Monday, December 15, 2014 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A 48-year-old man was acquitted of breaking into a luxury apartment garage and torching a Mercedes after a jury determined his arrest was based on an unreliable identification, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors on Friday afternoon found San Francisco resident Anthony Bejarano not guilty of burglary and arson, both felonies. Bejarano, a regular volunteer at Project Open Hand with no previous criminal record, faced up to 10 years in state prison if convicted, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Chris Hite.
On June 19, a Mercedes sedan was found ablaze in the parking garage of One Rincon Hill apartments. While nobody witnessed the crime, a valet told the property manager he saw a man standing in front of the car shortly before the fire and then running from the building.
Bejarano was in the building that day to serve legal papers to a One Rincon Hill resident. Surveillance footage captured him walking on the valet level of the garage, a floor above where the Mercedes was parked. There was no footage of Bejarano on the same floor as the blaze, and he did not have any connection to the car’s owner.
The building manager and police confronted the valet with a single screenshot of Bejarano and asked him if it appeared to be the same man he saw near the car. The valet said yes, and police publicly released the image, leading to Bejarano’s arrest six days after the fire. Police subsequently searched his home, sending his clothing to a crime lab to be tested for accelerant. None was found and there was no other forensic evidence linking Bejarano to the crime.
During the two week trial, Hite exposed weaknesses in the valet’s identification of Bejarano.
Dr. Mitchel Eisen, director of forensic psychology at California State University Los Angeles, testified that the identification was made in a highly suggestive manner—based on a single photo instead of a lineup and at the behest of the valet’s boss while he was surrounded by police officers.
“The jury had strong concerns about the reliability of the identification,” Hite said. “There was simply nothing else linking Mr. Bejarano to the crime—no motive, no DNA, no fingerprints. It didn’t make sense.”
Bejarano was originally charged with a second fire in the area, but those charges were dismissed by a judge due to lack of evidence. The case highlights the problems with eyewitness identification, Adachi said.
“Eyewitness misidentification is the most common element in wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence,” Adachi said. “Fortunately, Mr. Bejarano’s public defender was able to spotlight the many holes in the case.”