From: SF Chronicle
By: Joshua Sharpe, 9/19/2022
For nearly five years, Keita O’Neil’s family has longed to see the San Francisco police officer who killed him face the evidence in court.
After two previous delays, fired Officer Christopher Samayoa was scheduled to appear for a three-day preliminary hearing in late August to determine whether he will face trial in the 2017 shooting. The hearing also could have served as a test for interim District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and her commitment to police accountability.
But the District Attorney’s Office had the hearing postponed, saying a new prosecutor needed to familiarize herself with the evidence. Samayoa’s next court date is Dec. 1 — the fifth anniversary of O’Neil’s killing. The only purpose of that hearing is to determine when the elusive preliminary hearing may be scheduled.
O’Neil’s aunt, April Green, said she can’t help but question the timing. The latest delay puts the next hearing weeks after the Nov. 8 election that will decide whether Jenkins gets to keep the job of district attorney.
“My nephew’s death should not be political — he was a human being,” Green said, adding that she still hopes to work with Jenkins.
Samayoa faces manslaughter charges in the death of O’Neil, who was unarmed and fleeing when the officer fatally shot him in December 2017. The charges were brought in 2020 by Jenkins’ predecessor and political adversary, ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
In addition to time, a spokesperson for Jenkins said the new prosecutor needs to interview a material witness who hasn’t previously spoken with the District Attorney’s Office.
“The case, pending since 2017, was declined for prosecution by former District Attorney George Gascón after a thorough months-long investigation,” Randy Quezada, communications director at the District Attorney’s office, said in an email. “Former recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin subsequently re-opened the investigation and charged the case. (Independent Investigation’s Bureau Managing Attorney Darby) Williams requested time to determine what changed from the initial declination to the decision by Boudin to charge the matter.”
Cristine Soto DeBerry, who served as chief of staff for Gascón, said Gascón’s administration did not decline to prosecute Samayoa. “It remained open when D.A. Boudin took office,” she said.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing, which was also postponed in May and June, was for the state to present the evidence against Samayoa, who has pleaded not guilty, and seek a judge’s approval to proceed to trial. Judges almost always approve.
Green said she is bothered by Jenkins’ removal of the original prosecutor and deeply disappointed in the latest delay.
Samayoa’s attorney, Julia Fox, had no problem with the postponement. Fox said it was understandable for the new prosecutor to need time to become familiar with the facts.
“There’s a lot of material and discovery and transcripts to review,” Fox said. “And I think to their credit, they want to make sure that they’re responsible in their obligation to prosecute cases ethically.”
Fox successfully pushed for the previous delay in the hearing back in May, citing the absence of a witness she intended to question on the stand. She denied allegations from a prosecutor that she was “D.A. shopping” by seeking to delay the hearing until after the Boudin recall election in June, Mission Local reported.
The District Attorney’s Office under Jenkins also cited a change in prosecutors in seeking to delay at least two other cases.
One involved a resentencing request advanced by the Boudin-created Innocence Commission after evidence emerged that a man in prison for a 2008 killing was convicted, in part, because police pressured a witness. In the other, prosecutors successfully sought a delay in the case of San Francisco police Officer Kenneth Cha, whom Boudin charged in 2021 with voluntary manslaughter and assault with a semiautomatic firearm for shooting Sean Moore in 2017 in Ocean View. The next hearing for Cha, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled for Nov. 16, court records say.
The District Attorney’s Office didn’t respond when asked twice whether the delays in Samayoa and Cha’s cases were part of a review of all pending police prosecutions.
O’Neil, 42, was accused of pushing a state lottery worker to the ground and stealing her van on Potrero Hill on Dec. 1, 2017. Police said he led them on a chase down Highway 101 in Bayview until he reached a dead end, climbed out of the van and ran.
Samayoa, in the passenger’s seat of a pursuing cruiser, opened the car door and fired through the window, striking the unarmed O’Neil in the head. Samayoa was just four days into field training.
The killing prompted outrage in San Francisco and gutted O’Neil’s family.
