Thursday, April 6, 2017 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco— An Asian man who claimed he was defending himself from a hate crime when he shot a white partygoer at a 2012 Halloween bash has been acquitted of most charges in the case, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated three days before finding Hun Saelee, 35, not guilty of three counts of attempted murder and three counts of assault with a firearm. The jury deadlocked on one additional count of attempted murder and one additional count of assault with a firearm. Saelee, a devoted father and former claims adjuster with no previous arrests, wept with relief when the verdict was read, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Vilaska Nguyen. Saelee faced life in prison if convicted.
The charges stemmed from an incident at an Oct. 28, 2012 Halloween party in Fort Mason. Prosecutors alleged the San Leandro resident shot at four people, striking then-21-year-old Ben Pessah of Burlingame in the head. Pessah was in a month-long coma. He has since recovered, but was left with some memory loss.
The trouble began after Pessah and his friends accused Saelee of groping Pessah’s date. Two men in the group chased Saelee back to his car where they cornered him, hurling threats and anti-Asian slurs, Nguyen said. Saelee, who obtained a valid concealed carry permit after being wounded as a bystander in a 2004 shooting, retrieved his gun from his trunk and brandished it, hoping to scare the men away, he testified. Instead, they advanced toward him and his vehicle, with his girlfriend inside. When one of the men reached for his waistband as if he had a gun, Saelee said, he fired into the air, insisting he did not intend to strike Pessah.
During the trial, Saelee testified that he was afraid for his life and for the life of his girlfriend. He became emotional as he recalled taking his then-4-year-old daughter, who he has not been able to see since his arrest, out to breakfast and to Chuck E. Cheese on the day of the shooting.
The partygoers also took the stand, but told conflicting stories of the night. Jurors found much of their testimony evasive, Nguyen said.
“All of the complaining witnesses had significant credibility issues,” Nguyen said. “By contrast, Mr. Saelee was sincere and forthright in his testimony. In the end, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he had the intent to kill.”
Juror Jason Dubaniewicz said testimony from the alleged victims was wavering and inconsistent. Jurors did not believe Saelee groped Pessah’s girlfriend, and prosecutors did not prove that Saelee fired his gun out of anything but self-protection.
“The jury was unanimous that the prosecution could not overcome its burden to prove Saelee wasn’t acting in lawful self-defense,” Dubaniewicz said.
Prosecutors have not decided whether to retry Saelee on the two counts on which the jury deadlocked. He remains in San Francisco County Jail on $10 million bail. Nguyen said he would challenge the bail amount at an April 12 court date.
Adachi said the law allows people to use reasonable self-defense when they feel their lives are at risk.
“Mr. Saelee tried to get back to his car and get to safety, but they chased him. He showed them his weapon, but they continued to advance toward him. He was terrified—not only for himself but for his partner,” Adachi said. “This is a tragic case of a law-abiding citizen who has been ripped from his family.”