A first-of-its-kind case against a San Francisco cop is about to force California’s chief prosecutor to pick sides between two district attorneys with diverging records on police accountability.
Once District Attorney Brooke Jenkins tosses the historic case against the former officer on March 7, California Attorney General Rob Bonta will have nine days to resurrect the manslaughter charge before the statute of limitations expires. Jenkins planned to toss the case on Wednesday, but a judge postponed dismissal until next week to give Bonta more time to make a decision.
Whether Bonta chooses to take the case will test the limits of a pledge he made as new AG to hold police accountable. At least in this instance, it will also show whether the AG thinks more like Jenkins or her progressive predecessor Chesa Boudin—the one who filed the case and still thinks it can hold up in court.
Bonta, a state assemblymember until Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him AG, has positioned himself as a progressive Democrat who’s tried to strike a balance between reform and public safety. Last year, his more conservative opponents in the AG race assailed his campaign by comparing him to the divisive DAs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
What Bonta does with the San Francisco case could shape the narrative around him for years to come—especially if he seeks reelection or runs for higher office.
“This is a high-profile issue that he has to take a public position on,” said Jim Ross, a Bay Area political consultant who ran Boudin’s campaign against a recall that booted the DA from office last June. “Either way he takes on it, people are going to judge him on that.”
The choice comes to Bonta with high stakes and on short notice.
Jenkins last month revealed her plans to dismiss the case Boudin filed against former SF officer Christopher Samayoa for fatally shooting an unarmed carjacking suspect.
Samayoa was just four days out of the police academy when he killed Keita O’Neil, 42, on Dec. 1, 2017. The rookie cop was in the passenger seat of a police car chasing a stolen lottery van when O’Neil bailed out and Samayoa fired his weapon. With Samayoa’s hire still probationary, it didn’t take long for Chief Bill Scott to fire him.
Samayoa’s was one of four cases Boudin filed against SFPD officers for alleged excessive force, and marked the first criminal charges ever filed against a San Francisco cop for killing someone in the line of duty.
The next DA stood in stark contrast.
In her first week on the job, Jenkins fired two of the attorneys in charge of prosecuting police under Boudin. Their unit, the San Francisco Chronicle says, has since shrunk from six prosecutors to two.
Jenkins revealed her plans to drop the charges against Samayoa in a letter to Bonta last month that accused Boudin of pursuing the case for political reasons despite issues with the evidence. One such evidentiary problem stemmed from a training exercise in which a paintball struck Samayoa’s head during a simulation that resembled his encounter with O’Neil just weeks later.
Jenkins also argued it would be unethical to take the case to trial because of conflicts over the way the prior administration handled the case.
Boudin called her arguments “offensive” and “dishonest.”
Samayoa’s defense attorney, Julia Fox, said she’s optimistic that Bonta will agree with Jenkins and decline to take the case.
“What is an unethical filing at the filing level is certainly the same at the state level,” Fox told The Standard. “This case could not, never could have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Bonta has vowed to uphold a state law passed after the O’Neil case by investigating any officer who shoots an unarmed civilian.
April Green, O’Neil’s aunt, said she would be heartbroken if Bonta declined to take over the prosecution.
“My nephew’s case is not closed,” Green said. “So I’m not begging you to reopen it. It’s already open, it’s already alive, moving, just grab it.”
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]