Kaylah Williams May holds signs while listening to a speaker during a rally for Keita O'Neil outside the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street in San Francisco on March 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
A judge on Wednesday delayed a motion from San Francisco’s district attorney to dismiss the historic prosecution of a city police officer charged with shooting and killing a carjacking suspect.
The one-week delay is intended to give California Attorney General Rob Bonta additional time to determine whether to pursue the case against the officer.
“My hope is that the attorney general will give this case fresh eyes,” said San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Loretta Giorgi at a hearing on Wednesday.
If Bonta does not pursue the case or request an extension by March 7, charges against Christopher Samayoa, a former San Francisco police officer, will officially be dismissed.
The delay comes in response to San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins’ move last month to dismiss charges against Samayoa, who killed Keita O’Neil during a police chase in December 2017, after O'Neil allegedly stole a California Lottery van.
Samayoa, who was in his fourth day of a field training program, is shown on body camera firing his weapon through the window of his patrol car and hitting O’Neil, a 42-year-old Black man, as he tried to escape on foot. Samayoa was subsequently fired.
Nearly three years after the incident, Chesa Boudin, Jenkins’ predecessor who was recalled from office last summer, charged Samayoa with multiple counts of manslaughter and assault, marking the first homicide prosecution in San Francisco history against a police officer for an on-duty killing.
In a Feb. 8 letter to Bonta, Jenkins argued that Boudin wrongly pursued manslaughter charges against Samayoa for “political reasons and not in the interest of justice.” She said her office had also “discovered an internal conflict in the case that impacts our ability to handle the matter,” referring to opposing statements from the attorney in Boudin’s office who initially handled the case and the DA investigator who signed the arrest warrant.
The judge announced her decision to delay the dismissal after hearing a heartfelt plea from O’Neil’s aunt, April Green, who told reporters she hopes to meet with Bonta during the stay order.
“My family has been through so much. My sister suffers every day. She lost her child,” Green said, noting that O’Neil’s mother has dementia. “All we need is some time. My nephew’s case is still alive. It’s still breathing.”
Separate from the pending criminal case, the city of San Francisco in 2021 paid O’Neil’s family $2.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Green’s attorney also sent Bonta a letter last month, asking his office to take over the case.
Both letters — from Jenkins and Green — cite Assembly Bill 1506, which puts all officer-involved shootings resulting in the death of an unarmed person within the purview of the state Department of Justice.
In a statement on Wednesday, Jenkins said she respects the court's decision to give Bonta’s office more time to review the case, noting her staff had already transferred the entire file to them.
“We are not opposing that decision. We understand the complexity of this case … and welcome their independent review,” she said.
“A fair prosecution of this case from our office is not possible because the facts and laws do not support prosecution,” Jenkins added. “The prior administration’s desire to make history blinded them; they chose to press on for personal political gain. They went to extraordinary lengths to ‘find a path,’ where there was none.”
Outside the courthouse, dozens of community members gathered to protest the dismissal with signs and chants in support of O’Neil and his family.
“The idea that the district attorney’s office is going to effectively immunize every San Francisco police officer for anything they do up to and including murder is outrageous, and folks are right to be out here protesting in the street,” said San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, who joined protesters on Wednesday.
At his confirmation hearing in 2021, Bonta pledged to ramp up police accountability and chart a new path for reform, in a shift from his predecessor, Xavier Becerra, who largely avoided prosecuting police officers charged with shooting unarmed civilians.
“A Black man was murdered. And he’s caught up in a political football,” Green said at Wednesday’s rally outside the courthouse. “This is my nephew, but it’s also about the future of how our Black and Brown men interact with police.”
In a response letter sent this week to Green and Jenkins, Bonta pushed back on the district attorney’s conflict-of-interest assertion.
“That some personnel within the District Attorney’s office may have different opinions about the case does not give rise to a recusal conflict mandating the Attorney General assume responsibility for the prosecution,” Bonta said.
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