After death of baby, S.F. domestic violence victim advocates ask whether Chesa Boudin is doing enough

The news itself was crushing. A 7-month-old baby boy named Synciere Williams died Tuesday. The man charged with taking care of him that day, Joseph Williams, 26, was booked by police for allegedly murdering the child. And, it turned out, he’d been arrested twice recently on suspicion of felony domestic violence, in January and March, before being released without charges.

But when Kathy Black, the executive director of La Casa de las Madres, a shelter for domestic violence victims in the city, read how District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s office had explained the tragedy, she felt even more devastated. His spokesperson said the woman in the previous cases had refused to cooperate with prosecutors, so he couldn’t file charges.

“No, no, no!” Black told me, her voice rising. “Domestic violence is a crime against the state of California, and the district attorney’s job is to work with what the Police Department has gathered at the crime scene and develop the evidence to present a case. That’s his job — it’s not the victim’s job.”

The notion that charging cases hinges on whether battered victims will stand up in court against people with whom they’re in a relationship — and may rely upon for income and housing — is so old-school, Black was surprised to hear the famously progressive district attorney use it as justification for dropping the case. It’s true that such a lack of cooperation can make proving a case more difficult, but it certainly doesn’t make it impossible.

“It’s so archaic,” Black said. “Oh, my God. It’s just shocking to me.”

Williams is far from the only person to be arrested by police on suspicion of felony domestic violence and then released by Boudin with no charges. In the last three months of 2020, city cops made 131 arrests for felony domestic violence, and Boudin’s office dismissed 113 of them. He charged just 13 of them, one as a misdemeanor, and the other five are still being reviewed.

That means 113 alleged perpetrators were released with no consequences — no mandatory attendance in a batterer’s program, no assignment to anger management classes, no required supervision for visiting children, nothing.

“If there’s no charging, there’s no leverage,” Black said. “The message is, “Nothing happened to me. It’s over. I got away with it.’”

Boudin said in an interview that he hasn’t changed any policies related to prosecuting domestic violence cases since taking office in January 2020 and that a 28-year veteran of the office makes the charging decisions in felony domestic violence cases.

“Domestic violence cases continue to be a priority for me and the office,” Boudin said. “We will as a matter of policy prosecute any domestic violence case we think we can prove with or without the cooperation of the victim.”

Statistics provided by his office, however, show prosecutors are filing charges in fewer cases than previous years. The District Attorney’s Office filed charges in 15% of felony domestic violence cases last year, a rate that has continued so far this year. The same figure ranged from 20% to 27% from 2016 through 2019. Boudin’s filing rate for misdemeanor domestic violence cases is 38%, which is more in line with previous years.

Boudin didn’t dispute that he had dismissed 113 felony cases late last year. The number came from a letter Police Chief Bill Scott sent to Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who’d requested the information after numerous advocates for victims of domestic violence expressed concern that their clients’ abusers were getting released.

Stefani, a former prosecutor, will announce legislation Tuesday that would require the police force and the district attorney to provide monthly data outlining how many people are arrested for domestic violence and whether their cases are prosecuted.

“I was absolutely shocked when I saw those numbers,” Stefani said of the 113 dismissed cases. “This looks like it’s part of a bigger trend of a refusal to charge felony domestic violence cases, and now a 7-month-old little baby is dead.”

Stefani was in Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting when she received a text alerting her that a baby had died in her district. According to police, Joseph Williams took Synciere Williams — they are not related despite sharing a last name — to the emergency room at California Pacific Medical Center on Van Ness Avenue.

The baby was pronounced dead at the hospital, where staffers noticed signs of trauma, police said. Boudin has announced he will file a homicide charge, but did not specify whether it will be murder or manslaughter.

As in many cases of alleged domestic violence, there were previous red flags.

Police who responded to Market and Montgomery streets on Jan. 7 reported finding that Williams had been in a shoving match with a woman he was dating. A 10-month-old girl was in a stroller next to them. According to police, the woman said Williams had grabbed her by the throat in an altercation in a Tenderloin apartment before the argument spilled onto the street. She complained of bruising on her neck, but declined medical treatment.

Police booked Williams on suspicion of felony domestic violence, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and child endangerment.

On March 26, police received a call about a woman screaming and a baby crying in an apartment in the Tenderloin. Officers reported finding the same woman from the January incident, with a cut on her lip, a mark on her forehead and blood on her clothes. According to police, she told the officers Williams had punched her several times and pushed her head into a cabinet.

This time, police booked Williams on suspicion of felony domestic violence and false imprisonment.

But on both occasions, Boudin said, the woman would not cooperate. He said she blamed herself for initiating the first fight and that Williams had serious injuries after the second incident, factors that contributed to Boudin’s decision not to prosecute.

Domestic violence victims’ advocates say that’s not good enough.

Beverly Upton, director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, said that while Boudin’s focus on reducing mass incarceration is important, authorities must hold abusers accountable to keep women and children safe.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a lengthy jail sentence, she said, but consequences that include treatment such as a batterer’s program and the knowledge that prosecutors, probation officers and judges are watching.

Upton participated in two Zoom meetings with Boudin and other victim advocates over the winter and said she was startled to hear the district attorney repeatedly talk about the need to “unclog” the court system of domestic violence cases.

Boudin explained in an interview that San Francisco Superior Court is operating only four courtrooms because of the pandemic, and they tend to be reserved for the most serious violent crimes. Meanwhile, he said, defense attorneys are refusing to settle misdemeanor domestic violence cases, while exercising their right to call for a speedy trial. That has contributed to a big backlog of cases awaiting the court’s full reopening.

Upton said she was alarmed by Boudin’s ideas for addressing the backlog. She said he spoke of shortening batterer’s intervention programs in an attempt to get more defendants to accept plea deals, even though a series of 52 weekly classes is the widely accepted best practice. In an interview, Boudin pointed to a study from the National Institute of Justice showing that batterer’s programs have mixed results, but Upton said they’re better than nothing.

Upton said San Francisco prosecutors’ dismissal of domestic violence cases has long been an issue, “but not to this level.”

“We have survivors who tell us their cases are just being dismissed,” she said. “Pretty soon, they’re going to stop telling us. Pretty soon, they’re going to stop calling.”

Orchid Pusey, executive director of the Asian Women’s Shelter, agreed that Boudin’s goal of ending mass incarceration is important. However, she said, “Reform cannot happen on the backs of survivors of domestic violence.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

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