Prior to releasing James Austin Vincent — the homeless man who, unprovoked, allegedly attacked SF resident Paneez Kosarian outside her building last weekend — presiding Judge Christine Van Aken says she had not seen the violent video footage of the incident. And now that she has, Van Aken is "alarmed."
Previously, it was believed that, before Vincent’s first court appearance, Van Aken had seen footage of the attack. But it appears from a Friday morning hearing that was not the case, and the victim is even angrier than before.
“Now my frustration has shifted from the judge and the judgment to the DA’s office to why they didn’t show that video to the judge,” Kosarian said to KRON4.
And while the District Attorney's office has gone on record to say that not showing the video is common in such arraignments, the DA's office told Kosarian otherwise.
“I asked them specifically 'Did she see the video?' and they said 'Yes,'" she added.
Spokesperson for the DA's Office, Max Szabo, tells SFist that while judges commonly ask to watch videos such as this when they are made aware of them during an arraignment, Judge Van Aken elected not to — though the police report she had contained a description of its contents. He also suggests that her decision not to remand Vincent into custody did not change, so obviously the video did not drastically change Judge Van Aken's mind. "I don't think the prosecutor ought to be thrown under the bus here for doing what he always does and recommending that the suspect remain in custody based on all the available data." Szabo points to matrices that the DA's Office uses, based on the severity of charges, in making such recommendations, which the judge in this case ignored.*
Judge Van Aken reported inadvertently saw the footage in a news broadcast while out at dinner on Tuesday, just as the public began its outcry over her ruling.
“Because of what I saw in the video, I have additional public safety concerns,” she said in a statement published by ABC 7. Judge Van Aken remains adamant, though, that putting Vincent behind bars isn’t the proper way to handle the situation — "incarceration is not the answer for folks with mental illness and substance abuse problems in all cases," she said in a Friday hearing at which Vincent was not present.
Van Aken originally ordered Vincent to be released into transitional housing pending a mid-September court appearance, and ordered him to stay at least 100 feet away from Kosarian's building.
Mounting backlash against Judge Van Aken last week also included a rebuke from the SF Police Officers Association, which called for her to be "reassigned to traffic court."
Even San Francisco Mayor Breed voiced her concerns over the ruling, saying "regardless of who made the mistake, a mistake was made that allowed someone [to be free] who unfortunately is clearly a danger to the public to be released."
Breed added that “hopefully it will get fixed."
As Vincent's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Saleem Belbahri, told NBC Bay Area, "Public pressure should not equate to changed circumstances." Belbahri has said that his client was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the alleged attack.
On Friday, the judge ordered Vincent to wear a court-appointed ankle monitor, due to his mental illness, and to remain "free and under supervision" at a temporary housing facility for those in the criminal justice system, where he is reportedly undergoing treatment. Judge Van Aken ordered another hearing Monday at which Vincent's appearance has been waived, but at which she is seeking an update on compliance with the ankle-monitoring order. Vincent's next court appearance is scheduled for September 12.
*This story has been amended with remarks from the DA's Office.