FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sept. 21, 2022
MEDIA CONTACT: SF Public Defender’s Office | PubDef-MediaRelations@sfgov.org | Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org | (628) 249-7946
Jury Acquits SF Man Who Acted in Self-Defense in New Year’s Day Fight
Thomas Ortiz was caged for nearly five years. Trial began 15 months past his Constitutional deadline due to the Court’s failure to hold speedy trials. An SF jury found him not guilty of all charges.
SAN FRANCISCO – On September 15th, a San Francisco jury acquitted Thomas Ortiz, 26, whom public defenders established had acted in self-defense during a fight that took place early New Year’s Day 2017 between two groups of young men who encountered each other outside a convenience store near 26th and Folsom Streets in San Francisco. The dispute ended with the death of Ernesto Rosales, 21. Deputy Public Defenders Yali Corea-Levy and Sylvia Cediel led the defense team for Ortiz.
Despite not charging gang enhancements in the case, prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to argue that because Ortiz had friends who had been killed in unrelated incidents, and because he had appeared in a hip hop video, that there was a gang motivation in this killing. The jury heard extensive evidence and testimony from the defense undercutting the prosecution’s theory during the three-month trial. Now-District Attorney Brooke Jenkins was the lead prosecutor on the case prior to leaving the District Attorney’s office when it was under the leadership of Chesa Boudin.
“Our client, Thomas Ortiz, was acquitted because it was an act of self-defense. Mr. Ortiz had never been arrested before. He fired one shot in self-defense after another individual pulled out a weapon and after someone else threw a bottle at Mr. Ortiz’s face,” said Deputy Public Defender Corea-Levy. “Mr. Ortiz had grown up in a chaotic environment, had been the target of violence before, and had lost friends to violence. We know that he would not have shot the gun if he hadn’t been in fear for his life. In fact, he first used the gun as a blunt object to defend himself in the altercation before he fired a single and tragically fatal shot.”
“While this was a difficult and emotional trial for everyone involved, it was especially frightening and outrageous to see the police and prosecutors rely on racist presumptions about Latino men and faulty information to try to associate Mr. Ortiz with a gang in an attempt to scare the jury into overlooking the facts,” said Deputy Public Defender Cediel. “Thanks to further investigation from our office, we were able to share more about who Mr. Ortiz really is and that much of the police and prosecution’s evidence was flawed.”
After a preliminary hearing, Ortiz invoked his Constitutional right to a speedy trial, and was entitled to have his trial by March of 2021. Instead, the trial didn’t start until 15 months later, all the while he was in jail during the entirety of the pandemic. The trial lasted three months, and the jury deliberated for just over a week before acquitting him on all charges.
“The San Francisco Superior Court’s delays in re-opening more courtrooms for trials in the wake of the COVID pandemic contributed to the egregious delay in this case going to trial,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, who sued the San Francisco Superior Court in 2021 regarding its failure to re-open enough courtrooms for trials, and who led a protest rally last week on this issue. “Mr. Ortiz, who is now 26, was forced to wait over a year past his statutory and Constitutional deadline to a speedy trial before he got to defend his innocence at trial. His defense team worked skillfully and compassionately to show that the prosecution was using fear rather than facts to try to prove their case.”
The defense team included Deputy Public Defenders Yali Corea-Levy and Sylvia Cediel, Investigator Tim Kingston, who also testified at trial, Paralegal Margaret So, and Public Defender Intern Anjuli Peters.
For more information about the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office efforts to end the trial backlog, click here.
This press release was updated on 9/21/22 at 4:30pm.