'The Door's Been Shut': Aunt of Man Killed by SFPD Says First Meeting With DA Jenkins Hints at Lighter Touch to Prosecuting Police

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A woman wearing a business suit stands in front of microphone with the American flag in the background.
San Francisco's new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, speaks during a press conference at City Hall on July 7, 2022. San Francisco Mayor London Breed selected Jenkins to be the next district attorney after the recall of Chesa Boudin. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The aunt of a man fatally shot by a rookie San Francisco Police Department officer had her first meeting with new District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on August 24 about the ongoing criminal case against that officer. It may be the public’s earliest glimpse into how a tough-on-crime DA will approach police prosecutions.

That first peek may show a higher bar for police prosecutions than with her predecessor, former DA Chesa Boudin, who was recalled in June. 

The meeting left April Green with little hope that Jenkins would pursue a case against Christopher Samayoa, the officer who killed her nephew, Keita O’Neil. 

“I already feel that the door’s been shut,” Green told KQED in a September interview, two weeks after that meeting.

The manner of her nephew’s death still haunts Green, who is worried that her elderly sister and O’Neil’s mother, Judy O’Neil, will die because of her poor health before the family sees justice. 

“We’re talking about .39 seconds from the time my nephew took his foot off the pedal and left it running when he was shot,” she said. 

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On Dec. 1, 2017, O’Neil, suspected of carjacking a California Lottery van in Potrero Hill, led San Francisco police on a car chase that ultimately ended in the Alice Griffith housing development in the Bayview. Police cars closed in and blocked O’Neil into the housing projects. 

As O’Neil ran past the police car where Officer Samayoa sat, Samayoa fired his gun through the passenger-side window, killing O’Neil. O’Neil, 42, was unarmed. 

Prior to Green’s meeting, Jenkins had moved to continue a hearing in that case, and in at least one other criminal proceeding, against a law enforcement officer named Kenneth Cha. The cases were essentially delayed until after her election, with the argument that the cases against law enforcement officers needed review

Green said she did not feel reassured by Jenkins in their meeting that the case against Samayoa would move forward after November.

“Jenkins said she wanted me to trust her,” Green said. “She wanted this door to be open for there to be some kind of trust. But how do I feel trust if they hadn’t even followed through with their promise? The case hasn’t been moved.” 

Jenkins was appointed by Mayor London Breed. She’s running to keep the seat against candidates John Hamasaki and Joe Alioto Veronese in November’s election. 

When asked during a KQED voter’s guide interview about her stance on the various ongoing cases against police officers the DA’s office is reviewing, Jenkins declined to comment on specifics, and said that doing so would be “inappropriate.” 

However, generally, Jenkins said, “my bar is the law. And if somebody breaks the law, regardless of who they are or what their stature is in our society, then they should be prosecuted. So that is always the bar that we set.”

Jenkins added, “Can we prove that somebody broke the law beyond a reasonable doubt, to a jury? And so if a cop violates the law in a manner that is brought to us, and that we feel we can prosecute beyond a reasonable doubt, then that’s what we will do.” 

O’Neil’s family settled a civil lawsuit against the city for $2.5 million. But in 2020, Boudin announced a historic first in San Francisco that made headlines: homicide charges against a police officer. Samayoa was accused of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, assault by an executive officer, assault with a semi-automatic firearm and negligent discharge of a firearm. 

Samayoa was arrested and arraigned in 2020. He was released under his own recognizance pending a hearing. But that proceeding was brought to a halt in mid-August, when Jenkins reportedly removed Assistant District Attorney James Conger from the case. Jenkins then moved to continue it to a later date. 

Green later defended Boudin publicly against his recall, arguing in The San Francisco Bay View newspaper that his recall might mean that Samayoa would “walk away a free man.” 

Veronese, who was once an SFPD patrol reserve officer himself and a former investigator in the DA’s office, said he believes Jenkins moving the cases until after the election is a dire sign of things to come. 

“Can I make a prediction? All of those cases go away after the election,” Veronese said. “She will support the police in a way that I think is unethical. I think she will not prosecute police officers that are bad cops.” 

Essentially, Veronese argued, the election may become a referendum on how police officers accused of misconduct face consequences, if at all. 

“Bad cops get prosecuted in my administration,” he said. 

In a statement, candidate Hamasaki said, “If police are allowed to break the law, how can they be trusted to enforce it? I plan on pursuing police misconduct and violence cases with the full authority of the District Attorney’s Office.” 

Green’s attorney, Neil Hallinan, said delaying the cases was a reason to worry. 

“We’re hoping that Brooke Jenkins does prove us wrong, and we’re hoping that we have a good relationship and find her totally trustworthy by the time this whole saga is over,” said Hallinan, who attended Green’s meeting with Jenkins.

Jenkins was flanked by the new assistant district attorney in charge of the case against Samayoa, Darby Williams. Green said one statement from Williams particularly troubled her: that to pursue the case, they need to be able to prove it “beyond a reasonable doubt, and then some,” Green recalled Williams saying. 

The DA’s office would not confirm Green’s recollections of what Williams said. But Hallinan, who said he took notes during the interview, verified the use of the phrase. Green also produced a screenshot of her attorney specifically explaining that phrase to her, sent the day of the meeting. 

It is well-known in criminal legal circles that juries often sympathize with police, making convicting officers of murder or manslaughter a notoriously tall order. Yet John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney and former director of the ACLU's Police Practices Project, said that Williams’ alleged phrasing was troubling. 

“The legal standard for all criminal cases is you need to prove it with evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt,” Crew said. “There’s not a separate standard for police officers.” 

Hallinan said Green comes “from a community where there’s a firm belief that police officers don’t get prosecuted for crimes against members of the community.” 

“In that context, they should know who they’re talking to,” he continued. “Why would they want to convey that message in the first place?”

In a statement, DA’s office spokesperson Randy Quezada said at the time of charging that the prosecution is required to be able to prove a criminal charge by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

In assault-based cases, however, “the prosecution has an additional burden: to be able to disprove the anticipated claims of self-defense (or defense of others) by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is particularly true in police officer cases where the claim is the charge of murder or manslaughter, and the question exists as to whether or not the shooting/killing/use of force was lawful.”

The DA’s office, he said, “does this all the time.” 

Other elements of the meeting and how it was subsequently handled also troubled Green. She said she persistently asked, “What’s the next step?” According to Green, she was told that a review was necessary. 

Green said Boudin would text updates, calming her mind about how the case was going. But she said she hasn’t heard from Jenkins since the meeting, and the DA’s office hasn’t contacted Hallinan.

“I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, and I’ve just been disconnected,” Green said. 

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