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Delays plague trial in killing of San Francisco Asian elder, ‘Grandpa Vicha’

Pedestrians cross California Street below a “Justice For Vicha” sign on Dec. 13, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Vicha Ratanapakdee was killed in a highly publicized daytime assault that helped trigger the national Stop Asian Hate movement. Two-and-a-half years later, the case is still pending in San Francisco’s legal system.

The 84-year-old Thai American man known as “Grandpa Vicha” was pushed to his death in January 2021. Days after the attack, the San Francisco Police Department arrested 19-year-old Antoine Watson as a suspect, charging him with murder and elder abuse.

The violent incident was caught on camera, making international headlines. Ratanapakdee quickly became a prominent face of the movement intended to draw attention to violence against the Asian American community, its elders in particular.

On the one-year anniversary of Ratanapakdee’s death, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other city leaders rallied to remember him. Last October, San Francisco renamed a street for him in Anza Vista, the neighborhood where he lived. Yet, no trial date has been set.

Some 880 days after his assault, the family expressed their frustration over the delay.

Monthanus Ratanapakdee, the daughter of Vicha Ratanapakdee, speaks at a rally on June 23, 2023. | Han Li/The Standard

“My father’s life was taken, and the court system has been painfully delayed,” Ratanapakdee’s daughter, Monthanus, said in a “Justice Delayed” rally in front of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice on Friday morning. “We want to come together today and have the power to make a change and demand fairness and justice.”

The Prosecution and Defense Blame Each Other

Watson, now 22, has remained in custody since his arrest. 

More than a year ago, the case had its preliminary hearing and the judge ruled that Watson will face a murder trial.

Addressing the delay, Watson’s defense attorney, Anita Nabha, said that he has not yet exercised his right to a speedy trial and the pandemic also created a backlog in the judicial system.

“Defense counsel has many obligations to ensure the full picture is presented,” Nabha said, “which includes a full and thorough investigation, securing experts and vigorously litigating issues raised during the preliminary hearing.”

The new sign for the street named after Vicha Ratanapakdee was unveiled in Anza Vista on Oct. 1, 2022. | Evan Reinhardt for The Standard

Nabha previously told The Standard that Watson was in mental distress when the incident happened, and argued at the preliminary hearing that the case should be charged as involuntary manslaughter because Watson had no intent to kill.

Monthanus believes the defense is using a tactic of running out the clock, trying to make witnesses’ memories fade with time. Prosecutors concur, placing responsibility for the delays squarely on Watson’s legal team.

“We continue to stand with Grandpa Vicha’s family in the pursuit of justice in this case,” District Attorney Brooke Jenkins told The Standard. “In this case, the defense has continued to choose not to set the case for trial.”

Jenkins said the DA’s Office is ready to take the case to trial but the speed to “move through the criminal justice system is almost entirely controlled by the defense.”

But Nabha shot back at DA’s statement, saying the prosecutors have never asked for a trial date. The defense expects to file a motion to dismiss charges in the coming months and, if denied, set the case for trial thereafter.

Meanwhile, San Francisco has since renamed a playground in Visitacion Valley to honor Yik Oi “Grandma” Huang, after she was brutally assaulted and died. After four years, that case, too, is still pending.

This story has been updated with comments from the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office.