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Clifford St. Joseph

Testimony by an escaped inmate helped convict St. Joseph of murder

Clifford St. Joseph

John Doe No. 60, a drunk, homeless man who has never been identified, was murdered in 1985 in San Francisco. His lower lip was cut, allegedly so that the killer could drink his blood. His chest and neck were vigorously slashed with a knife, his genitals slit, a pentagram carved on his chest, and wax dripped into his right eye. Several days after he died, his body was found under a truck near the Cleveland Wrecking Co. in SOMA by a man looking to buy salvaged equipment. When the medical examiner inspected the mutilated corpse, which had been wrapped in a coarse blanket, he discovered oval burn marks on Doe's neck and evidence that his hands had been tied behind his back with guitar strings.

There was only one witness to the crime: Maurice Bork, a knife-wielding, guitar-playing escaped convict from Canada with a long-standing interest in Satanism. Two years after the murder, while he was serving time for a kidnap-robbery in which he had scratched a pentagram on his victim, Bork contacted police to tell them that he knew what had happened to John Doe No. 60. He then claimed that his former lover, Clifford St. Joseph, had killed the man in his SOMA apartment, and that the two of them had disposed of the body.

Because of Maurice Bork, Clifford St. Joseph became the only suspect -- and the only person ever charged -- in the satanic murder of John Doe No. 60.

St. Joseph was arrested at his home in June 1987 and tried soon afterward. The murder trial was combined in court with a trial for sodomy and false imprisonment, making the proceedings seem like something out of a twisted horror movie. After more than 17 hours of deliberations, a jury found St. Joseph guilty of both the sodomy and false imprisonment charges and of murder -- though it acquitted him of using a knife to do it -- and handed down a sentence of 34-years-to-life. Now 62, St. Joseph is incarcerated at Folsom State Prison, 25 miles east of Sacramento.

St. Joseph has always maintained his innocence. He says he has no knowledge of any killing, and he has filed numerous documents -- most of them handwritten and more than 100 pages long -- with federal and state courts insisting that he was wrongfully convicted.

St. Joseph's case raised several red flags for local Innocence Projects, which are now helping him seek post-conviction DNA testing of evidence still stored by the police. Such testing might reveal another perpetrator or help undermine the prosecutor's arguments, but it's unlikely it will resolve all the questions. As St. Joseph's case shows, and as we've seen with other prisoners who have strong claims of innocence, DNA technology is not a magic wand that can resolve the criminal justice system's flaws; it's not a substitute for real reform. For St. Joseph, better regulation of the use of jailhouse informants might have made the difference.

Clifford St. Joseph is an eccentric man. Tall, with thinning strawberry-blond hair, he walks with a hesitant shuffle, a product of recent heart surgery. When I visited him more than a month ago in jail, he struck me as strange and desperate for attention, but not particularly threatening. As we talked over vending-machine sandwiches, he was alternately serious and cheery, frequently flashing a disarming, bug-eyed grin. He boasted that he's well known in the prison because he dresses up every year in a Halloween costume made of found materials. This year he'll be the Hunchback of Folsom Prison.

St. Joseph has always led an unorthodox life. He was emancipated from his single mother when he was 14, and sold newspapers in Tenderloin bars to support himself. A gay, middle-aged waiter at the time of the crime, he liked to surround himself with younger -- often troubled -- men. Having in the past been convicted of misdemeanor check fraud and statutory rape (he had sex with a 15-year-old boy when he was 17), St. Joseph opened up his home to runaways, homeless people, and various unsavory characters.

He was introduced to Maurice Bork through his friend Chris Granger. St. Joseph says that as a favor to Granger, he let Bork stay with him and got him a job using a fake ID. Soon, Bork and St. Joseph became lovers. A few weeks later, John Doe No. 60 was killed.

Though St. Joseph is clearly guilty of bad judgment, it is not at all clear that he is guilty of murder.

The legal case against St. Joseph is rife with problems. Bork, who had been given partial immunity against being prosecuted for helping to dispose of the body and clean up Doe's blood, was a key witness in St. Joseph's monthlong trial. A cast of iconoclasts, ex-cons, and drug addicts was also called to the stand to offer confusing, conflicting, and sometimes outlandish testimony. The only evidence linking the murder to the St. Joseph apartment was a blood drop found near the bedroom and a bloodstain on a blanket, but this fact became obscured because the prosecution used an imprecise procedure called luminol testing to suggest that large quantities of blood had been splashed on the carpets and floor.

