FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 28, 2023
MEDIA CONTACT: PubDef-MediaRelations@sfgov.org | PIO Valerie Ibarra (628)249-7946
SF Jury Acquits Legally Blind Man Who Chose Jail to Get a Faster Misdemeanor Trial
Amid a backlog of 1,100 overdue trials in SF Superior Court, strict pretrial conditions can hinder the lives of those awaiting trial
SAN FRANCISCO – A San Francisco jury acquitted Charles Underwood, 50, of misdemeanor assault and battery charges, after he had waited over four months past his trial deadline. While awaiting trial, Underwood, who is legally blind, was subjected to a stay-away order from a seven-block area of town where he has resided unhoused and without incident for nearly three years. In May, he was arrested for panhandling in the restricted area, but rather than seek release, Underwood requested to remain in jail in hopes that the court would send his case to trial faster amid the growing trial backlog in SF Superior Court. Underwood’s case was sent to trial, and a jury acquitted him of all charges on June 22. Yesterday, the court dismissed the rest of charges he had accrued for violating the stay-away order while awaiting trial on the underlying case.
“No one should feel like they have to stay in jail just to get a trial,” said Deputy Public Defender Sarah Hashemi, who represented Underwood. “The pretrial conditions set on Mr. Underwood were overly broad, especially considering that he is legally blind and does not know what the complaining witness looks like. We are grateful to the jury for their verdict and relieved that Mr. Underwood is finally free of these constraints that had banned him from an area that has become a relatively safe space for him.”
The case stemmed from a complaint from a woman who accused Underwood of kicking her in the back of the leg after he asked her for a dollar and she refused in late December 2022. Underwood testified that he was trying to untangle his ankle from the leash of the woman’s dog, and that he did not intend to kick the woman. Once at trial, the jury deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty.
The Sixth Amendment of the The U.S. Constitution guarantees anyone accused of a crime the right to a speedy trial. San Francisco Superior Court is routinely denying that right, and there are over 1,100 people, including 115 who remain jailed, without trial as a result. The majority of these cases are for misdemeanor charges.
“When people are denied their right to a speedy trial, they are often subjected to pretrial conditions that become untenable. Until we get more cases to trial, where we can speak directly to San Franciscans in the jury box, more and more people who are presumed innocent under the law, and especially vulnerable people like Mr. Underwood, are going to suffer losses of liberty and well-being,” said Public Defender Mano Raju. “I commend Ms. Hashemi and the whole defense team for their dedicated advocacy for Mr. Underwood.”
The defense team included Deputy Public Defender Sarah Hashemi, Investigator Leticia Perez, Paralegal Michael Brown, and Law Clerk Nicholas Dias.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office continues to advocate for the court to honor speedy trial rights and remedy the backlog by dismissing cases, utilizing all available courtrooms or alternative venues, and releasing people from jail on their own recognizance pre-trial.
The Public Defender’s Office is holding a series of Summer Sit-Ins on the steps of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street on Fridays at 12-1pm through the end of July to draw attention to these speedy trial violations which are impeding the lives of those accused, delaying justice for everyone who depends on our courts, and come at a large cost to public resources. The next Summer Sit-In calling for an end to the trial delays is this Friday, June 30th at 12PM and will focus on uplifting the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.