From: Buzzfeed News
By: Stephanie K. Baer
Judy O’Neil is 74 years old and has dementia, but she remembers her son was fatally shot by a San Francisco police officer almost five years ago. Her sister, April Green, serves as her caretaker and has watched the memory loss and confusion take over. All Green wants before O’Neil dies is to be able to tell her that the officer has been held accountable.
“She’s struggling with everyday thoughts as it is, but when you talk to her about her son, she knows her son is dead,” Green told BuzzFeed News.
The 58-year-old tries not to talk about her nephew’s killing much because it just makes her sister upset. But O’Neil still speaks to pictures of him, which she keeps on the nightstand beside her bed at Green’s home in Berkeley.
“He was her only child,” Green said. “When he was taken away, everything was taken away.”
On Dec. 1, 2017, 42-year-old Keita O’Neil, an unarmed Black man who led police on a chase after allegedly carjacking a state lottery minivan, was fatally shot by Chris Samayoa, a rookie cop who was in his fourth day of a field training program. Body camera footage showed that Samayoa fired his weapon through the glass window of the patrol car he was riding in, striking O’Neil as he ran by after jumping out of the van. Samayoa was fired and, almost three years later, charged with manslaughter and assault.
But after San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who originally filed the charges, was removed from office this summer in a deeply contentious recall election, Green worries she won’t even get a chance at seeing the former officer face a jury. In August, interim District Attorney Brooke Jenkins reassigned the prosecutor who had been on the case for two years, and she postponed the next hearing to December — after San Franciscans decide if she will serve out the rest of Boudin’s term. Now, Green fears that Jenkins will drop the charges after voters head to the polls.
“I feel like I’m being played,” Green told BuzzFeed News. “Then when the election is over, she’s going to let that officer walk away with murder.”
The case is believed to be the first time in San Francisco history that prosecutors filed murder or manslaughter charges against a law enforcement officer who killed someone while on duty. For Boudin, who was elected in 2019 on a platform of criminal justice reform, filing charges against Samayoa marked the beginning of a new chapter of holding police accountable for unlawful use of force. At the time, people across the country were protesting police violence following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
“In San Francisco, there has been a long history of officer-involved shootings leading to no accountability whatsoever, further cementing the idea that police are above the law,” Boudin said during a November 2020 press conference. “That stops today.”
While the city agreed to pay Judy O’Neil $2.5 million last year to settle a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit, the criminal case has been languishing. Green said she knows she can’t bring her nephew back, but she believes fighting for justice can give her and her sister some comfort and help change how police interact with Black men and other people of color.
Yet, almost two years after Boudin’s office filed charges, Samayoa, who has pleaded not guilty, still hasn’t faced a preliminary hearing, the legal proceeding in which a judge determines whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial. Before Boudin was recalled in June, the hearing had been continued from May to July at the request of Samayoa’s attorney, who argued that it could not proceed because a key homicide investigator was out on medical leave. Then in July, after Mayor London Breed appointed Jenkins to serve as interim district attorney, the hearing was rescheduled for Aug. 18. Days before it was supposed to happen, Jenkins removed the prosecutor who had been on the case since 2020 from the matter. (A representative for the office declined to comment on the reason, saying it was a personnel issue.)
Green pleaded for the prosecutor, who had a deep knowledge of the case, to be brought back in a recent meeting with Jenkins and Darby Williams, the new managing attorney overseeing police misconduct investigations. The attorneys tried to reassure her that they were on her side and that she could trust them, Green said. But then, according to Green and a lawyer who attended the meeting with her, Williams told her that in order to move forward with the case, they needed proof beyond a reasonable doubt “and then some.”