And then the prosecution brought in a jailhouse informant to bolster its case.

William McCray, who shared a cell with St. Joseph as he was awaiting trial, testified that St. Joseph talked frequently about Satanism. McCray, whose honesty a jail chaplain described as "verging on bad," also detailed the alleged satanic ritual that had killed Doe.

During cross-examination, McCray admitted that St. Joseph's legal documents had been stored in a box under his mattress in the cell. He said he'd "probably" touched them, but he insisted he'd never read them. McCray also maintained that he wasn't being rewarded for testifying, yet he was released on his own recognizance after giving a statement about St. Joseph to Detective Napoleon Hendrix (working with then-Detective and now former Police Chief Earl Sanders). (McCray said he was released because he had received threats from other inmates.)

Though groups like the Innocence Project Network have argued for more scrutiny of jailhouse informants through pretrial hearings, the California District Attorneys Association says it believes such proceedings are unnecessary. Closer inspection of both Bork's and McCray's testimony could, however, have changed the course of St. Joseph's trial.

In addition to the questionable testimony of jailhouse informants, St. Joseph faced other obstacles at trial. Among the most damaging, the Doe murder case was tried along with a separate incident that allegedly took place at St. Joseph's apartment about five days after the murder.

Prosecutors attest that St. Joseph and an acquaintance, Edward Spela, drove to Polk Street and picked up Ricky Hunter, a homeless male prostitute. They claim that for the next few days, Spela, Bork, and St. Joseph drugged and raped Hunter, forced him to engage in sex acts with a dog, and kept him chained, naked, to a radiator.

Police arrested Spela, Bork, Hunter, and St. Joseph's roommate for disturbing the peace. Hunter later pressed charges against St. Joseph for sodomy and false imprisonment, though St. Joseph was at work during the arrests and denies playing any part in the incident.

Before trial, St. Joseph's attorney, Harriet Ross, tried to sever the murder from the Hunter episode. The prosecution, however, claimed that Hunter was to have been the next victim in a satanic killing gone awry, and the court ruled that the two cases should be combined.

Ross tried to attack Spela's credibility by showing that he was not mentally stable, explaining that Spela told ridiculous and fantastic stories (he told an investigator for the public defender that he had had sex with Liberace and Elton John and that someone had recruited him to assassinate Ronald Reagan). The judge would not allow Ross to pursue this line of questioning because it didn't come from a professional psychologist, and berated her before the jury for attempting to raise the issue.

Trying two dramatic, violent incidents at the same time was the nail in the coffin for St. Joseph, Ross says. "The joinder of the rape and murder was the damning action. It was incredibly prejudicial," Ross told me recently. "I will never believe otherwise. Each one tried alone -- there was a good case for an acquittal or a lesser charge. But together, they were so glaringly horrible that the jury had to be emotionally reacting to the facts."

In early 2003, the Innocence Project at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office took on St. Joseph's case, and since then, attorney Paul Myslin has worked on it like a man obsessed. He has gone back to the alleged scene of the crime, scrutinized horrific autopsy photographs, read through the 23-volume transcript, located evidence that was supposedly destroyed, and searched for witnesses who testified at trial (many of them are dead, and Maurice Bork remains incarcerated).

In August of this year, Myslin, along with Susan Rutberg of the Golden Gate University Innocence Project, filed documents with the San Francisco Superior Court seeking to represent St. Joseph. They're hopeful that DNA testing of various items -- a cigarette butt found in Doe's mouth, hair fibers, oral and anal swabs from the victim, and a segment of carpet -- will prove that St. Joseph was not the killer.

But the testing might not be done, because the district attorney could choose to oppose it. (Elliott Beckelman, the deputy district attorney handling the case, who still believes St. Joseph is guilty, says he may only oppose testing on some of the evidence.) Even if testing moves forward, it may not yield conclusive results.

"Not all cases are like a rape case, where the DNA can show that it's not the [inmate's] semen," says attorney Myslin. "It's lucky when you have a conclusive piece of evidence."

For Clifford St. Joseph, who has served 16 years of his sentence, DNA testing is one of the last legal avenues available to him to prove that he is innocent. But even if testing can show that St. Joseph had no hand in the Doe murder, it is no replacement for the better investigative and courtroom procedures that might have kept him out of prison in the first place.