Friday, May 30, 2014 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA— A mourner falsely accused of attacking a woman at a Mission District memorial vigil has been acquitted, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated less than 45 minutes Tuesday afternoon before finding Sergio Escobar, 28, not guilty of one count of assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Alexandra Pray. He faced up to a year in jail if convicted.
Escobar, a San Francisco husband and father who works for a moving company, was arrested Oct. 20, 2013 on 16th Street near Rondel Place in the Mission District. He had been attending a community vigil marking the one-year anniversary of a friend’s fatal shooting in the area.
The complaining witness, a 34-year-woman who did not know Escobar and was not part of the event, approached mourners and asked if they had seen a man named Raven. What happened next was the subject of dispute.
The woman told police Escobar responded to the innocent query by punching her in the face and was later among a group of people who kicked her as she lay on the ground.
At the three day trial, however, witnesses that included a police officer and two violence prevention workers contradicted the woman’s story.
According to Escobar and witnesses, the extremely intoxicated woman repeatedly approached a group of women at the vigil to badger them about Raven’s whereabouts. The mourners insisted they did not know Raven and shooed her away. After becoming aggressive in her pestering of the group, a fight broke out between the woman and several female mourners. Escobar testified he was innocently eating a pupusa during the fight—a claim corroborated by two witnesses, including the woman who distributed the Salvadoran treats at the vigil.
Workers from the San Francisco Violence Intervention Project, which was manning the event, quickly broke up the altercation and escorted the intoxicated woman away from the area.
The woman, injured and enraged, returned a short time later with her companion Raven. She pointed at the women and identified them as her attackers. Raven, who witnesses testified was jumping up and down with clenched fists, advanced toward the female mourners. A group of men, including Escobar, surrounded Raven in order to protect the women, witnesses said.
Escobar testified that Raven took a swing at him. Escobar then shoved Raven in self defense and stepped over him when he fell to the ground, he said.
A police officer investigating a traffic incident nearby was alerted to the confrontation and arrested several people, including Escobar and Raven. Escobar spent the night in jail before making bail.
The anti-violence workers who took the stand corroborated Escobar’s version of events, testifying that the complaining witness was injured in a fight with other women, while Escobar was involved in a separate scuffle with Raven.
The police officer who investigated the incident also took the stand, admitting that he could not identify the person he briefly spotted from a distance lying at Escobar’s feet. The officer further testified that he did not witness any of the chaos, which had just ended as he arrived.
On the stand, the complaining witness denied being heavily intoxicated, insisting she had only three sips of vodka prior to the confrontation. She testified that being punched by Escobar was her sole memory of the night.
The jury concluded the complaining witness had been beaten up, but not by Escobar.
“The jurors found Mr. Escobar and the independent witnesses very credible,” Pray said. “It simply didn’t make sense that Mr. Escobar, a man with no history of violence, would coldcock a strange woman for no reason.”
Adachi said the case illustrates the many problems with eyewitness memory.
“This was a classic case of eyewitness misidentification. Research tells us that intoxication, stress and trauma all contribute to mistaken eyewitness identification, something that is responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other factors combined,” Adachi said. “Fortunately, Mr. Escobar’s public defender was able to show that he was innocent.”