August 14, 2020
PRESS CONTACT: SF Public Defender’s Office – (628)249-7946 – Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org
SF Public Defender Wins Acquittal in First Trial since COVID-19 Crisis
SAN FRANCISCO – On August 13, a man who was held in custody for over a year pre-trial was found not guilty of residential burglary. This was the first completed jury trial in San Francisco Superior Court since March. Deputy Public Defender Sierra Villaran successfully argued that David Brown, 30, had not burglarized an apartment near Folsom and 5th Streets last August.
On the morning of August 5, 2019, Mr. Brown was suffering from being homeless for the first time in his life. He had recently been laid off, evicted, and separated from his long-time partner. He relapsed and found himself homeless in San Francisco. That morning he was found surrounded by trash in an apartment building near Folsom and 5th Streets. He had been hoping to find a pair of discarded shoes since his own had been stolen the night before. He was escorted from the building, and hours later police arrested Mr. Brown, who was still in the area, in possession of a bag of items that had been reported stolen from a residence in the same building. The DA charged Mr. Brown with burglary despite no direct evidence that he had entered the residence that had been burglarized.
Villaran argued that Mr. Brown had only been in the building a few minutes before he was escorted out by a security guard, and the timing made it impossible for him to have been the person who committed the burglary. Mr. Brown told police on multiple occasions that he had found a bag of belongings outside and picked it up. She filed several bail motions to try to get him released in advance of the trial that was set for March 2020. Due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place orders, the trial was postponed, resulting in Mr. Brown spending an additional 5 months in SF county jail. This was despite the fact that Mr. Brown has a supportive family in Oakland willing to house him during the pandemic.
“Mr. Brown had to spend a year in jail as a result of being accused of a burglary he did not commit.” said Villaran. “I am grateful that the jury understood the facts and saw that he was a young man in a desperate need of help, not a burglar. I am also glad that he will be able to continue his recovery out of custody and with the support of his family.”
The jury found Mr. Brown not guilty of the felony burglary charge, which could have led to years in prison. While they did find him guilty of a misdemeanor for receipt of stolen property, he was released last night — having already served more than the maximum sentence possible for the lesser offense.
“This is an extremely challenging time to be a public defender,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “And yet, even with all of the difficulties that the current COVID-19 courtroom environment presents, Sierra Villaran and her team were able to do an excellent job of defending our client, and proved Mr. Brown’s innocence in this burglary case.”
This was the first San Francisco trial to be held in criminal court since mid-March when all trials were put on hold due to the pandemic. Villaran and her team therefore faced a unique set of challenges to ensure Mr. Brown’s right to a fair trial while also balancing the health and safety concerns of calling a jury during COVID-19.
For example, Villaran had to figure out a way to communicate with Mr. Brown from six feet away. Being in trial can be disorienting and overwhelming for someone accused of a crime, and people rely on their lawyers to help explain what is going on in real time. Usually, this is done through whispering back and forth. In this trial, laptops with messenger apps were set up to allow for this communication. Additionally, in advance of the trial, Villaran successfully convinced the court of the importance of jurors being able to see witnesses’ facial expressions to be able to judge their credibility, and Judge Puri subsequently ruled that transparent face masks would be provided to the witnesses. But there were other human elements that were missing, such as the physical presence of family members and supporters.
“Mr. Brown’s mother really wanted to be present for him, but because the public was not allowed in the courtroom, even during breaks, and no public live-streaming channel was made available, she had to sit in a satellite courtroom and watch the proceedings through Zoom. Luckily, a deputy was kind enough to let her sit right up front so she and her son could see each other occasionally through the computer screen, but I know it was painful for both of them not to be in the courtroom together,” said Villaran. “It was also hard for me to be in trial without the support of my colleagues, including my direct managers. Usually, in criminal proceedings, public defenders come out to watch one another, for support, and also to give feedback at the end of the day. This was a much more isolating experience.”
“While we see this case as a victory, it is also emblematic of the deep income inequalities in our society and the difficult lives people are living. Mr. Brown’s crime was poverty – that he had to rely on scavenging through garbage to find a pair of shoes, after his had been stolen,” said Raju. “Furthermore, he should never have spent a year in jail awaiting trial, especially in the midst of this pandemic. Unfortunately there are many more people sitting in jail right now charged in non-violent cases like this one, waiting for months for their trial to begin. As we did in this case, my team will continue to fight for people’s right to justice, and for their right to pretrial release.”