Delay triggers chaos in court.
On Friday a San Francisco Superior Court judge pushed back the preliminary hearing of former SFPD Officer Chris Samayoa, who shot dead Keita “Icky” O’Neil in 2017.
The hearing was delayed until July, a decision that caused outrage among O’Neil’s supporters, who were thrown out of court for the outburst.
“I’m so emotional, this is affecting me more than I thought it would,” said April Green, O’Neil’s aunt, who attended Friday’s hearing at the Hall of Justice. “I was believing in a system that I thought was fair. I don’t know how to respond to this.”
O’Neil’s supporters fear that postponing the matter to July may alter the case, since District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office is prosecuting Samayoa, and he faces a recall election in June.
James Conger, an attorney with the District Attorney’s office who is prosecuting Samayoa, argued that the defense is “doing District Attorney shopping. In other words, the recall is in June, and they hope it succeeds and they’ll get a better deal with a different District Attorney,” he said during the hearing.
Julia Fox, the defense attorney for Samayoa, shot back that holding the hearing on Monday was also a political move. “I’m very comfortable addressing the ‘elephant in the room.’ It’s very obvious this is a political Hail Mary for Chesa Boudin,” Fox said.
On Dec. 1, 2017, Samayoa shot O’Neil, who was unarmed, video footage showed. O’Neil was pursued as a potential carjacking suspect. In November, 2020, District Attorney Chesa Boudin filed felony criminal charges against Samayoa for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, excessive force, and assault with a firearm. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors granted O’Neil’s mother a $2.5 million settlement.
Fox said the hearing should be postponed, because San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Mark Hutchings, a key homicide investigator, would be on sick leave until July 14. Hutchings allegedly took a statement from a witness that O’Neil’s state of mind was skewed from “smoking crack” that Fox felt was important to the case.
“It would be atypical to not have a lead homicide investigator present at a preliminary trial,” Fox said. “I think a magistrate would very much like to hear that.” She argued that this morning that another witness and Hutchings’s partner, Sgt. Scott Warnke, was involved in another trial that was extended to June 2. As a result, he may be unavailable for testimony.
Fox also asked for more time so she could file a motion to get access to police misconduct records on Samayoa’s field training Officer Edric Talusan, who was present when O’Neil was shot. Talusan is expected to testify for the prosecution.
“It’s unfair” to treat Samayoa differently “because he is a former police officer,” Fox said. “We ask that he be given the same courtesy as anyone. It’s not just fair to the victim, but to Samayoa as well.”
Conger argued Hutchings wasn’t needed because, in all his investigations, another person or a recording had also documented that information. He said he could call a series of other witnesses to make up for Hutchings’ absence, and a toxicology report could serve in place of testimony.
Conger further added that Warnke could attend both trials. “Trials have breaks. He can come in for a few hours.” He argued that postponing the hearing would cause prejudice toward O’Neil’s family members and community, who have been waiting almost five years for this day in court. He argued that Fox had sufficient time to file for Talusan’s personnel records — over a year — but failed to do so, delaying the hearing and allowing time to “shop around” for a new district attorney.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Russell S. Roeca granted the postponement, expressing sympathy for the family, and acknowledging Samayoa’s due process rights. “This is a tough one for the court,” the Roeca said, adding that he was “troubled” by the delay in filing for the officer’s personnel records. “But I understand the importance for witnesses to testify.”
He warned that this would be Fox’s last chance to request one, and if it’s not filed by the next preliminary hearing, the case would still “go forward irrespectively.”
“Oh, my God,” Green loudly said from the second row, appearing in disbelief. “Oh my God, oh my God.”
A sheriff’s deputy on the opposite side of the room told Green to quiet down.
“April, please,” Conger told her quietly from his podium.
Then, the judge asked Fox if the pretrial hearing could occur on July 14.
“I’ll be out of town that week, so actually, could it be the 21st?” Fox said.
The side of the courtroom where O’Neil’s supporters sat then began speaking frustratedly. One young man in the third row said something to a deputy, causing a deputy to approach and chastise him. “Step outside,” he ordered. Green and Gwen Woods, the mother of another man Mario Woods who was shot and killed by police who used unnecessary force, were seated in the row ahead and began calling to the deputy, telling him to bother them instead of the young man. Suddenly the court erupted in chaos, with O’Neil’s supporters talking over each other and four deputies swarming the area.
“You’re fucking with us, you fuckin’ pigs,” O’Neil’s supporters said as they left the courtroom.
“The judge has ordered the court closed,” another deputy yelled. “If you fail to leave, you will be detained.”
“Are you serious?” O’Neil’s supporters said. One woman at the front said, “You are evil. Evil. Evil!”
O’Neil’s group walked out, and a deputy locked the door. Meanwhile, Roeca told Fox the hearing would occur on July 14, the immediate date when Hutchings returns.
Green stood out in the hallway of the Hall of Justice in a ring of supporters with Conger, looking forlorn. She bemoaned that without a district attorney who presses charges against police officers, Black and Latino men would be vulnerable to police use-of-force and killings.
“I believe the judge already made his mind up,” Green told Mission Local. “Did you notice how extra police officers appeared just before he gave the decision?”
She worries the case will change with the postponement. The first time Boudin called her to let her know that he pressed charges, she was “in disbelief. A white man in a position of power cares for a minority man and brought charges. They know if he is not in office, [Samayoa] is walking.”