State prosecutors poured water on claims that District Attorney Brooke Jenkins had no choice but to drop the manslaughter case against a San Francisco police officer.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office concluded Tuesday that nothing prevents Jenkins from taking Christopher Samayoa to trial for killing Keita O’Neil in the line of duty.
Jenkins cited an ethical duty to drop the charges and leave the rest up to Bonta because her predecessor mishandled the case. Jenkins accused Chesa Boudin of charging Samayoa to score political points. She suggested that the former DA pressured an investigator to sign for Samayoa’s arrest, even though others in the office doubted the case would hold up in court.
Another reason Jenkins said she wants to eschew prosecution: because the investigator recently told her he had doubts about signing the warrant, which means Jenkins could now be called as a witness to evidence that could help the defense. The investigator, however, has since denied making those representations to Jenkins.
But Bonta’s chief assistant attorney general, Lance Winters, wrote in the letter Tuesday that the allegations don’t require the DA to step back from the prosecution.
“The District Attorney’s disagreement with the charging decision of the prior District Attorney and accompanying accusations of impropriety do not create a recusable conflict,” he wrote. “Likewise, that some personnel within the District Attorney’s office may have different opinions about the case does not give rise to a recusable conflict mandating the Attorney General assume responsibility for the prosecution.”
While Bonta disagrees with Jenkins on that issue, his office is still reviewing the case to decide whether to take it over. The statute of limitations on manslaughter will give him nine days to make the decision once the case is dismissed next Tuesday.
Winters said the office is reviewing whether Jenkins “abused her discretion” by declining to move forward with the case. The office would have to find that she arbitrarily or erroneously tossed it despite the evidence.
The AG’s letter came the evening before a Wednesday hearing where Jenkins planned to drop the charges against Samayoa. Scores of protesters rallied against the dismissal at the Hall of Justice, spurring a heavy police presence outside the courtroom.
Samayoa made a rare appearance at the hearing, wearing a blue suit, dark-framed glasses and hair slicked to the side.
The president of the local police union, Tracy McCray, sat on his side of the courtroom. O’Neil’s aunt, April Green, sat on the other.
No one in the courtroom seemed to want Jenkins on the case any longer. The presiding judge, Loretta Giorgi, agreed with Jenkins that a potential conflict could undermine the case.
“It needs fresh eyes,” Giorgi said.
The lead prosecutor on the case, Darby Williams, and Samayoa’s attorney Julia Fox seemed eager to dismiss the charges over the conflict, too.
Green and her attorney, Brian Ford, want Jenkins off the case because they doubt her office will fairly prosecute Samayoa.
Giorgi seemed ready to dismiss the case—until Green pleaded for more time and for Samayoa to be held accountable.
“My family has been through so much,” Green told the judge, standing up from a walker she is using after a major surgery. O'Neil's mother has struggled in the years since her son's death, Green said. “When he died, her life ended.”
In the end, Giorgi decided to toss the case. But she agreed to delay the dismissal until Tuesday so Bonta’s office could diligently review the case before deciding what to do with it.
“I understand your concern,” the judge told Green. “But it is in good hands.”
Jenkins said her office does not oppose the delay and welcomes the state review.
“Although it would be politically expedient for me to take this case on, I shall not, as I can not move forward ethically,” Jenkins said in a statement. “If the facts and law in this case supported prosecution, we would have expected the Attorney General’s office to step in before we dismissed the case and take it over.”
The AG is expected to announce its decision at a later date.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]