Hill murder trial focuses on motive

Self-defense, or a deliberate choice to gun down police officers to avoid an arrest — those are the two very different scenarios a jury is faced with as it begins deliberations today in the trial of a self-acknowledged gang member who shot and killed a San Francisco police officer more than two years ago.

David Hill, 23, is charged with killing Officer Isaac Espinoza on April 10, 2004, in the area of Newcomb Avenue and Newhall Street in the Bayview district after firing upon him with an AK-47 assault rifle. Espinoza, 29 at the time of his death and an eight-year veteran of the Police Department, left behind a wife and a 3-year-old daughter. The shots also wounded Espinoza’s partner, Officer Barry Parker.

Hill’s defense argues that Hill had no idea the undercover officers traveling in an unmarked Crown Victoria vehicle were police, but thought they were rival gang members who were stalking him.

Piecing together the events of that night during closing arguments Monday, Assistant District Attorney Harry Dorfman said Hill’s behavior proves he knew exactly who the undercover officers were.

Hill gave up a secure spot behind a minivan and walked 150 feet away from the unmarked car, turning his back to the men he claims he thought were rival gang members, according to Dorfman. “No streetwise gang member turns his back on death like that,” he said.

Hill had time to weigh his options, and then decided “his freedom was more important than the lives of two people,” Dorfman said.

As the officers were zeroing in on Hill, Espinoza shined his flashlight on Hill’s face, which should have convinced Hill these were not gang members, Dorfman said. “A flashlight is not a gang member’s drive-by weapon of choice,” Dorfman said.

Hill’s defense attorney, Martin Sabelli, said Hill lived in fear in the Bayview, or as he referred to it “Baghdad by the Bay,” where young adults carry around assault weapons for protection as a way of life.

“This case is not about the loss of a man, Isaac Espinoza. It’s about another man’s will to survive. About David Hill’s will to survive in the face of what he thought was an attack,” Sabelli said.

Sabelli, who will conclude his closing arguments this morning, said the prosecution’s key witness, Parker, has an “unreliable” memory, upon which the case is built. Sabelli said Parker failed to identify Hill in a photo lineup the day of the killing and made other mistakes in recalling the shooting in later interviews. “I’m showing you why it is you can’t believe [Parker’s] testimony,” Sabelli said to the jury.

Sabelli also offered his take on Hill’s behavior that night: Hill left the van because it was not a safe place to stand if the rival gang had assault weapons and suggested the flashlight could have been mistaken for a car’s headlight.

Hill’s defense is expected to wrap up closing arguments this morning and the jury will begin deliberations later in the day. If convicted of murder, Hill faces a lifetime sentence without parole.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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