Cleo Moore, the mother of Sean Moore, points to a photo of the family at Archbishop Riordan High School at her home in Daly City on March 31, 2023. Sean Moore attended the high school in San Francisco in the early 1990s. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Cleo Moore is tired of waiting.
She’s 84, and instead of celebrating the joy of her new great-grandchild, she spends much of her time waiting to hear back from San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins about the status of a case involving the police officer who shot her son, Sean, in 2017.
Sean Moore, a Black man who was unarmed when he was shot, died three years later from complications related to the injury.
While the officer who shot him was charged with manslaughter, the case has dragged on for two years without a preliminary hearing — usually considered an early step in a trial.
The delay has taken a toll.
“My days are spent going from one graveyard to the other,” said Moore, who is mourning both her son and her late husband. “I need to get over this. I need to be able to go on with my life.”
Moore believes her son was given less opportunity than many other people to turn his life around because he was Black. And since his death, she too has felt marginalized in her now years-long effort to advance the case against the officer who pulled the trigger.
In 2021, then-DA Chesa Boudin charged SFPD officer Kenneth Cha with involuntary manslaughter and assault for Moore’s death, marking only the second time the city has ever filed homicide charges against an officer for an on-duty incident.
Now, nearly a year since Boudin’s recall, the decision to pursue a case against Cha lies in the hands of Jenkins. And the chances of her moving forward with it, many observers say, do not look promising.
Jenkins’ office did not respond to requests for an interview and declined to comment.
Despite the years of waiting, Moore was offered a glimmer of hope in late April when she told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Loretta M. Giorgi that too much time had passed since Cha had been charged.
“Please, I need some justice. I hear the defense attorney needs more time. He needs more evidence. What more time does he need to have?” she told the judge in court.
“I let [the attorneys] know when we come back in four weeks we will set a preliminary hearing,” Giorgi said. “I’m going to push them. I promise you, I’m going to push them.”
But when Giorgi told the defense and prosecution to be ready for that now-scheduled May 26 court date, Assistant District Attorney Darby Williams asked the judge if she could approach the bench and conferred with her and the defense in a hushed tone, inaudible to others in the courtroom.
It’s those kinds of secretive exchanges that worry Moore, she says, leaving her with little left to cling to except faith.
“I can’t even grieve for my son being gone because I have to listen to all this garbage,” she said.
A mental health struggle
The few images the public has seen of Sean Moore are mostly taken from body camera footage from the night officers showed up at his doorstep and later shot him. The 46-year-old, who claimed he was being unduly harassed, appears enraged.
But in Cleo Moore’s Daly City home, photos of her son during happier times are laid out across her piano like a shrine. In one, Sean embraces family members. In another he wraps his arms around his prom date. A third captures him smiling broadly, as he poses in a bright red-and-white uniform, holding a baseball bat.
Sean was born and raised in San Francisco, and later moved to Daly City. He played basketball and varsity baseball at Archbishop Riordan High School, and continued playing baseball at Skyline College in nearby San Bruno, where he received a “most improved player” award. He and his family were decades-long 49ers ticket holders at Candlestick Park.
Cleo bonded with her son over sports. They bowled together as partners, earning a first-place trophy at Westlake Bowl in Daly City.
But as an adult, Sean’s mental health began to deteriorate, his mother says. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which prevented him from holding down a job, and he moved back into his family’s home in San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood. Cleo says she helped him by picking up his medications, to avoid potential conflicts with pharmacy staff at the hospital.
“I supported my children in whatever they did,” Cleo said. “I tried to do the best that I can do. I can’t control what happened in later life, when someone becomes ill. If I could push a button and correct it, I would.”
She also made calls to San Francisco city services seeking mental health interventions for her son, but because Sean had private health insurance, through Kaiser Permanente, she was directed back to them. Cleo, though, says Kaiser was not up to the task of meeting her son’s mental health needs, especially when they reached crisis level.
“The city of San Francisco, like most of the country, does not have the appropriate responses to mental illness,” said Yoel Haile, director of the ACLU Northern California’s criminal justice program, who is helping Moore’s family decipher the legal process and negotiate with the DA’s office. “Sean had as much resources as someone can, right? At least by way of what his family was able to provide for him. And most people are nowhere near that.”
When Moore opened the door, he looked agitated as he stood behind the still-closed safety gate, and repeatedly yelled at the officers to leave, the body camera video shows. Roughly eight minutes later, after the officers continued to demand that Moore open the gate, he finally did so and stood near the top of the steps. The officers then yelled at him to get on the ground. When Moore refused, Patino struck him with a baton and Cha fired his gun twice, hitting Moore in the stomach and groin.
Three years later, Moore died in San Quentin State Prison, where he had been serving time for an unrelated conviction. A Marin County coroner investigation found the cause of death to be an obstruction in his stomach caused by scar tissue from the gunshot wound inflicted three years earlier.
The DA may use those facts to push for the case to be dismissed, argues Rebecca Young, the prosecutor Boudin had initially assigned to the case, but who was later fired by Jenkins.
According to Young, Williams, who took over the prosecution, asked for a research memo to determine whether the DA’s office could establish a connection between Moore’s 2017 shooting and his subsequent death in 2020.
Young suspects Williams is trying “to find a way to break the chain of causation” between the shooting and the death.
Court records obtained by KQED show repeated delays in setting a preliminary hearing date, after the judge granted repeated requests from attorneys on both sides for additional time to seek and review what they called “voluminous” medical documents.
Haile, from the ACLU, agrees that most signs point to Jenkins dismissing the case against Cha, noting that she has not only delayed court proceedings, but also reportedly downsized the division in her office devoted to investigating police misconduct.
A lonely fight for justice
In late April, Williams finally met with Cleo Moore, telling her that the lack of communication over the case shouldn’t continue.
“I apologize, and I bear responsibility for that,” Williams told Moore, as the two stood in a hallway in San Francisco Superior Court, with a scrum of reporters watching.
“It’s the first time she, Darby Williams, has said anything to me,” Moore later told KQED, explaining she had been worried about being placated in front of the press.
Moore says her ongoing fight for justice for her son has been a lonely one, and worries about a dearth of local political pressure from the public.
Compared to many other communities across the country with larger Black populations, not as many San Franciscans typically turn out to protest after police kill an unarmed Black man, noted Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice.
“It goes without saying that the displacement and outmigration of San Francisco, Black San Francisco, has impacted us politically,” said Hollins, who grew up in San Francisco’s historically Black Bayview neighborhood.
BART board member Lateefah Simon, who is now running for Congress in the East Bay but grew up in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, echoed that sentiment. She noted that the city’s declining Black population may have translated into a lack of political will to prosecute police who kill unarmed Black men.
“There’s not gonna be a thousand people of African descent outside the DA’s office or the court building,” Simon said. “The organized Black left is diminishing, there is absolutely no question about that. When community power begins to die down, there’s less pressure.”
In January, after Memphis police officers beat and killed Tyre Nichols, an unarmed 29-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and DA Jenkins both spoke at a rally on the steps of City Hall in support of Nichols’ family.
Cleo Moore, who was invited by one of the organizers to attend the protest, noticed that neither Breed nor Jenkins mentioned another unarmed Black man also killed police: her son.
And neither official stopped to speak to Moore about her son’s case, she says.
“Why invite me to come to a rally like that, when you get the mayor that walks out and says, ‘Oh, we got to figure out some kind of way to keep them from killing our Black men.’ And she turns around and goes back up into her office or wherever,” Moore said. “That was a slam in my face.”
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