Nov. 24—San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced Monday that he has filed manslaughter charges against the police officer who fatally shot 42-year-old Keita O’Neil during a 2017 chase — the first time in modern history that the city’s top prosecutor has charged a police officer with homicide in a use-of-force case.
The decision marks the third such occasion in the Bay Area, with the case widely viewed as a test for the progressive district attorney. Boudin, a former public defender who campaigned on lenient and compassionate sentences for defendants, won a competitive election last year by also promising to be tough on law enforcement.
“I’m committed to equal enforcement of the law, and to a justice system where the outcomes don’t depend on the color of your skin, how much money you have in the bank, or whether you wear a uniform to work,” Boudin said in an interview Saturday.
He added: “We’re filing charges in the Keita O’Neil case because we’re confident we can prove to a jury that when Mr. O’Neil was shot and killed, it was an unlawful shooting, and it was an unlawful taking of a human life.”
San Francisco Police Department Officer Christopher Samayoa had just graduated from the police academy and started field training when he shot O’Neil on Dec. 1, 2017. Boudin said that while he seeks to hold law enforcement officers just as accountable as civilian defendants, his commitment to “not overcharge” extends to the police.
The district attorney could have decided to charge Samayoa with second-degree murder, which would carry steeper penalties and require prosecutors to prove Samayoa intended to kill. But by pursuing the lesser manslaughter charge, Boudin said he sought to strike a balance between his priorities.
During the trial, his office will present a jury with the option to convict Samayoa of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, the difference being whether Samayoa acted in unreasonable self-defense; or acted lawfully, but with “criminal negligence,” disregarding the life and safety of O’Neil.
Boudin charged Samayoa with three additional felonies: assault with a firearm, reckless discharge of a firearm and unlawful assault by a police officer. The three-year statute of limitations on these crimes runs out on Dec. 1, which Boudin said made filing these charges more urgent than other use-of-force cases. He filed an arrest warrant for Samayoa on Monday morning.
A representative from the San Francisco Police Officers Association was not available for comment Monday.
Earlier this year, the district attorney dismissed charges against two Alameda County sheriff’s deputies who were caught on video beating a man in a San Francisco alley, breaking Stanislav Petrov’s bones and giving him a concussion. While Boudin said he plans to refile the felony assault charges, he told The Chronicle that the pandemic prevented him from doing so now.
“Once you’ve burned that first dismissal, you have to be much more cautious, because you don’t get to dismiss and refile a second time,” he said.
The O’Neil shooting, which spurred outrage in San Francisco, came at the end of a chaotic pursuit. It began when O’Neil allegedly snatched car keys from a state lottery worker in Potrero Hill, pushed her to the ground and drove off in her white minivan. Police attempted to stop the van on Highway 101 in the Bayview, then chased it into a public housing complex, where O’Neil fled on foot.
He ran by a patrol cruiser driven by Edric Talusan, a field training officer. Samayoa, who was in the passenger seat, opened the side door and shot through the window, striking O’Neil in the head. Police said O’Neil was unarmed. Neither officer had activated his body-worn camera before the shooting — an apparent violation of policy. Samayoa turned his on immediately afterward.
Samayoa’s attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said the officer “did precisely what the San Francisco Police Department trained him to do.”
But a lawyer representing O’Neil’s family in a federal civil rights suit deemed the shooting “egregious.”
“You have a situation where it’s just completely unwarranted to use deadly force on a person … who wasn’t reported to be armed, and didn’t have anything in his hands,” lawyer Melissa Nold told The Chronicle.
The Police Department fired Samayoa in March 2018. An internal affairs investigation is still open, department spokesman Michael Andraychak said in an email.
Boudin said the door isn’t closed on a murder charge. Prosecutors can decide, after a preliminary hearing, that the evidence supports the more aggressive charge and amend their case.
Historically, district attorneys have rarely brought homicide cases against law enforcement, in part because police controlled the criminal investigations, Boudin said. Additionally, until this year, state law allowed officers to use deadly force when reasonable; the passage of AB392 changed the standard to “necessary.”
But politics appear to be shifting, with several progressive attorneys now holding top prosecutor seats in the Bay Area, and with pressure mounting after a summer of racial justice protests. In Alameda County, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley recently made two unexpected decisions: first to charge a San Leandro officer for shooting a man to death in a Walmart in April; and then to reopen the investigation into a BART officer’s killing of Oscar Grant in 2009. O’Malley is known as a moderate.
In San Francisco, former District Attorney George Gascón — Boudin’s predecessor — created an Independent Investigations Bureau in 2016 with a lofty goal: to build a team of attorneys who would swarm the scene of an officer shooting, gather evidence the way police would, and build a case. Gascón envisioned a firewall separating the investigations bureau from other attorneys who frequently work with police officers.
Boudin praised the goal as ambitious and the model as the best in the country; yet, he said, the bureau’s mission has been tremendously difficult to execute. Few attorneys have the police training, he said, and also believe in the team’s marching orders. The office has struggled to sign agreements with law enforcement agencies that grant access to crime scenes.
“It’s no secret that in its first several years in existence, the Independent Investigations Bureau was extremely unproductive,” said Boudin, adding that he’s now rebuilding the unit. It will oversee Samayoa’s case, the prosecution of the Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, and other use-of-force cases, he said.
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