SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Austin James Vincent, a homeless man who was arrested after a vicious attack of a San Francisco woman was recorded by a surveillance camera, was ordered Friday to wear an ankle GPS monitor but allowed to remain free to receive mental health treatment.
The release of the 25-year-old Vincent after he was booked for the Sunday attack of San Francisco resident Paneez Kosarian outside the lobby of her condo building known as the Watermark has sparked a growing controversy.
Vincent’s release from jail by Judge Christine Van Aken has drawn criticism from San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Police Officers Association among others.
On Friday, Vincent’s case was back in front of Van Aken but the suspect was excused from being the courtroom. This time, the judge decided Vincent should be required to wear a GPS ankle tracking monitor.
Van Aken defended her original ruling that Vincent should be released without any stipulations, saying her interest was balancing public safety and her conviction that not all people suffering from mental health need to be placed in jail.
She said she had decided to release Vincent on Tuesday based on his non-violent criminal history, which included one petty theft arrest in 2014, and under the condition that he receives treatment.
Van Aken said the first time she saw the video was on television while eating at a restaurant after she had ordered Vincent released.
“I was frankly alarmed at the level of violence I saw on the video. I was concerned about the conduct that I saw there,” Van Aken said in court.
She said the video altered her opinion on the public safety risk.
The judge asked prosecutors Friday if they had included the video in the evidence she had reviewed and was told it was not.
However, Vincent’s attorney — public defender Salem Belbahri — said outside the hearing that his client has not been on the streets since his arrest. He has been receiving psychiatric treatment.
“The court is on the best place to weigh all the facts that everyone is concerned about,” Belbahri said. “The court made the correct decision. Mr. Vincent is doing well at this point…He’s in a program right now. I don’t believe incarceration is appropriate for the mentally ill and I think the court came to the same conclusion.”
The release of Vincent has sparked widespread frustration from the local community to City Hall to the District Attorney’s office.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera defended the judge’s actions.
“What happened to Ms. Kosarian is terrifying,” Herrers said in a statement. “That shouldn’t happen to anybody, and she is understandably angry about the legal process immediately following her attack. Facts matter though. Judge Van Aken had to make a decision at the arraignment based solely on the information presented to her in court. That is the law.
“We now know from today’s court proceeding that the District Attorneys’ Office had video of this attack at the time of arraignment and did not provide that key piece of evidence to the judge,” he continued. “That is information that should’ve been before the judge so she could weigh all of the facts in this case.”
“A picture says a thousand words. I’m pleased Judge Van Aken has ordered the District Attorney’s Office to provide her with the video evidence they have, and that in light of this new information she has ordered a GPS ankle monitor for the defendant.”
He said the wave of criticism aimed at Van Aken — including a letter from the San Francisco Police Officers Association asking that the judge be reassigned to traffic court — was unfair.
“The rush to judgment here and the desire to pillory an outstanding officer of the court is unsettling,” he said. “Judge Van Aken has been a tireless champion of the people of San Francisco for years. As an attorney, she was instrumental in securing marriage equality, successfully defending the city from the Trump administration’s unconstitutional overreach, and beating the NRA.”
Still, Mayor London Breed reiterated her believe that Vincent should be in custody.
“We are not doing him any favors by letting him back out into the streets with no treatment, no help, no support,” she said. “It’s just gonna, unfortunately, happen again, and that’s part of the problem here.”
However, she chose not to directly criticize Van Aken.
“I’m not gonna comment on a specific person in this case,” she told reporters. “I just want to comment on the fact that we have a system that is not necessarily working for the purpose of addressing what we know is really one of the biggest challenges that we are dealing with — mental illness in San Francisco.”
Kosarian, who has been active on Twitter, has also been critical of Van Aken, posting that “Clearly she is not fit for this (presiding judge) position.”
Because the building where the attack happened is next to the location for the city’s SAFE Navigation Center, set to provide beds for as many 200 homeless residents, opponents of the center are using the incident to renew their plea to stop it from opening.
Safe Embarcadero For All, a group made up of residents and business owners in the city’s South Beach neighborhood, last month filed a lawsuit against the city seeking to halt the opening. The group also is seeking a temporary restraining order and stay to keep the development from progressing while the suit is being litigated.
“This violent attack by a homeless man amplifies our concerns,” Wallace Lee, Safe Embarcadero For All board member, said in a statement Friday. “The proposed new homeless shelter hasn’t been built yet and our worst fears are being confirmed.”