Jury Finds Unhoused Man Not Guilty in Arson Case Where Prosecutor Accused of Misconduct

By Alana Bleimann

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Defendant Erbert Mayek late last week here in San Francisco Superior Court was found not guilty by a jury of all charges from a 2019 arson case, where Deputy Public Defender Martina Avalos accused Deputy District Attorney Andrew Clark of misconduct in the courtroom. 

Recently reported by the Davis Vanguard, the jury heard extensive witness testimonies and saw long video footage, alleging Mayek initiated the fire in a trash chute of a home in Russian Hill. 

Mayek is part of the city’s unhoused population, and apparently some of his peers knew about the residence’s long unoccupancy. 

It became apparent that the property was unoccupied, according to witnesses who testified—food in the fridge had expired in 2016 and the homeowner was never able to be reached.

Although Mayek is unhoused, he was working during the long period of time he spent waiting for his trial date. Due to COVID-19, he waited two years and almost lost his job. 

Prosecutor Clark used aggressive tactics to try to convince the jury of Mayek’s criminality, some that Avalos claimed were forms of “gaslighting” and overall misconduct. 

PD Avalos said that, through legal jargon, Clark induced a witness to violate “limit A”—the willful purpose to force witnesses—and led them to violate a court order in order to get a mistrial and persuade the jury.

In a recent press release from the Public Defender’s Office, Avalos stated, “The aggressive prosecution of my client is another example of how incidents related to poverty and homelessness end up being treated as a problem to punish rather than a crisis to prevent.

“My client was innocent of these serious charges and I am relieved that the jury understood that this was an accidental and not an intentional fire,” she continued.  

After a long wait, and the courtroom drama, Mayek was found not guilty by the jury and Judge Stephen Murphy acquitted him of all charges.  

“This case highlights the homelessness crisis in San Francisco where people, who already have so much stacked against them, are taking refuge wherever they can and are more susceptible to accusations,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. 

“I am proud of Ms. Avalos and her team, and we are grateful that the jury focused on the evidence, scrutinized the prosecution’s expert, and came together to vindicate Mr. Mayek.”   

In a 2013 Mother Jones article, authors Jaeah Lee, Hannah Levintova, and Brett Brownwell explain how most public defenders in the United States are overworked, causing them to give less time and attention to their clients who may need it the most, like Mayek.  

For those who cannot afford a private lawyer, overworked public defenders are their only salvation. “On average, a public defender would need about 3,035 work hours—a year and a half—to do a year’s worth of work,” the article stated, noting this is why many defendants simply plead guilty and take a plea bargain. 

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