The Taiwan-born SF public defender assigned to the case of Steven Jenkins — the 39-year-old homeless man accused in the March 17 assault on 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie — says he's taken some heat from some family members about defending him after the attack made international headlines.
Jenkins's defense attorney, Eric McBurney, was adopted by a white family in the South when he was a teenager, and he tells the New York Times this week that he's no stranger to feeling a sense of otherness as an Asian American. "I’ve grown up in cities where I am the entire Asian population,” he says. “You’re always feeling you don’t belong."
And he continues to argue that the assault on Xie was not motivated by hate, and his client is just severely mentally ill and was experiencing one of many crises on the day of the incident which unfortunately resulted in him inadvertently assaulting Xie. The problem is that public opinion turned against Jenkins the minute that a passerby posted video to Twitter showing the aftermath of the incident, in which Jenkins, with a bloody head, is being taken away with a stretcher while Xie regales him and anyone who will listen, yelling and waving a wooden board. The narrative immediately became one of an elderly woman defending herself against a hate crime — one of a string that have targeted older Asian Americans in the Bay Area in recent months.
McBurney made surveillance video public in April showing the minutes before the attack in U.N. Plaza, when Jenkins appears to be bouncing between attackers of his own — being punched repeatedly in what McBurney says are unprovoked assaults by other homeless people in the vicinity. The video has no sound, and it's not clear what was actually transpiring, but we do see that Jenkins gets battered by at least three people. One man, in a yellow vest, hits Jenkins on the corner of 7th and Market, where Xie was standing — and Jenkins turns and swings, landing a punch that hit Xie in the face. Whether or not he saw her there is not clear.
What is clear from the video is that the narrative about Xie beating her attacker bloody was also false — he was bloodied by his previous attackers, and/or by a security guard who tackled him to the ground, and Xie simply used her wooden board to hit him in the legs after he was down.
According to McBurney, Jenkins has had, on average, "five mental illness emergencies each year" in the last five years. "His mind is broken," McBurney says.
But he's now tasked with defending someone who nonetheless took a swing at an old woman — a woman whose story spread around the world like wildfire, and garnered over $1 million in crowdfunding after her grandson posted a plea for help with medical expenses. Per the Times, the family has since used the money to set up a nonprofit that will give funds to other victims of hate crimes.
And McBurney's extended family in Taiwan are just a few of the many people who will have difficulty exonerating Jenkins in court, or in the court of public opinion — and McBurney wonders aloud how his client will ever get a fair trial.
Still, he says, it's motivating.
"It’s when the whole world is against your client, that’s when a public defender says, ‘Yeah, this is my job,'" as McBurney tells the Times.