Tuesday, August 28, 2012 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A 49-year-old mother who fatally stabbed her attacker last year has been found not guilty of murder, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated approximately four hours Monday before acquitting Maria Elena Burgos of the first degree murder of 26-year-old Earnestine “Buttercup” Herron. Jury members, who could have found Burgos guilty of a lesser charge, including second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter, determined she committed no crime.
Burgos and her teenage daughter had reluctantly moved into the crime-ridden Potrero Terrace housing projects only three months before the March 28, 2011 killing. The pair previously lived in a family shelter for domestic violence victims. As a condition of staying at the shelter, they were required to accept any offers of housing, said Burgos’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris.
Burgos, a housekeeper and home health care aide, quickly became a target in the housing projects due to her status as a newcomer and a Spanish-speaking Latina, Harris said. Herron, a crack addict known for stealing and getting into fights, began regularly following and intimidating Burgos, Harris said.
On March 28, 2011 Herron assaulted and robbed Burgos. Warned by a neighbor not to call police or things would get worse for her and her daughter, Burgos spent the next three days too terrified to leave her apartment.
The day of the killing, Burgos worked up her courage to sit on a retaining wall outside her front door to get some air on a warm day, taking a kitchen knife for protection. When Herron approached, Burgos asked for her money back.
Herron responded by punching the significantly older and smaller woman in the face, knocking her onto her back with her legs dangling over a retaining wall, witnesses told police. Standing between Burgos’ legs, Herron pummeled her in the face at least five more times before Burgos, whose eyes were closed, struck Herron in the neck with her knife.
“Ms. Burgos thought she was going to be killed — and she might have been if she hadn’t had that knife,” Harris said.
After stabbing Herron, Burgos scrambled into her apartment and hid in her bedroom, where she was arrested 15 minutes later.
In interviews with police and on the stand, Burgos described living in fear of Herron and feeling helpless after warnings that “snitches” and their families faced violent retribution in Potrero Terrace.
During the nine day trial, the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s chief toxicologist testified that during the deadly confrontation, Herron was impaired by crack cocaine, which can increase physical strength as well as cause irritability and aggression.
Jurors also viewed pictures of Burgos’ bruised and swollen face following the attack.
It was clear from the beginning that Burgos acted in self-defense, Harris said.
“Ms. Burgos told the truth to police and to prosecutors. Jurors were the only ones who listened. We are so grateful to them. They are truly the conscience of the community,” Harris said.
Burgos, who has been in jail since her arrest, will be released today.
Adachi praised the strong defense case that led to the jury’s decision.
“The jury rightly decided that Ms. Burgos’ actions were committed in self-defense but it took the strong cross examination skills of her lawyer and evidence presented by her defense team to secure an acquittal in case that could have sent her to prison for life,” he said.