants as being at the hotel on the night of the shooting, although Macafee testified that Collins told him that Allen was the shooter. Collins also testified that he knew Washington well enough to know that he wasn’t a gang member.

Anderson, a member of the Guttah Boys gang, testified that he saw Allen carrying a revolver. He also said that he and other young people affiliated with the Guttah Boys or another gang called Starz had been together prior to going to the hotel. Anderson testified that he knew Washington hung out with gang members but was unsure whether Washington was an active member.

Lightner testified that he and Washington went to retrieve a gun at Anderson’s apartment before heading to the hotel. He said he also saw a black handle sticking out of Allen’s pocket at the apartment. Lightner testified that Washington was not affiliated with a gang.

Shaw had testified at a preliminary hearing, where—according to a later court ruling—he was subjected to a “searing cross-examination.” Prior to the trial, Shaw absconded and could not be located. Over the objection of the defense, the trial judge allowed Shaw’s pre-trial testimony to be read to the jury.

In this submitted testimony, Shaw identified Allen as the shooter. He said that Shaw, Allen and the others were at the hotel when they ran into Blackwell and his friends, Macafee and Collins. Dawson and Anderson began taunting Macafee and his crew, who were affiliated with a gang called Gunz Up. Macafee returned his own insult. Shaw said Washington and Allen were in front, and that Allen was so high on cocaine that anything could have made him fire his weapon. After the shooting, according to Shaw’s submitted testimony, Allen first said he didn’t know why he shot Blackwell and later said it was because Blackwell—who wasn’t in a gang—had “disrespected” him.

None of the witnesses identified Washington as participating in the shooting. Shaw said in his submitted testimony that Washington was just “standing there” and did not have anything in his hands. He further testified that Washington was approximately 45 feet away, standing against a wall and watching what was going on during the dispute that preceded the shooting.

Allen testified that he did not shoot Blackwell and did not see who did. He also said that Washington was on his cellphone the whole time. Cellphone records introduced at trial said that Washington’s phone was used to make and receive calls at 11:11 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. Dispatchers received a separate 911 call about the shooting at 11:18 p.m.

Prosecutors introduced several pieces of evidence designed to show Washington’s gang affiliations. Washington had appeared in a rap video performed by gang members that was made on the day of the shooting. Washington’s email address also had an apparent gang reference, and several of his text messages used gang verbiage.

A gang expert testified for the state about the violent interactions between local gangs from 2007 up until the shooting in 2010. The expert said 26 gang-related shootings and five homicides were recorded in the Sacramento area during this period, and he said that gang members had an unspoken policy to shoot their rivals on sight.

The prosecutor asked a hypothetical question: “If G-MOBB/Guttah/Starz gang members were in a group of nine to 11 in Elk Grove at a hotel for a party, would you expect one or more of those people to be armed?”

The expert answered: “At the time of the shooting with the amount of shootings that we were investigating and the homicides, we had five homicides in a two- to three-year span, multiple shootings between the groups, and the fact that over and over again it was told to investigators and myself that it was on sight with these individuals, these gang members know that. Anytime that we’ve seen this group dynamic, there was always a gun involved, there was always someone who had a gun because they needed to be able to, one, retaliate if they were shot at, or, two, take an offensive and shoot at somebody if they were disrespected. And if they weren’t disrespected, there were shooting[s] where no words were exchanged and they would just start shooting because it was on sight and they were a rival gang member.”

While Washington was in jail awaiting trial, officials had intercepted a written message sent to him. The expert referred to this message as a “kite,” and he testified about how gangs use these messages to communicate.

The expert said: “Just the first sentence alone says, ‘What’s gas with it?’ And that was significant to me because part of the Guttah Boy[s]—often in gangs you will have just little subsets, four or five guys, they’ve started referring to themselves as the gas team, which is the team that would basically go out and shoot people. So when he says, ‘What’s gas with it, big bra,’ to me right there that would be an indication that Mr. Washington was affiliated with Junius Winters who validated G-MOBB.”

Washington did not testify, although he presented evidence that he went on a vacation with Gunz Up members not long after the shooting, suggesting he was on friendly terms with Collins and the others.

Although no witnesses saw Washington with a weapon, the state’s theory was that Washington’s proximity to Allen at the time of the shooting—during a period of gang violence that was accelerated by a “shoot on sight” policy—made him an aider and abettor in the murder.

On June 5, 2013, the jury convicted Allen of second-degree murder and attempted murder. It acquitted Dawson and Washington of murder and attempted murder but convicted them on the assault counts. All the defendants received gang enhancements. Washington received a sentence of eight years in prison and was released on August 30, 2015.

The defendants appealed their convictions, arguing that Shaw’s submitted testimony violated their rights to confront their accuser and that the gang expert’s testimony relied on hearsay evidence about gang behavior. In addition, Washington said that there had been insufficient evidence to support his conviction.

On October 1, 2019, California’s Third District Court of Appeals vacated Washington’s conviction for insufficient evidence.

“In contrast to the evidence of Dawson’s incendiary statements, there is no evidence Washington said anything at all,” the court said. “Therefore, there is no basis that he used offensive words to provoke an immediate violent reaction. Others were shouting words that jurors could reasonably find would provoke rival gang members. The question is whether Washington’s mere presence encouraged the others to breach the peace or to commit an assault. But since the law does not impose an affirmative duty on a bystander to intervene and restore the peace, Washington’s mere presence is not enough to trigger a natural and probable consequence theory of culpability.” (The appellate court also vacated Allen’s attempted murder conviction and remanded Dawson’s case to juvenile court, based on his age at the time of the shooting.)

Washington’s charges were dismissed by a judge on May 11, 2020. On July 21, 2021, Washington submitted a compensation claim to the California Victims Compensation Board. A month later, the parties agreed to stay the claim while Washington pursued a request in Sacramento County Superior Court for a finding of actual innocence. Washington filed that motion on October 28, 2022. A judge denied the motion on technical grounds on March 5, 2023, and Washington refiled on July 14, 2023.

As part of his motion, Washington presented a declaration from Collins, who said that he had been friends with Washington at the time of the shooting and they continued to remain friends, with Washington, Collins, and Macafee traveling together in 2019. Collins said that he never believed Washington was involved in the shooting.

On September 28, 2023, after hearing oral arguments, a judge in Sacramento County Superior Court granted Washington’s motion for a finding of factual innocence. Prosecutors objected to the ruling but did not appeal.

After the ruling, the compensation board revisited Washington’s claim. On December 1, 2023, it agreed to pay him $231,000 in compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/22/2024
Last Updated: 4/22/2024
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:8 years
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No