Saleem Belbahri, attorney for Austin James Vincent, a suspect in a highly-publicized attack outside a condo building near the Embarcadero, speaks with reporters after Vincent appeared in court at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘Public hysteria’ leads to Embarcadero attack suspect being wrongly accused of second crime

DA agrees to drop additional charges against Austin James Vincent over February assault

The media frenzy over a woman being attacked as she entered a luxury condo building near the Embarcadero is to blame for the suspect being wrongly accused of another crime that happened six months earlier, his attorney suggested Wednesday.

Austin James Vincent was released from jail ahead of trial after police arrested him in connection with the Aug. 11 assault. But he has since been held in custody for more than a week after three people who saw his mugshot in the news misidentified Vincent as the knife-wielding man who threatened to kill a woman in February.

“This is an example of how public hysteria can impact the accused and how fear and ignorance can victimize the mentally ill,” said Saleem Belbahri, an attorney for Vincent with the Public Defender’s Office. “Three people picked the wrong guy.”

Vincent, a 25-year-old homeless man who appeared to be suffering a mental health crisis when he allegedly assaulted the woman in August, was in Southern California at the time of the February attack, according to his attorney.

Both prosecutors and police pursued a case against Vincent for the February assault based on the three false identifications. But the District Attorney’s Office has agreed to drop the assault and criminal threats charges it filed against Vincent now that police have confirmed Vincent was not in San Francisco in February.

Vincent will still face attempted robbery, battery and false imprisonment charges in connection with the Embarcadero attack. But whether he will remain in jail while the court process plays out is in dispute.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christine Van Aken is expected to decide on his custody status Thursday morning. The District Attorney’s Office plans to ask that Vincent remain in custody, while the defense wants him to be placed in a supervised release program.

The hearing was supposed to take place Wednesday morning, but Van Aken had a scheduling conflict.

The Embarcadero attack drew attention because it occured next door to where city officials are building a hotly contested homeless shelter. Opponents of the shelter immediately used video of the attack to call on The City to halt construction.

Van Aken also drew criticism for initially deciding to release Vincent ahead of trial. She changed her decision after the additional allegations came to light.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

 

Austin James Vincent (Courtesy photos)

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