San Francisco, CA — A homeless man accused of attempting to knife a resident who wanted him to leave the area has been acquitted of all charges, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated two hours before finding 54-year-old Michael Adams not guilty Thursday of felony assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor brandishing of a knife. If convicted, he faced up to five years behind bars, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Alexandra Pray.
Adams, a former member of a steel drum band who came to San Francisco 20 years ago from the West Indies, has been homeless since 2012. He collects recycling daily in order to earn a living, Pray said.
On May 6, he was sorting his recycling and packaging it for transport in front of a Mission Bay condo complex when two sisters walking their dogs confronted him. Adams recognized one of the women as a resident who had given him $10 to leave the area the previous day.
One of the women scolded Adams that he was blocking the sensor to the building’s garage and told him to move along. Adams, who did not want to abandon his recycling, argued that he had a right to be on the sidewalk. The woman snapped his photo before the pair left.
They did not stay gone long. Worried about the security of their building, they decided to go back and again confront Adams. One of them dialed police while her sister approached the recycler.
The woman told Adams officers were on their way. She offered to call him an Uber to a shelter, but warned him he would face police action if he did not accept her offer. Adams declined, again insisting he had a right to be in the area. Adams, who is black, lectured the women that white newcomers like themselves had pushed minorities off their land for centuries.
As they argued, the woman spotted Adams’ two knives—a small kitchen knife and a paring knife with a broken tip—sitting nearby. Adams uses the knives in his recycling work, which involves cutting twine and breaking down metal.
The woman began screaming that Adams had knives, and he picked up the smaller knife with the broken tip.
The woman told police that Adams chased her 20-30 yards, making stabbing motions toward her torso, while she and her dog ran backward. As he pursued her, she said, he shouted that he was not a violent man. She testified that she interpreted this statement to mean Adams was frustrated by her attempts to escape being stabbed. After Adams abruptly stopped chasing her, she said, she and her sister waited at the scene for police.
Adams told a different story, telling police and later testifying that he picked up the small, dull knife and held it in his flat palm to demonstrate to the screaming woman its relative uselessness as a weapon, while insisting he was not dangerous.
During the trial, Adams—whose last conviction was a marijuana offense 22 years ago—characterized the argument as “a bit contentious” but insisted he did not intend to commit any violence against either woman.
The women’s behavior on the stand did not appear to help their credibility with the jury, Pray said. They were alternately irritated, unresponsive and evasive, Pray said. After being admonished by the judge not to speak over people as it makes the court reporter’s job difficult, one of the women snapped, “That’s not my problem. I didn’t ask to get nearly stabbed.”
Video of the incident failed to capture the entire confrontation, but the footage in evidence appeared to support Adams’s account, Pray said. The sisters testified that concerned neighbors came to their aid, but no neighbors testified during the trial. Prosecutors declined to play the 911 tape.
“This is a case of NIMBYism gone awry,” Pray said. “Mr. Adams was minding his own business and they harassed him again and again. They may have found his presence undesirable, but this city belongs to all residents, not just the wealthy.”
Adams was held in jail since his arrest, unable to afford bail, Adachi said.
“Mr. Adams lost four months of freedom because he is poor,” Adachi said. “Fortunately, the truth won out with the help of a committed public defender.”
The case is the second acquittal in two weeks involving a dispute between residents and recyclers.