Castro hate crimes defendant acquitted

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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A man was acquitted by a San Francisco jury of hate crime and other charges stemming from two incidents last year in the Castro LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
A man was acquitted by a San Francisco jury of hate crime and other charges stemming from two incidents last year in the Castro LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

A San Francisco jury has acquitted a man accused of hate crime and assault charges and stealing a Pride flag in the Castro last year, according to a news release from the public defender's office.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Muhammed Abdullah, 21, had pleaded not guilty June 8 to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of committing a hate crime, and counts of resisting arrest, misdemeanor battery, violation of a person's civil rights, and petty theft. During a court appearance that day he said that "what the LGBT community is doing to kids is disrespectful to everyone who stands for God."

More specifically, Abdullah was accused of stealing a rainbow flag and then hitting a man with a "glass object" in the vicinity of 18th and Hartford streets just before noon June 5, according to a contemporaneous news release from San Francisco police. He'd been following the man and another man "aggressively shouting anti-LGBTQ language," the department stated in the release.

On May 9, Abdullah — who spent 340 days in custody — was acquitted of the charges after a jury trial.

"I commend the defense team for uncovering the problems with the state's claims against Mr. Abdullah, especially as it involved both sensitivities around the civil liberties of our LGBTQ+ community members and the dire need of people with mental health disabilities on our streets," San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju stated in the release. "All of our communities deserve to live in peace, which is why our office continues to advocate for more preventative resources to help people who are in crisis, rather than ever-increasing funding for the costly and harmful carceral system."

A spokesperson for the San Francisco District Attorney's office stated that "The District Attorney's Office takes each case seriously and puts on the best case we can based on the facts, evidence and the law to meet our burden of proof.

"In this case, our office was presented with evidence that Mr. Abdullah attacked three members of the LGBTQ community in the Castro on June 3, 2023, and June 5, 2023, and when he did so, he expressed homophobic views verbally and in writing," the spokesperson continued. "Prior to trial the court denied Mr. Abdullah's petition for Mental Health Diversion. The court also ruled that pre-trial detention was necessary after finding that Mr. Abdullah posed an ongoing risk to public safety."

The public defender's office alleged that "an SFPD officer admitted in testimony that he had misrepresented the facts in a police report," and that Abdullah had been grabbed from behind before attacking someone in a crowd two days before the June 5 incidents.

With regard to June 5, Abdullah "was in the midst of a mental health crisis," the release stated.

"Police said that two men thought that Abdullah threw a bottle or another glass object that hit one of their feet from behind," the release stated. "Yet police failed to gather any forensic evidence or available surveillance footage to support that claim. The jury acquitted Abdullah of two felony 'Three Strikes'-eligible charges of assault with a deadly weapon and hate crime allegations. The jury also acquitted him of the petty theft of a Pride flag that he was accused of stealing from a flower shop earlier that day."

At the preliminary hearing last year, two witnesses testified about their experiences June 5. The first, Jayden Lee, had been working at the Ampersand flower shop at Market and Sanchez streets.

"I was working on arrangements when I heard a tear sound from the door," Lee testified. "I saw the Pride flag was gone and I went to see where it went and saw he had it."

When Assistant District Attorney Nancy Tung asked Lee to identify who "he" is, Lee indicated the defendant. Tung asked Lee his sexual identity, to which he replied he was bisexual. Tung also asked what the Pride flag means to him.

"For me, it kind of represents our Pride and being able to be proud of our sexuality," Lee said. "Especially during Pride Month, it felt like a personal attack."

Lee testified at the preliminary hearing that the flag belonged to his boss, whom he did not identify. When Lee saw Abdullah with the flag, he asked him why he had taken it.

"He [Abdullah] responded with 'this is nasty,'" Lee said. "He walked across the street and I ended up calling the police because that's what I am told to do by my bosses whenever someone steals something."

Tung entered into evidence a picture, from video taken by Lee, of Abdullah at the time.

Deputy Public Defender Tehanita Taylor represented Abdullah at that hearing and cross-examined Lee.

She asked several questions about the door, trying to establish that perhaps it blocked Abdullah's ability to use the sidewalk unobstructed. She also established that Lee did not see Abdullah tear down the flag with his own eyes.

The next person to testify at the preliminary hearing was Aaron Stout, who, in response to a question from Tung identified himself as a gay trans man and said he was walking with his partner on Castro Street when he first saw Abdullah while the two were trying to find a place to eat.

"He was yelling obscenities and tearing up a Pride flag," Stout testified. "I don't recall specifically but he did call us perverts and was saying other homophobic language."

Stout said that initially he didn't take the shouting to be directed at them. But as they turned from Castro to 18th Street going west, Stout said he noticed Abdullah in his peripheral vision, standing behind them.

Then Abdullah started yelling at Stout, he recalled.

"He was yelling at us directly, calling us perverts and fags and saying we should go to hell," Stout said. "He had dropped the rainbow flag at the corner. All he had was a backpack on, that I saw."

Then, Stout felt something hit his foot. A glass bottle — the makeup of a "Starbucks latte bottle you get at a corner store," as Stout described it — had shattered on his foot. Some of the glass got into his hand.

Abdullah was standing six to eight feet away, Stout said.

"He was laughing after I got hit," Stout said. "He said, 'I was aiming for your head.'"

Defense attorney Taylor asked Stout if he had remembered specific words of Abdullah's during his initial interview with police; Stout testified he had not.

At trial, Abdullah was represented by Deputy Public Defenders Deborah Awolope and Tal Klement.

"We thank the jury for evaluating the evidence and returning a just verdict, but it is unfortunate that Mr. Abdullah had to endure nearly a year of incarceration leading up to this full acquittal," Awolope stated.

The DA's office and the court had rejected efforts to send Abdullah to a mental health diversion program, the release stated. Abdullah has been released "with no plan for his future treatment," it continued.

"The jury was rightfully critical of the misleading police work and held the state to its burden of proof, which was wholly insufficient in this case," Klement stated.

Updated, 5/15/24: This story was updated with a statement from the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

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