On top of the homicide and subsequent delays in the case, the family has endured the city of San Francisco’s shifting position on whether Samayoa had broken the law.
While the District Attorney’s Office investigated, O’Neil’s family sued the city. The City Attorney’s Office defended the officer’s actions, saying O’Neil had reached into his waistband as he ran, making Samayoa think he had a concealed weapon.
“Officer Samayoa reasonably believed that O’Neil intended to shoot or harm him or his partner Officer Edric Talusan in an attempt to avoid capture,” Sean Connolly of the City Attorney’s Office wrote in a 2018 court filing.
Green dismissed the notion that her nephew, a Black man, posed a threat.
“That’s always the excuse for a policeman to kill a Black man or a brown man: fear,” she said.
After the shooting, Talusan took Samayoa’s gun, Mission Local reported. Talusan later testified in a deposition that he didn’t think deadly force was necessary, court records show.
In November 2020, Boudin announced manslaughter charges for Samayoa. If the D.istrict Attorney’s office had waited much longer, the three-year statute of limitations would have passed. The case was historic: It was believed to be the first in which homicide charges were brought for a killing by an on-duty San Francisco police officer.
The Board of Supervisors approved a $2.5 million settlement for O’Neil’s mother, Judy O’Neil, in December 2021. Her son had been her caregiver as she struggled with neurological troubles that would be diagnosed as dementia.
Before his narrow election in 2019, Boudin had made police accountability a central promise of his campaign, earning him the vocal opposition of the police officers union.
Boudin struggled to keep that promise, dismissing a case, citing COVID delays, against Alameda County deputies accused of mercilessly beating a man suspected in a car theft, whom they chased across the Bay Bridge. He also failed to secure a conviction in the city’s first known police excessive-force trial. Terrance Stangel had been accused of three assault and battery charges tied to a 2019 incident in which he hit a man with a baton repeatedly in Fisherman’s Wharf while responding to a domestic violence call.
“When I meet Chesa supporters, they often tell me that he is holding police accountable. That’s dead wrong,” Jenkins tweeted two days before Boudin’s recall. “He’s failing at this.”
Jenkins has drawn criticism for firing attorneys who had been working on police prosecutions, which are handled at the District Attorney’ s Office by the Independent Investigations Bureau.
“Jenkins has fired or demoted every single attorney that investigated/prosecuted police officers, including me,” Alexandra Grayner, a former prosecutor who said she resigned after being demoted from the white-collar crime division, wrote in an Aug. 13 tweet.
Jenkins fired the bureau’s managing attorney, Lateef Gray, who had previously been a civil rights attorney. He was succeeded by Darby Williams, a former public defender who had worked in the Independent Investigations Bureau under Gascón. Gascón’s administration didn’t charge any officers in fatal shootings.
During a recent meeting, Williams made a comment that caused Green to fear Samayoa was receiving special treatment. Williams said the state needed proof beyond a reasonable doubt “and then some” in the case.
Quezada, of the District Attorney’s Office, said the comment was misinterpreted.
“In assault based cases (shootings, fights, all types of assaultive incidents, etc.), the prosecution has an additional burden: to be able to disprove the anticipated claims of self-defense (or defense of others) by proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Quezada said in his written statement. “If we recognize that there is a valid self-defense claim then we cannot charge anything criminally if we deem the shooting as a righteous use of self defense. We don’t make special standards for police, if anything, we are treating police like all citizens when we evaluate the reasons for the killing in our charging decisions.”
Neil Hallinan, an attorney helping Green navigate the court process and advocate for her nephew, said he hopes their concerns are heard by Jenkins’ administration.
“Our concern is so much less about (Jenkins’ administration) than it is about getting this officer prosecuted,” Hallinan said.
For Green, it’s about seeing justice for her nephew as much as it is about seeing it for her sister. Since Judy O’Neil’s son was killed, her health has been in decline.
“Before my sister dies and closes her eyes,” Green said, “she needs to know that she got fair justice.”