Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Gay SF man acquitted in arson case

A gay San Francisco man has been acquitted of arson after jurors found “his arrest was based on an unreliable identification,” the Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office announced this week.

Anthony Bejarano, 48, had been accused of breaking into the garage of a luxury apartment building and setting fire to a Mercedes. Prosecutors charged Bejarano, a regular volunteer at the AIDS-related charity Project Open Hand, with felony counts of burglary and arson, according to the public defender’s office.

But Friday, December 12, jurors found him not guilty.

Nobody witnessed the crime, according to Adachi’s office, but a valet at One Rincon Hill apartments told the property manager he’d seen a man standing in front of the car just before the fire and then fleeing the building. The valet later identified Bejarano after the manager and police “confronted [him] with a single screenshot of Bejarano and asked him if it appeared to be the same man he saw near the car.”

Deputy Public Defender Chrisopher Hite said in a news release Monday, December 15, “The jury had strong concerns about the reliability of the identification. There was simply nothing else linking Mr. Bejarano to the crime – no motive, no DNA, no fingerprints. It didn’t make sense.”

Bejarano could have served up to 10 years in state prison if he’d been convicted in the June 19 incident.

According to the public defender’s office, Bejarano was in the apartment building that day to serve legal papers to a resident. Surveillance video showed him walking on the garage’s valet level, one floor above the Mercedes. There wasn’t any footage showing him on the same floor where the car was parked, and he wasn’t connected to the car’s owner, Adachi’s office said.

When police showed the valet the screenshot of Bejarano, he said that was the man he’d seen, and police released the image to the public. Bejarano was arrested June 25. Police searched his home and sent his clothes to a crime lab, which didn’t find any accelerant. There wasn’t any other forensic evidence linking Bejarano to the fire, either.

During the two-week trial, Dr. Mitchel Eisen, director of forensic psychology at California State University Los Angeles, testified that the valet’s identification of Bejarano “was made in a highly suggestive manner,” according to the public defender’s office, since it was “based on a single photo instead of a lineup and at the behest of the valet’s boss while he was surrounded by police officers.”

When police arrested Bejarano last year, a spokeswoman said he faced “six felony counts of arson including arson of an inhabited structure,” and he was “suspected of committing at least four arson fires in the South of Market Area.”

Tamara Aparton, Adachi’s spokeswoman, said Bejarano “was never charged with six counts,” only four, and the district attorney had only charged him in two fires. A judge dismissed the two counts from the second fire due to a lack of evidence.

Bejarano, who’s been out of custody since Friday, couldn’t be reached for comment. Officials confirmed his sexual orientation to the Bay Area Reporter. Asked about whether Bejarano had volunteered at Project Open Hand, Maria Stokes, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, said in an email, “We do not release that information.”

Adachi said in the news release that the case highlights the trouble with eyewitness identification.

“Eyewitness misidentification is the most common element in wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence,” he said. “Fortunately, Mr. Bejarano’s public defender was able to spotlight the many holes in the case.”

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said in an email, “We respect the jury’s decision.”

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Clark prosecuted the case.

— Seth Hemmelgarn, December 18, 2014 @ 3:04 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

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