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Judge criticized for releasing attack suspect orders him to wear ankle monitor

After seeing surveillance video of a homeless man attacking a woman outside her apartment building last Sunday, the same San Francisco judge who had previously released the man ordered that he be placed under electronic monitoring on Friday.

During a hearing, Judge Christine Van Aken said she had decided to release Austin James 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. But, she said, while having dinner at a restaurant on Wednesday she inadvertently saw on television surveillance video of the early morning attack against Paneez Kosarian outside her Beale Street apartment.

“I didn’t see this video at the time of arraignment,” she said. “This was new information to me.”

Van Aken said she was while she was “alarmed” by the level of violence she saw, she was pleased to hear that Vincent was in compliance with the terms of his release, having enrolled in a temporary housing program and undergoing evaluation for treatment. Van Aken said that while she takes “public safety very seriously,” she has to decide whether incarcerating someone with mental health and substance abuse issues is the answer.

The judge then ordered that Vincent, who was not present, be placed under GPS monitoring in order to ensure that he stays away from the area where the attack happened. She also ordered prosecutors to give her a full copy of the video of the attack, which she said she’ll use going forward to assess any future public safety risks.

Prosecutor Edward Chang said he didn’t present the surveillance video to Van Aken at the time of the arraignment because he instead relied on the police report, which he described as accurate.

Vincent’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Saleem Belbahri admitted that Vincent was having a mental health crisis at the time of the attack, but said since the incident he’s become a “model candidate” for the case management release program. Belbahri also said he disagreed with judge’s decision to order ankle monitoring, insinuating that it was due to backlash from her previous decision.

“Public pressure should not equate to changed circumstances,” he said.

Van Aken said she was committed to “ensuring that Vincent has a fair hearing while maintaining public safety,” and finding treatment for Vincent “that can prevent this from happening again.” She ordered another hearing on Monday, in which Vincent is not ordered present, for an update on his compliance with the electronic monitoring.

Vincent has been charged with attempted robbery, false imprisonment and two counts of battery for the attack, which has received nationwide media coverage.

Van Aken has received harsh criticism for her decision to release him. The San Francisco Police Officers Association on Thursday called for her to be demoted to traffic court.

“Judge Christine Van Aken’s continued tenure overseeing criminal cases is a danger to every law-abiding resident of San Francisco,” the association said. “Her reckless decision to release Austin James Vincent from custody after his video-taped violent assault on Paneez Kosarian validates our call for the presiding judge to reassign Van Aken to traffic court.”

Kosarian, who has been active on Twitter, echoed their sentiments on the social media platform, writing of Van Aken on Thursday, “Clearly she is not fit for this position.”

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that while Kosarian’s anger was understandable, “the rush to judgement here and the desire to pillory an outstanding officer of the court is unsettling.”

“We now know from today’s court proceedings that the District Attorney’s Office had video of this attack at the time of arraignment and did not provide that key piece of evidence to the judge. That is information that should’ve been before the judge so she could weigh all of the facts in this case.

“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,” Herrera said.

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 in Sacramento County Superior Court 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.”

Mayor London Breed on Friday stopped short of criticizing Van Aken but said the decision to release him was “unfortunate” and emblematic of problems in the system she is hoping to change.

“We are not doing him any favors by letting him back out on to the street with no treatment, no support,” she said. “It’s just going to happen again.”

In response to residents who called for a halt to development of the Navigation Center, however, she said “We need to move forward with building shelter beds so when we are getting people off the street, we have a place to put them.”

-By Daniel Montes, Bay City News

Staff writer Sara Gaiser contributed to this report.

Bay City News

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