Legally Blind Man Chose Jail to Get Speedier Trial, Claims SF Public Defender – Found Not Guilty; Case Still 4 Months Past Trial Deadline, Backlog at 1,100 Cases

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By The Vanguard Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – A 50-year-old legally-blind man who chose to stay in jail to get, he thought, a speedier trial—he still waited more than four months past his trial deadline—was found not guilty of misdemeanor assault and battery charges by a jury, according to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The Public Defender’s Office continues to hold a series of Summer Sit-Ins on the steps of the Hall of Justice Fridays from Noon to 1 p.m. through July to “draw attention to these speedy trial violations which are impeding the lives of those accused, delaying justice for everyone who depends on our courts, and come at a large cost to public resources.”  

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office has suggested the courts could “remedy the backlog by dismissing cases, utilizing all available courtrooms or alternative venues, and releasing people from jail on their own recognizance pre-trial.

“While awaiting trial,” said the PD’s office, Charles Underwood … “was subjected to a stay-away order from a seven-block area of town where he has resided unhoused and without incident for nearly three years.”

Underwood was arrested in May for “panhandling in the restricted area, but rather than seek release, Underwood requested to remain in jail in hopes that the court would send his case to trial faster amid the growing trial backlog in SF Superior Court,” explained the PD Office.

The public defenders added, “Underwood’s case was sent to trial, and a jury acquitted him of all charges on June 22…the court dismissed the rest of charges he had accrued for violating the stay-away order while awaiting trial on the underlying case.”

“No one should feel like they have to stay in jail just to get a trial,” said Deputy Public Defender Sarah Hashemi, who represented Underwood.

Hashemi added, “The pretrial conditions set on Mr. Underwood were overly broad, especially considering that he is legally blind and does not know what the complaining witness looks like. We are grateful to the jury for their verdict and relieved that Mr. Underwood is finally free of these constraints that had banned him from an area that has become a relatively safe space for him.”

The case, said the DPD, “stemmed from a complaint from a woman who accused Underwood of kicking her in the back of the leg after he asked her for a dollar and she refused in late December 2022. 

“Underwood testified that he was trying to untangle his ankle from the leash of the woman’s dog, and that he did not intend to kick the woman. Once at trial, the jury deliberated for two hours and returned a verdict of not guilty.”

The PD Office maintains that even though the “Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees anyone accused of a crime the right to a speedy trial. San Francisco Superior Court is routinely denying that right, and there are over 1,100 people, including 115 who remain jailed, without trial as a result. The majority of these cases are for misdemeanor charges.”

“When people are denied their right to a speedy trial, they are often subjected to pretrial conditions that become untenable. Until we get more cases to trial, where we can speak directly to San Franciscans in the jury box, more and more people who are presumed innocent under the law, and especially vulnerable people like Mr. Underwood, are going to suffer losses of liberty and well-being,” said Public Defender Mano Raju.  

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