If you’re a crime victim in San Francisco, it seems your best chance of being heard is to mention Governor Gavin Newsom in a tweet.
“Please watch this video of me getting attacked at my front door,” Paneez Kosarian asked Newsom in an August 14 tweet. “The man who attacked me was released this morning because the judge…believes this man is not a danger to our community. Please save our city!”
The security footage shows a young woman struggling to escape the grip of a man violently pulling her away from the entrance to her home. Police caught the suspect, Austin James Vincent. Yet San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christine Van Aken released him.
Kosarian was outraged. She tweeted the video of her attack, which was viewed more than 300,000 times and covered by local newspapers and TV stations.
Under the glare of public pressure, Van Aken amended her ruling to give Vincent an electronic ankle monitor. Two days later, Vincent was arrested for having previously threatened another woman with a knife. More victims came forward after recognizing Vincent’s widely published mug shot.
While Van Aken eventually ordered pretrial custody for Vincent, it’s hard to be reassured given her failure to keep the community safe in the first place.
Van Aken said her initial decision to release Vincent was before she had the opportunity to see the security video of his most recent attack. But the police report describing the incident should have made it clear that a pretrial diversion program was not warranted for Vincent.
A spokesperson for the District Attorney told the Chronicle Van Aken also disregarded a risk-assessment algorithm that recommended Vincent remain in custody while awaiting trial.
It’s additionally troubling that Van Aken revisited her decision to release Vincent only after facing an intense spotlight. Most victims aren’t equipped to get press attention the way Kosarian did. The safety of San Franciscans shouldn’t have to depend on the effectiveness of a tweet or a public relations campaign.
This case poses some critical questions: How many crime victims without a Twitter account suffer in silence, fearing another attack when their perpetrator is released before trial? How do we know which judges care more about the rights of the accused than the victim? And is there anything we can do to get better judges?
Stop Crime SF is a group trying to find answers. We run a Court Watch program that sends volunteers into open court to hold judges accountable. Our volunteers take notes on what happens and fill out an online survey that goes into a database.
The goal is to use the data to see if there are patterns of judicial behavior over time. The pretrial release of a suspect would certainly be noted, and we would see which judges are more likely to ignore the recommendation of a risk-assessment algorithm.
This information will help voters when judges appear on the ballot. Every judge in California, even when appointed, must face voters at some point. While the vast majority of the electorate currently has no idea who the judges are, Stop Crime SF aims to gather enough data and publicize it so voters can make informed decisions.
The presence of our Court Watch volunteers shows the judge there is community interest in the case. We also provide support to victims who can feel alone in court.
We want to expand and scale the Court Watch program to cover the needs of every San Francisco neighborhood. Areas like Visitacion Valley have long been ignored by City Hall and its Chinese immigrant community has suffered a recent string of heinous crimes including an 89-year-old grandmother who was robbed in a park, beaten and left in a coma.
The FBI says San Francisco has the highest rate of property crime among large U.S. cities. Smashed car windows by the tens of thousands each year have become the new normal, and very few cases ever see justice.
Court Watch often follows property crime cases that have turned violent, like the photographer who was shot and killed for his camera on Twin Peaks. The victim’s family is still waiting for a trial after two years.
The brazen and violent attack of a young woman in San Francisco and a judge’s refusal to hold the suspect in custody received a lot of attention thanks to a powerful tweet that was amplified by powerful people. Please join Court Watch to ensure every victim is heard and every judge is held accountable, regardless of twitter status.
Engardio is vice president of Stop Crime SF and the Court Watch program, a coalition of San Francisco residents and neighborhoods focused on crime prevention and criminal justice accountability. Learn more about the Court Watch program.