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The Troy McAlister Case Is a Flash Point in the Drive to Recall SF DA Chesa Boudin. Should It Be?

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A middle-aged white man, Chesa Boudin, wears a white shirt, gray-and-red-striped tie, and navy suit jacket with a red pocket square next to a lapel pin that's a seven-pointed star (the seal of the SF District Attorney's Office). Chesa has a brown beard, a trim haircut a bit longer on top, and a receding hairline. He looks somber. He appears to be standing on an outdoor stairway, amid three other people who are partially visible, all dressed casually.
Chesa Boudin stands with SFUSD staff in front of the district headquarters in San Francisco on March 14, 2022, to protest the mismanagement of paychecks of district staff. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On New Year’s Eve 2020, a man driving a stolen car slammed into 27-year-old Hanako Abe and 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt as the two women were crossing Second and Mission streets in downtown San Francisco, killing both of them.

Police identified Troy McAlister as the driver, and the deaths of Abe and Platt, allegedly at the hands of a man with a long criminal history, have become a key rallying point in the effort to oust San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall election on June 7.

Critics of the DA point to this case as evidence that Boudin, a former public defender who campaigned on a promise to pursue criminal justice reform, is soft on crime and could have prevented these deaths by keeping McAlister off the streets. The case is featured prominently in a pro-recall ad featuring Abe’s mother.

Two hands hold a photo of a young woman.
Hiroko Abe holds a photo of her daughter Hanako Abe, on Jan. 19, 2021. Hanako, 27, was one of two women killed in a 2020 New Year’s Eve hit-and-run crash. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

There’s no question that choices made by Boudin’s office played a role in McAlister’s trajectory. But numerous other law enforcement agencies — including the state’s parole department, or Division of Adult Parole Operations — also had a hand in a complicated set of decisions that ultimately enabled McAlister to presumably get behind the wheel that night.

Below, we look at the timeline of the events leading up to that tragic crash, culled from public records, reports and interviews, and examine the accusations against Boudin and his handling of the case — as well as the response from both the DA and an independent criminal justice expert.

The facts

Troy McAlister grew up in San Francisco and first got into trouble with the law in 1995, at the age of 19, when he was arrested and ultimately convicted of second-degree robbery. He went on to face numerous other charges — including receiving stolen property and grand theft — over the next two decades, much of which he spent revolving in and out of jail and prison.

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In July 2015, McAlister was arrested for robbing two women in San Francisco’s Mission District with a toy gun. Facing charges of armed robbery, McAlister had been sitting in San Francisco County Jail for nearly five years, awaiting trial in that case, when Boudin was elected DA in 2019.

Because of his past crimes, prosecutors could have charged McAlister with a third strike and tried to send him to prison for 25 years to life, as armed robbery — even with a toy gun — is considered a violent and serious offense in California.

But Boudin’s office chose to negotiate a plea deal with McAlister — the way an estimated 90% of criminal cases are resolved in the U.S. In exchange for a guilty plea, the DA’s office reduced the charges against McAlister to second-degree felony robbery.

A judge sentenced McAlister to five years, but released him at sentencing, citing the time he had already spent in jail awaiting trial, instead placing him on state parole for two years.

But within months, McAlister was back in trouble with the law. Between June and December, he was arrested five times by San Francisco police on suspicion of various property crimes, including driving stolen cars and burglary. In each incident, the DA’s office declined to file charges, saying they didn’t believe the cases brought by police were strong enough to secure a new conviction.

Instead, at least after the first four arrests, McAlister was referred back to his state parole agent. The fifth time, after a Dec. 20, 2020, arrest for driving a stolen car, no one contacted parole. Prosecutors instead sent an email to police, asking a sergeant to inform McAlister’s parole agent, but the sergeant was out of the office for the Christmas holiday and apparently didn't see it. McAlister was released on Dec. 23.

Six days later, on Dec. 29, Daly City police received a report that McAlister had brandished a gun and stolen a car from a woman he was on a date with; she provided his address and name. Parole agents were notified, but no contact with McAlister seems to have been made by either police or parole officers.

Then, on Dec. 31, McAlister allegedly held up a bakery and stole its cash register, and is then believed to have sped through San Francisco in a stolen car, killing Abe and Platt.

The case against Boudin

Don du Bain and Brooke Jenkins both were prosecutors in Boudin’s office before leaving to join the recall campaign against him. In an interview with KQED, they pointed to the spring 2020 plea deal with McAlister as a huge mistake, arguing that Boudin should have pursued a third strike and sent McAlister to prison for life.

“As a result of that — of striking all those other charges and prior convictions — he put Troy McAlister back on the street with no treatment, no counseling, nothing, just back on the street in a position where he was able to kill those two women,” du Bain said. I don't see what's reformist about simply releasing a defendant back on the street without any conditions other than he's placed on parole.”

Jenkins said that McAlister — who has long struggled with substance use disorder, according to his attorneys — should have at least been required to attend treatment or have other release conditions under his plea deal.

“You needed to be looking at what were the circumstances that have gotten Troy McAlister into the system, right? What has led him down a path of eight or nine felony convictions in a short period of time?” she said. “It's not so much that Chesa decided to execute a plea deal. It's what deal he executed. … It needs to be one that's proportionate to your criminal history and your current crime, and it needs to also put you in a position not to reoffend.”

A large crowd of people participate in a vigil on the street.
People gather for a memorial for Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt on Jan. 22, 2021, in San Francisco, at the intersection where the two women were killed on New Year's Eve 2020, when a car allegedly driven by Troy McAlister slammed into them. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Jenkins also questioned why Boudin’s office repeatedly referred McAlister to parole instead of charging him with new crimes after his spate of arrests in 2020.

