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September 4, 2009 10:00 AM

Litigator of the Week: Elliot Peters of Keker & Van Nest

Posted by Andrew Longstreth

This week San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom signed off on a $4.6 million settlement in a police misconduct case with John J. Tennison, who spent nearly 13 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it was the largest amount the city has ever paid in such a case.

The settlement was the culmination of a legal odyssey that began nine years ago when Elliot Peters, a partner at Keker & Van Nest, agreed to take a look at Tennison's case. Peters, our choice for Litigator of the Week, told us Thursday that he got involved after Tennison's brother, who works at a parking lot near Peters's office, asked him if he could help out. After Peters agreed to represent Tennison pro bono, he paid him a visit at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., and began investigating a habeas corpus case. Unbelievably, he discovered, among other things, that investigators had hidden from Tennison the audio tape of another individual confessing to the murder. In 2003, a district court judge granted his habeas petition and ordered Tennison's release.

The civil case against the investigators and the city of San Francisco that followed was long mired in pretrial proceedings. But in June the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court's order partially denying the defendants' summary judgment motion on the basis of qualified and absolute immunity. According to Peters, that led to settlement discussions. The trial had been scheduled for September 21.

Peters got another great result at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last week when the full court ruled that federal investigators had improperly seized the urine samples of more than 100 Major League Baseball players who reportedly tested positive for steroids. The case could have a broad impact on electronic searches, but Peters, who argued for the players union, said he’s more concerned about the impact a loss could have had on his client.

"If we would have lost, the government would have the right to all of the tests, not just the ten [that had been subpoenaed]," said Peters.

The ruling won’t stop the media from outing players who tested positive, but Peters said he hoped that the government would investigate the leaks. "I actually think the leaks are far more serious crimes than doing steroids in 2003," said Peters.

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Elliot was a great debater since he was 3 years old. I am still so proud of his skills of articulation and his sense of justice. Way to go Bro!

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