Murder or Self-Defense: Judge Holds Defendant to Answer for Murder Despite Evidence of Self-Defense

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On August 10, 2019, 38 year old Sauntek Harris near 1045 Oakdale in San Francisco, fired six shots, hitting 34 Dietrich Whitley several times, eventually fatally killing him.  This past week the case went before Judge Ross Moody for a preliminary hearing and despite a rare occurrence of Public Defender Landon Davis putting on witnesses and evidence of self-defense, the judge upheld the murder charges.

Mr. Harris remains in custody and will now face a murder trial in the upcoming weeks and months.

The prosecution argued that this was murder.  There was no evidence that Mr. Whitley drew his knives that he had in position.

Rather the prosecution argued this was retaliation against the victim for previous altercations.

Video evidence showed Mr. Whitley approaching Mr. Harris outside of the community center when Mr. Harris worked as a life coach.  As he approached, Mr. Harris ducked before two parked cars, concealing his location, the prosecution argued.  Mr. Harris then opened fired with six shots, one hitting him in the chest, believed to be the fatal blow.

Mr. Whitley fell onto the embankment in front of the apartments while Mr. Harris ran into the community center.

An officer watching the surveillance said you can conclude who the shooter was because he runs one way as the rest of the crowd scatters.

Rodney Freeman of the San Francisco police testified on Monday that he had met Mr. Harris a number of times previously.  He saw him at a basketball game for Marshall High earlier that evening and spoke to him briefly.

Importantly, he noted that Mr. Harris was wearing the same clothing as he wore later that evening as seen from the photo of the shooting.

Other accounts indicate that Mr. Harris did not show up for work after the shooting and investigators were able to ultimately identify him as the suspect.  Public Defender Davis never challenged the identification of Mr. Harris as the shooter and instead focused on several previous incidents of altercation between the two men.

Jacob Cavanaugh a security officer on the John Stewart Property described the scene that evening as being crowded with a block party with more than 50 people outside on the block on the August evening.

He testified that he was about 15 yards away when he noticed the victim, Mr. Whitley walking from east to west.

He drew his attention from prior contacts where apparently Mr. Whitley was a problem for the security and property management.  He said he didn’t like them and would attack us.

Mr. Cavanaugh testified that he did not turn on his body worn camera until after he heard shots fired, but he saw Mr. Whitley walking with his left hand in the open and his right hand in his jacket pocket as though holding something – although he acknowledged not seeing an actual weapon.

He added that there was never a firearm found on him and he saw no weapons in the open after he was shot.

Another defense witness, a disabled temporary security officer, Annais Melson testified that he has known Mr. Harris for 21 years.  He has been threatened by the victim previously.

In a previous incident back in June, he testified that he saw Mr. Whitley approach Mr. Harris and take a swing at him.  Apparently they had a verbal altercation that escalated.

Mr. Harris slipped on some water on the floor and fell to the ground.  At this point, Mr. Melson testified that he was stomping on him – his neck and face – repeatedly.

Eventually he put him in either a chokehold or a headlock and was “trying to make him go to sleep.”  Mr. Harris in Mr. Melson’s words then poked him in the leg with a knife or slashed him according to other accounts to get up.

At this point, Mr. Whitley got up and ran once Mr. Harris got back on his feet.

David Goff, a police officer who handled the call described it as a verbal altercation that escalated to fists and ultimately the chokehold.

Mr. Harris admitted to him to slashing him twice with the knife because he was “getting choked out.”

He told the office “he would have been killed if he handed cut him.”  Mr. Harris was in the hospital but Officer Goff believed under cross examination that Mr. Whitley’s injuries were more serious.

However, under re-direct, he noted that Mr. Whitley admitted telling Mr. Harris, “you go to sleep.”

Mr. Whitley was arrested on assault and criminal threat charges – but they were dropped due to lack of evidence.

Mr. Davis in arguments noted that this was self-defense not murder, but said at the very most if you believe that there was not a direct threat to Mr. Harris, this should be voluntary manslaughter.

He called Mr. Whitley “sick in the mind” and said he tried to “hurt” if not “kill” Mr. Harris on previous occasions.

He argued that there were two previous incidents one on May 24 and the other on June 10.

On the night in question, “he went to the community center looking for Harris” and there “lotos of information that Harris is acting in self-defense.”

Assistant DA David Merin countered that there was necessity for self-defense.  He pointed out it was six shots from a place of concealment.  There is no video evidence showing Mr. Whitley brandishing the weapon and first responders never saw a knife out.

He argued that self-defense requires both objective beliefs that must be reasonable.  He argued that Mr. Harris had other options and did not act like he was acting in self-defense hiding from police for several days after the incident and concealing and destroying his clothing.

Judge Moody agreed with the prosecution ruling that there was not enough evidence presented to credit self-defense here.  He  noted that he had told the defense that it would be a high hurdle to clear in preliminary hearing where the evidence needed was probable cause to sustain a holding order.

He noted that he would need to have heard the mindset of the defendant at the time of the incident to properly evaluate it.  But at a jury trial, the burden for the prosecution will be far higher and there might be enough for a jury to acquit or reduce to voluntary manslaughter.

Mr. Harris is scheduled to be arraigned on the information on December 4.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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