“Referring someone to parole and simply punting the ball isn't a good excuse, because if you have enough evidence to charge a brand-new case, that is your obligation as the district attorney. You don't get to turn a blind eye and punt to parole and say, ‘Oh, you know what, we'll just let you handle it,’” she said.

Boudin's response

In a recent interview at a KQED Live event, Boudin said he was deeply saddened by what he called a “devastating tragedy.”

“I lay awake at night thinking, ‘What could we have done differently?’” he said.

Boudin noted that his office is now pursuing a litany of charges against McAlister for the Dec. 31 collision, including two counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, along with at least seven other felonies. If convicted of any of the most serious charges, McAlister will almost certainly end up behind bars for life.

In a separate interview, DA spokesperson Rachel Marshall added that prosecutors didn’t feel they had enough evidence to convict McAlister in any of the cases presented by police in 2020. So, she said, the office repeatedly referred him to parole, whose agents can revoke parole and immediately hold someone in jail or prison for three to six months, or install an ankle monitor and introduce other conditions.

Marshall added that parole agents are usually better suited to help people expediently receive the services and support they need, in part because they've already established relationships with them.

A closeup of Chesa Boudin, seated in a red chair, speaking.
SF DA Chesa Boudin defends his record at a KQED Live event on May 3, 2022. (Alain McLaughlin/Special to KQED)

Boudin said the case exposed the holes in the process the DA’s office had long used to revoke someone’s parole — and prompted significant changes.

Now, he said, instead of simply referring parole revocation to the state parole agency when violations are detected — as the state has asked local prosecutors to do for at least the past decade — his prosecutors directly petition the court.

“When I took office, we had a policy that predated me by about a decade, of respecting parole’s request not to file our own parole revocations,” Boudin said. “In other words, if somebody like Troy McAlister was arrested and we didn't have enough evidence or it wasn't a serious enough case to file charges against him, we would refer the case to parole and let them decide what to do. I really regret not questioning it before his case. Because what I saw was, parole wasn't getting the job done.”

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The state parole department didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Boudin also defended the plea deal his office struck with McAlister in March 2020, one he made in part because he said McAlister had maintained a good record while serving in jail.

“We had letters of recommendation from case managers. We had certificates of completion from programs that he'd done. He was in a trusted job,” said Boudin, while adding, “Look, I'm not here to defend him. I'm prosecuting him right now.”

Boudin ran on a promise to avoid pursuing sentencing enhancements, including California's “three strikes” law, which can often double, triple or even quadruple a sentence. He noted that without any enhancement, the maximum sentence for a robbery, under state law, is five years.

“And Troy McAlister served a five-year sentence,” he said. “Now, you're right that we could have been creative and found ways to keep him in prison for longer. And if we had a crystal ball, we might have done that. But we have to make decisions in cases based on the information available”

There’s also the question of what happened between Dec. 29, 2020, when McAlister allegedly brandished a gun and stole a car in Daly City, and the Dec. 31 collision. In an email to KQED, Daly City’s Acting Police Chief Cameron Christensen said that “multiple officers, supervisors and our investigations unit” actively attempted to locate McAlister and his parole agent as soon as they received the report. But they didn’t ultimately find him, and it's unclear whether his parole agent was ever actually contacted.

The verdict?

Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg, who co-directs the university’s Criminal Justice Center, called the McAlister case “admittedly messy and mysterious,” but said it’s impossible to lay blame on any one person or agency — other than McAlister himself.

“If he were in jail, he wouldn't have done this. Why wasn't he in jail? Well, there were many contributors to this part of it. And indeed, from what I can tell, a lot of it has to do with some very poor communication among the police, the DA staff and the parole officers,” he said.

Sure, if Boudin hadn’t made a plea deal with McAlister, he might have still been in jail, Weisberg said, but also noted that McAlister’s offenses both before and after the plea deal didn’t involve harming people or driving drunk. Given the facts of the case at the time, the plea agreement was a reasonable option, he said.

“Maybe you could foresee something happening, but could you really foresee it happening in the way it actually happened?” Weisberg asked.

In response to accusations that this is just one particularly egregious example of Boudin’s soft-on-crime approach, Weisberg said the evidence doesn't bear that out.

“The fact is, you know, there isn't anything remarkable at all about his charging rates, his diversion rates or the crime rates that have happened during his administration,” he said.

It ultimately comes down to whether, as a society, we think it’s worth locking up more people to avoid even the possibility of crime, Weisberg said. He noted that many current criminal justice policies in California — including the way parole revocations were handled in San Francisco until very recently — stemmed from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering California to significantly reduce its prison population.

A long view of a large lobby through the windows to the sidewalk, where about 20 protesters stand with "RECALL CHESA BOUDIN" signs in yellow.
Pro-recall activists protest outside a KQED Live event with SF DA Chesa Boudin at KQED headquarters in San Francisco on May 3, 2022. (Alain McLaughlin/Special to KQED)

“If you release certain people from prison, or don't send them to prison at a time when it is theoretically possible to keep them in prison, some percentage of them will do bad things,” he said. “We hope it's hardly any, and we hope it's not a major crime like what happened here. But if you try to have a system where we can guarantee that this sort of thing could never happen, we would have to have people kept in jails and in prison at three times the level we have now, and maybe forever.”

Boudin made a similar argument to KQED.

“We can't predict the future conduct of every single one of the thousands and thousands of people that come through San Francisco's Hall of Justice every year,” he said. “And we also can't put everybody in prison for life.”

The argument that this tragedy could have been prevented if McAlister had only been locked up for longer is the same justification used for mass incarceration, Boudin added.

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“It's a logic that leads us to the death penalty. It's a logic that leads us to bankrupting our governments, because we're only investing in building jails and prisons, not investing in building schools and hospitals,” he said. “We know where that path leads. It does not lead to safety.”

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